“It’s a pain in the ass, this name,” said Willem Dafoe in a 2007 interview for Esquire magazine, referring to his christian name. “People don’t know how to pronounce it, it’s embarrassing. I’ve thought of changing it back (William was the name given to him by his parents and on his passport) so many times. I hate the idea of an actor having a professional name, but then so many people already know me as Willem.” It was a college nickname – the Dutch version of William – that stuck. Dafoe on the other hand is French in origin.
Starting out in the acting profession he thought William was a bit bland so reinvented himself, starting with his moniker. Most people around him call him Willie or Will, which he likes better. But either way it’s a name that has attracted a lot of attention and accolades. After his first screen uncredited appearance in Michael Cimino’s epic western HEAVEN’S GATE IN 1979, as a cockfighter, that was reduced to a fleeting moment in the edit, Willem has assembled an impressive collection of memorable film appearances in such momentous movies as THE ENGLISH PATIENT and MISSISSIPPI BURNING.
He has received four Academy Award nominations, three in the Best Supporting Actor category starting with his role as Sergeant Elias Gordon in Oliver Stone’s PLATOON in 1986, followed by Max Schreck in SHADW OF THE VAMPIRE four years later and last year as motel manager Bobby Hicks in THE FLORIDA PROJECT, for which he also received a Golden Globe, SAG and a BAFTA nom.
This year he was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal as Vincent Van Gogh in AT ETERNITY’S GATE, which screened at the Curzon Mayfair last Saturday. Willem did a Q&A afterwards, signing my portrait on the way out.