Willem Dafoe’s looks could kill – lips born to sneer, the eyes of a cobra with cheekbones. He was Mephistopheles on a motorcycle in Streets of Fire. In To Live and Die in L.A., he was an arty androgyne with a heart of darkness. As Platoon’s beatific Sgt. Elias, he was an inspiration to his men only because he’d been through hell and back. Devil or angel, Dafoe has joined Hollywood’s new breed of funky leading men.

He’s hardly your typical male star, though. When Platoon hit the movie screens this past Christmas, Dafoe was far from Malibu. In fact, he was holed up at The Kitchen, New York’s legendary avant-garde showcase, where he was appearing nightly with experimental theater troupe the Wooster Group in its controversial performance Route 1 & 9, which featured Dafoe in blackface (doing a Pigmeat Markham vaudeville routine), in tears (on a video version of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town), and in the nude (as part of a grainy stag film). When the word came that he’d scored an Oscar nomination for Platoon, Dafoe was at the Performing Garage, the Wooster Group’s home base in Soho, doing double duty onstage as acid guru Timothy Leary and a persecuted Puritan in Just the High Points. And in order to attend the Oscar ceremonies, he and his spouse-equivalent Elizabeth LeCompte, the Wooster Group’s artistic director, had to steal a break from rehearsals for their new show based on Gustave Flaubert’s pantheist pageant The Temptation of St. Antony.

Commuting between experimental theater and the silver screen doesn’t exactly qualify an actor for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But it’s a tribute to the increasingly independent-minded American film industry that some of the most exciting acting talent to come along in the ‘80s has emerged unexpectedly from the zany fringes of American theater – Chicago natives John Malkovich and Aidan Quinn, performance artist Ann Magnuson and tiny Titan Linda Hunt, playwright Sam Shepard and Dafoe’s Wooster Groupmate Spalding Gray. Just as quirky little movies like A Room with a View, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Trip to Bountiful, and My Beautiful Laundrette have been stealing thunder from space epics in recent years, these avant-garde actors have but the Brat Packers and Stallone clones to shame, bringing a fresh face to the new Hollywood.

While John Malkovich and Linda Hunt may have seemed unlikely film performers before their Oscar nominations, Dafoe is a natural. His mug was made for the movies. Something about the chemistry between the camera and the actor transforms his features into an expressionistic mask, an iconic presence that few actors achieve without trying. Let’s face it, the camera loves him. 

In person, it’s a different story, as is usually the case. When I meet him for breakfast at his loft down the street from the Performing Garage, Dafoe looks his usual scruff self, striking but not overwhelming in his dungarees, clodhoppers and olive-drab quilted-down hunting vest. A boyish 31 years old, he says he and LeCompte have been negotiating the dreadfully adult experience of Looking At Schools for their four-year-old Jack. Supportive of public schools in principle but horrified by the 40-to-1 student-teacher ratio, they’ve been checking out private schools. “The problem is, you have to have all these meetings with other parents, and it’s all so homogenized. The men are all wearing three-piece suits, and the mothers are all these killer career women,” says Dafoe. “And then we walk in looking like white trash….”

Actually, Dafoe grew up the seventh of eight kids on the right side of the tracks in Appleton, Wisconsin, a paper-mill town 100 miles north of Milwaukee where his father was a surgeon and his mother a nurse. As a teenager he started acting in community theater and spent a couple of years studying acting at the University of Wisconsin before quitting to join a touring children’s theater. It was either that or join the Army, recalls Dafoe. “Some real sleazy guy in Scottsdale, Arizona, was running seven companies, doing Little Lord Fauntleroy with real cheesy sets, removable mustaches and all that terrible stuff. You’d drive around in this little van, do three shows a day, sometimes a hundred miles apart, sometimes in big junior-college theaters and other times in the library of some rich day-care center. It was only six months, but I look back on it fondly. It really was like vaudeville because you were always flying by the seat of your pants.”

Dafoe gravitated toward Theatre X, a Milwaukee collective formed by some of his college friends, and while performing with them at a theater festival in Baltimore, he met director Richard Schechner, who invited the actor to move to new York to work with the Performance Group, a leading experimental theater of the ‘60s most notorious for its use of nudity in Dionysus in ’69. Dafoe leapt at the chance. “I wanted to be challenged, and I was also having a falling-out with Method acting. The kind of acting you generally see in any theater in New York, I’m not so interested in. I’m interested in something more than emotional recall and crying on cue. And the Performance Group represented that.”

Before long, Schechner left the company, which was renamed the Wooster Group under LeCompte’s leadership, and Dafoe became an integral part of its original collage-theater pieces, including Point Judith, Route 1 & 9, North Atlantic, and Just the High Points (formerly known as L.S.D.). This was challenging work, to say the least. LeCompte’s stage compositions are unconventional, even shocking, yet as strangely beautiful as the canvases of Hieronymous Bosch. And the demands she places on performers are extreme. In separate sections of Point Judith, Dafoe played an oilworker on an off-shore rig, a mad housewife (in dress and jockstrap), and a nun (on film). In Route 1 & 9 he played a blind man constructing a makeshift set, then tossed away his dark glasses to perform the blackface vaudeville routine and ecstatic dances to loud soul music; meanwhile, on video he was seen first performing scenes from Our Town in soap opera close-ups and then in a crude porno film with an actress in the company. In a short-lived “party piece” called Hula, Dafoe danced wearing nothing but a grass skirt, sometimes with his penis painted green. This may be singling out the most extreme examples, but the works are avant-garde. As Billy Wilder once said, “You know New York actors, they’ll play anything.”

Almost as soon as he started working with the Wooster Group, Dafoe got his first movie role in (of all things) Heaven’s Gate. Since 1980, he’s managed to make one movie a year. Surprisingly, he feels that experimental theater prepared him better for the mechanics of filmmaking than Actors Studio-style Method training. “The Wooster Group does these structured pieces that don’t have a recognizable psychology, and the beautify of them is these people moving around in the structure,” Dafoe says. “It’s like being an animal. There’s a kind of submission involved that’s attractive to me. ‘Submission’ is a funny word to use, because nothing about me is submissive. I’m talking about devotion to the task. Performing for a camera is the same thing. It’s so abstract, and things are so fragmented.”

As an example, he cites his melodramatic death scene in Platoon. “It was like doing a dance, in that I had so many technical responsibilities,” he says. “Sometimes they’d shoot both on the ground and from the helicopter, so I’d be out there with just a walkie-talkie waiting to go. Physically it was difficult because the ground was hard, and I was hitting it with a certain abandon. I had a long wire running from my leg to a board so they could detonate the bullet hits. In some shots, I was detonating my own bullet hits. Plus, there was stuff exploding on the ground, so I had a definite pattern. I knew I had to squirm here and squirm there. It was somewhere between a dance and a boxing match.”

The success of Platoon has been sweet for Dafoe. He’s been meeting with A-list directors (though his next film, Saigon, will be directed by tyro Chris Crowe) and getting fan mail from heavy-duty actors. Being on the cover of Time didn’t hurt. And the Oscar nomination may give him the clout to control his schedule so he can do both movies and his theater projects (maybe even a Wooster Group movie). But Dafoe takes a what-goes-up-must-come-down attitude toward being in the spotlight. He enjoys it but doesn’t take it seriously. For all the publicity he’s gotten, his biggest pleasure in Platoon’s success is a private connection to his youth, when he was just a barefoot boy with cheekbones.

“My father was a very busy guy when I was growing up,” says Dafoe, “but occasionally we’d go on thee fishing trips out in the bush. We’d take one of those pontoon planes out, get dropped off someplace, and do nothing but fish. And it was almost ritualistic – we’d usually fly out of a Canadian city, and the night before we’d leave, we’d always go to a war movie. A big part of my connection to my father has to do with going to The Guns of Navarone and stuff like that. So there’s something sweet about him going to a war movie and seeing his son.”

In Fashion, May/June 1987