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the reality issue 2001
willem dafoe
by jean oppenheimer
the love of higher things

Willem Dafoe was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, one of eight children in a comfortably middle-class family.

His father was a surgeon; his mother a nurse. His siblings pursued equally traditional paths; one became a lawyer, two entered medicine, another became a housewife.

Willem chose a very different path. An “actor's actor,” known for his adventurous choices on both stage and screen, Dafoe is currently in Los Angeles shooting the big-budget “Spider Man.”

the book: How did your worldview change when you left home? willem dafoe: Growing up, my identity was very wrapped up in my family. You grow up white, male and middle-class in the Midwest and you are growing up with a terrific sense of entitlement. You see yourself reflected in everything in the culture. Then I moved to New York to pursue acting-- a path that doesn't have those assurances.

There is bound to be some poverty at the beginning; (laughs) maybe at the end. I went from being middle-class to being absolutely poor, from being sheltered in the Midwest and having a very narrow view of the world to this city that still remains a melting pot and is always reinventing itself. I was living in bad neighborhoods without that sense of entitlement. I liked being an artist. I was educating myself and becoming radicalized. That's a huge change.

the book: In a sense, though, you still had a safety net under you, didn't you? dafoe: Yes. I tried to reject it but you are still a card-carrying member. You are white, male—and American-- and can always get a job.

the book: In addition to a very active film career you continue to do a lot of stage work. You have been a member of the New York theater company the Wooster Group for 25 years and have credited it with having a profound influence on you. Can you elaborate? dafoe: The people in the Wooster Group are just incredible. [They] marry the love of work with the love of higher things. That's a kind of bastard translation of a Chechkov quote, “We must learn to meet the love of work with the love of higher things.” It means: find your purpose, find out where you feel vital, find out where you can serve well.

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