Willem Dafoe: The actor's quest for challenges

Willem Dafoe: A challenging career
Willem Dafoe: A challenging career 08:29

WILLEM DAFOE is one of our most versatile actors. Not surprising his name will be in Oscar night contention when they call for "The Envelope, Please ..." First though, he takes a walk in the park with our Martha Teichner:

The big open smile -- not necessarily what you'd expect sitting down with Willem Dafoe, who was once nominated for MTV's Best Movie Villain Award as the Green Goblin in "Spider-Man."

He's even a little sinister as an animated fish in "Finding Nemo."

Famous as he is for looking and sounding menacing, in person, he's not scary at all. "A lot of the villains I play with a lot of love and a lot of pleasure," he said. "And you also play them as heroes, you know? You don't judge them."

Correspondent Martha Teichner with actor Willem Dafoe in Tompkins Square Park, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. CBS News

Bobby, the character Dafoe plays in "The Florida Project," is a kind of hero. He's the manager of a motel on the seedy outskirts of Orlando, that is home to struggling families always on the edge.

"I'm kind of, in the movie, connective tissue," he laughed. "I'm always going around putting out fires, because all these people have pretty challenging lives, and there's lots of problems at this budget motel, and I've gotta sort things out."

The story is set in a place surrounded by kitschy symbols of phony fantasy, where the thing that's real is childhood innocence.

The Florida Project | Official Trailer HD | A24 by A24 on YouTube

Filmmaker Sean Baker made "The Florida Project" on a minuscule budget. So when Dafoe sought him out to play Bobby, it wasn't for the money.

Teichner asked, "What was the fascination about this particular movie for you?"

"The fact that basically he was making it with a mixed cast of professional and new performers and children and non-performers filming in an actual place, telling a story that's not usually told, of an underclass, of a world that I didn't really know," Dafoe replied.

His understated performance has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor -- his third. Compare that to his nomination in 2001 for "Shadow of the Vampire," or to his 1987 nomination for "Platoon." There's no better way to gauge Dafoe's range as an actor.

At 62, he's always working.

"I'm very high-minded about what I do," he said. "I'm very serious about what I do. And I think it can be very important. When I was a young actor, you know, everybody used to always say, 'Ah, you know, it's not brain surgery.' Well, it is a little bit. Because you can change how people think. You can change how you think by performing."

He's said he remembers his life by the movies he's made -- more than 100, four released last year alone.

It's an unimaginable career trajectory for the kid from Appleton, Wisconsin. The son of a surgeon and a nurse, William Dafoe was the second youngest of eight children. "Willem" was a nickname that stuck.

An undated head shot. Willem Dafoe

He performed in college productions at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.

But he needed to come to New York City because it was, he said, "Mecca."

New York, not Hollywood. In 1977, at the age of 22, he found himself living in the East Village, near Tompkins Square Park. "It was a rough neighborhood," he said.

But a good place at a good time to shape the kind of actor he would become. His dream starting out "was to get through next week!" he laughed. "And to be around these people that I thought were really fascinating and stimulated me. And initially that was this downtown scene, and specifically these people working at the Wooster Group. It was a new kind of work. It wasn't a commercial work; it was a work that was personal and it was a work that pushed forms."

The Wooster Group was experimental theater at its most experimental. Twenty-seven years with the company taught Dafoe a very physical kind of acting.

Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray, Matthew Hansell and Ron Vawter in the Wooster Group's 1979 production of "Point Judith (an epilog)." Nancy Campbell/Wooster Group

"I have a lot of faith in the wisdom of the body," he said. "I feel like the body doesn't lie."

Teichner asked, "You said that you sometimes feel that your acting is, that you're more like a dancer?"

"Right. I think I express myself best through my body. I forget myself."

"And your face? The way you use your face?"

"I don't use my face. My face uses me! I think my face is expressive, but I have nothing to do with it!"

"It just happens?"

"It happens."

Only a confident character actor would dare engage in such on-screen silliness; he can be very funny.

SNICKERS Marilyn "Dafoe" commercial by Miss Cellaneous's PublicFuzz on YouTube

But he's still taking roles in works like "The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic." He picks his projects based on whether he feels challenged.

Marina Abramovic and Eillem Dafoe in "Life and Death of Marina Abramovic." Art + Vibes

A documentary about the production was directed by his wife, Italian actress and filmmaker Giada Colagrande. They live in Rome and New York. Dafoe's son, Jack, from a previous relationship, is a lawyer.

Spend any time at all with Willem Dafoe, and you understand that he likes to disappear into his roles -- and his life.

"I like Hollywood fine, but I don't live there," he said. "Because I love New York. I like being in California when I'm there, because I'm usually working, and I see friends, and the weather's nice and all that. But I feel like I die a little. Because I like the streets. I like being out. You know, it's pretty heavy being an actor in Los Angeles, 'cause you're always reminded of yourself, where here, it's much easier to get lost."

So for this consummate shape-shifter to emerge and play the Hollywood game in the run-up to the Oscars speaks not so much to his ambition as it does to his generosity.

"I'm very thankful that I was nominated, and I'm not blasé about it at all," he said. "I'm very happy, and since the movie wasn't nominated, I'm really proud to represent the movie."

"You're the flag-bearer, essentially, for the film," Teichner said.

"I'm the flag-bearer. And I'm happy to do that. I like this movie very much."

Willem Dafoe as Bobby, a budget motel's dutiful manager, dealing with some unexpected guests, in "The Florida Project." A24

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