Born: July 22, 1955
Date of Birth: July 22, 1955
Raised in Wisconsin, Willem Dafoe is the second youngest of eight children who all look and sound alike. But the similarities end there: Willem was the only Dafoe to follow an artistic bent, while the rest of the brood took the well-trod professional route, becoming lawyers, nurses, and doctors.
At 17, Dafoe enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. The drama department failed to hold his interest, so he joined Milwaukee's avant-garde Theater X troupe. Two years of touring with the company showed him the greater part of the U.S. and Europe. Dafoe's next stopover was Manhattan, where in 1977 he landed a promising role in a production with the Performance Group. There, he met artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte, with whom today Dafoe shares a house and a son named Jack.
Dafoe and LeCompte eventually founded the celebrated Wooster Group, known for its unique multimedia-deconstructionist style of theater. After dozens of shows, Dafoe made his film debut as a featured extra in Michael Cimino's ill-conceived Heaven's Gate. In 1985, he landed his first sizable role in To Live and Die in L.A. A year later, he earned a breakthrough (and Oscar-nominated) role as the messiah-like Sergeant Elias in Oliver Stone's Platoon.
Non-mainstream performances in mainstream films followed: Alan Parker cast Dafoe as a straight-laced F.B.I. agent in 1988's Mississippi Burning and the following year, Stone called upon him again to play a bitter disabled veteran in Born on the Fourth of July. That same year, Dafoe found himself in the headlines due to his title-role assignment in one of the most controversial films of all time: Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.
In recent years, Dafoe has had the luxury of being discriminating in his choice of roles: "I don't get paid seven million for the movies I do, and when I'm top banana, they're not big studio movies. . . . I can switch hit, I can go and make a small movie, I can make a big movie." He definitely has divided his efforts between big and small projects: In the early '90s, he played the loathsome Bobby Peru in David Lynch's Wild at Heart, a redemptive drug dealer in Light Sleeper, T.S. Eliot in Tom & Viv, and a lawyer who finds himself crotch-deep in some very nasty Madonna-related business in Body of Evidence.
In the late '90s, Dafoe popped up in the 1996 epic The English Patient; continued his mean streak in Speed 2: Cruise Control; co-starred alongside Nick Nolte and Sissy Spacek in Affliction; and visited the virtual-reality realm in the David Cronenberg sci-fier eXistenZ.
He has twice been nominated for Supporting Actor Academy Awards: in 2001 for his role in Shadow of the Vampire and in 1987 for Platoon. In 2010, he won a Bodil award for Best Actor in Antichrist (2009). Dafoe has continued to enjoy a successful acting career with roles in films like A Woman (2010), John Carter (2012)and The Hunter (2012). More recently, he starred in the films Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II (2014), The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and John Wick (2014).
Dafoe, whose birth name was William Dafoe Jr., is a vegetarian. He was known as Billy in Junior high but was nicknamed Willem in high school, and the name stuck.