Stage and screen actor Willem Dafoe told a gathering of approximately 150 Fordham University’s theater students on Friday, Sept. 28, to gain as much acting experience as possible, even if they have to create their own performing venues, and to persevere in what can be a difficult profession.
“Acting is too scary to do unless you believe in it,” said the two-time Academy Award-nominated actor who met with students for a question-and-answer session in Franny’s Space, a rehearsal hall on the Lincoln Center campus. “It’s also not all about what you do, it’s about what happens to you. Be ready. Be on your game at all times.”
Dafoe, whose visit was arranged by the Fordham Department of Theatre and Visual Arts, spent more than an hour discussing his career and the actor’s craft. He got his start in the 1970s, the told the students, working with an avant-garde experimental theater group, Theatre X, in Wisconsin. He then moved to New York City and co-founded the Soho ensemble, The Wooster Group, in the early 1980s.
“We were considered a bunch of snotty, arrogant, useless kids,” he said of the Wooster Group. “For many years, we were ridiculed and had to go on our own steam.”
But the group found work in Europe, he said, and its overseas reputation led to some notoriety in the United States. “We learned that if you keep on doing it,” Dafoe said of acting, “people will come around.”
His breakthrough film role came in 1986 in the movie Platoon, for which he received an Oscar nomination. He received a second nomination in 2000 for his role as a silent film star in Shadow of the Vampire.
Known for playing fringe characters and performing in independent films, Dafoe lauded the virtues of performing on stage. “You have more control in the theater, and you create a history each night,” he told the students. “In film, you do the scene and you don’t return to it.”
Dafoe said that he is ambivalent about the movie business and as a student never aspired to be a screen actor, but throughout his career has always found pleasure in performing—no matter what the medium.
“If you get to that place where the world drops away and your sense of self drops away, you are rooted in character …,” he said. “It sounds simple, but it is the hardest thing to do.”