This article originally appeared in Esquire and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
WILLEM. It's a slangy sound, and he's sick of it, actually. After all, it's not his name. Not the name his parents gave him, not the name on his passport. Just a nickname, one of many, and honestly, he likes Willie better. Lots of people call him that. Or Will or Wilbur or whatever. But Willem was the one that stuck, that still clings to him like a burn. "It's a pain in the ass, this name," he says, twirling a glass of red wine. "People don't know how to pronounce it. It's embarrassing. I've thought of changing it back so many times. I hate this idea of an actor having a professional name, but then, so many people already know me as Willem."
He's sitting in a hellhole of a pizza joint on the southern coast of Spain, where the beer is warm and the wine is cheap and the waitress has a crush on him. He's trying to relax after a long day on the set, but when the name thing comes up, he tends to get stuck on it. What bugs him most is that he only has himself to blame. After all, he's the one who picked the name, twenty years ago, when he was younger and a little bit pretentious. To be honest, it was even worse than that. The first time he spelled it, it was Gwyllum. What a pompous idea that was. Makes him cringe just thinking about it now. But he was in college then, trying like hell to reinvent himself, to shuck the name he shared with his father: William. It came off too bland, reminded him of his hometown in the farmlands of northern Wisconsin. He was done with that place, done with the unsophisticated kid he had been there. He didn't yet know who he wanted to become, but he knew he wanted to be someone different, and changing his name seemed like a good start. So one day, he was flipping through an issue of TV Guide and he saw a name in the listings, a weird, Welsh-looking name, the name of a monster on the show The Outer Limits. He liked the way the name looked. So he wrote it down, made it his own. He would be Gwyllum Dafoe.
THE PLACE I grew up in, it's always hard because you want to put it in a box and kiss it goodbye. But in a way, it may have been sort of beautiful once upon a time. It's on a river called the Fox River. I fished a lot when I was a kid. Northern pike, walleyes, perch. You go out in an aluminum craft, open bail, casting reels, none of this fancy shit. Throwing daredevils, pig chubs, mighty mouses. It was beautiful once upon a time, but it became a paper-mill town, and you know what paper mills do. When I was a kid, the sunsets looked like New Mexico skies--purple, pink, orange. But that was from pollution.
HE'S BEEN WEARING the same clothes for three days now, a navy zip-up cardigan and dark jeans. He hasn't shaved or brushed his hair. In fact, the only thing about him that ever seems to change at all is the expression on his face. His rawhide face--that tangle of shifting lines and planes, of crevasses and creases, those cheekbones like raised daggers, those holes for eyes, that bent nail of a nose. He likes his face more than his name. His face people remember.
They've always noticed his face. Even when he first arrived in New York at twenty-two, a naïve midwesterner, unknown and vulnerable, he could walk down the darkest avenues, wielding his face like a club. "Back then, I looked even more ragged than now," he says, laughing. "My cheeks were even more sunken in, and my hair was even more shaggy." He twirls the wineglass and jumps up from the table. He doesn't sit still for long.
"Let's get out of here," he says, smiling at the giddy waitress. Even here, in the only desert in Europe, where pink sand bluffs slide into the Mediterranean, where tiny white adobe villages dot the landscape and most residents keep to themselves, even here they know he's famous. Even here his face precedes him.
"I love that woman," he whispers, looking back through the window at the waitress. "She's the Spanish Janis Joplin. She's a biker chick, I know it. The other night, a bunch of us guys were here, and she gave one of them a message for me. She said, 'You tell him I'll meet him on the beach at midnight.' " He winks. "I should have done it. Come on, let's walk." And he slides his hands into the pockets of his jeans, shuffling up the unlit street.
It's a magnificent road to walk, slung low through the mountains, with cliffs rising and plummeting all around it, a James Dean car-accident road. By day, you can see for miles across the gleaming red dunescape, where the spaghetti western was born, separated from Morocco by the Strait of Gibraltar. By day, you can see it; you can see Africa from here. But tonight, in the darkness, there's just a faint, silvery haze as he walks noiselessly, head down, beneath clouds illuminated like bleach on black velvet, a small man, sinewy and lean, a dancer in dark clothes. The bends and rises in the road give way to more bends and rises, until suddenly a car comes whizzing around a turn, blasting headlights and rocketing toward him. He freezes for a second, caught in the beam, then panics, leaping off the road, crashing into the shrubs as the car speeds by. "Fuck," he says, dusting himself off. "Sorry about that." He's flustered. "Sometimes I worry too much."
THE THING IS, you grow up with a small view of the world, and you move to New York and all of a sudden you fall through economic classes; you've got no money, and you're living among people that you never even knew existed. Plus, if you don't have much of an education, you're turned on by the idea of being an artist. So you become radicalized. You start to identify with something that's different from where you're from.
HE NEVER USED TO WORRY at all. He used to be brave and dumb. When he arrived in New York City in 1977, he had about $200 in his pocket and not a clue where to go. He crashed with friends for a while and worked odd jobs, and when he had enough cash saved up, he rented a slummy apartment in the East Village, which he shared with a stranger. At night, he hit the streets, getting mugged and getting drunk and getting an idea of who he would become.
"I wanted to leave the Wisconsin boy behind," he says now, resting in his trailer on the set of an upcoming film, Morality Play. The most striking feature of his trailer is that it has no striking features. No photographs, no paintings, not even a TV--just a coffeepot sitting alone on the counter. The bed is rumpled, and his plaid boxer shorts and jeans are strewn across a built-in sofa. There's a magazine sitting in the bathroom next to the toilet, opened to an article on Bill Clinton. And in the main room, at the table, he's sitting cross-legged in tattered leather pants and a dirty wool shirt, his face smudged with mud. The costume is supposed to make him look like a medieval actor, but he looks more like a homeless person, somebody he might have known during his salad days in New York. "When you're young, an episode is good enough," he says. "You don't look beyond next week. At least, I didn't. I was living poor. I was eating white rice, all that. To me, it was romantic." In New York, he forgot about Wisconsin. He slept through days. He saw a guy get shot.
These days, the same scene would make him sick with worry, and that disturbs him. Because somewhere along the line, he changed inside. Money changed him. Success changed him. He admits that now. He's afraid he may even buy into some of it. He wants an Oscar, for example. He's been nominated once, for Platoon, but so far, he has no tacky statue. And, yes, he's heard the buzz about his performance in the upcoming Shadow of the Vampire, and, yes, he has his hopes up, and, yes, it bothers him to feel that way. "You hate to admit it, but you want it so bad you can taste it," he says.
It bugs him to covet. He left Wisconsin and the middle-class kingdom to pursue a chancier life, but there's a part of him that still subscribes to that old midwestern ethos. "You work for something, you want to protect it, you know? And I wish I could be looser with things. But sometimes I have something I like and I worry about losing it." He pauses, smiles. "This all sounds suspiciously new-agey, but it really is true. There are a lot of great things in our culture, but I think it does breed a certain sickness of gluttony. That's why I love this idea of being an artist. It's dangerous. It's imprecise. You put everything on the line."
WHEN YOU PRETEND, you're doing what you're doing, and that's very rare in life, because often we're distracted, and we're doing this to get that. It's the way we're trained. In performing, sometimes you get that sense of doing this just to do this. You don't even ask who you are. You're the doer. You're doing this thing. You're just, you're like a force of nature. That's the idea. It's, if I was this guy, what would I be like? Part of the process is to invite the commonality and not the separateness between me and him. So underlying all acting is compassion, and I try to choose roles that make the compassion a challenge, characters who help me get in touch with my nasty streak.
WHEN HE TALKS ABOUT performing, about being an artist, about danger and imprecision, he isn't talking about movies, of course. Movies may be grueling, but they afford him very little control over the final product. To him, movies are about acting, whereas when he talks about being an artist, about making something, when he dwells on the subject, it becomes clear what he's talking about: the Wooster Group, the small Manhattan theater garage where he's been a company member for twenty-three years.
That's where he's at home, because when he's there, making plays from scratch, he's required to do all the normal company-member things, like building sets and hauling shit around, scratching and clawing and competing with other actors to shape the final product. "It's humbling," he says. "Yes, they're aware that I may have some cachet in other circles, but making original theater is a great leveler. There's a lot of time that goes into it, and people become colleagues very quickly. Familiarity breeds all sorts of things, so it's not like these people are going to be dazzled. They could give a shit about me and my movies." He laughs. "They think doing a movie is like being on vacation."
The first time he went to work at the garage, he wasn't even supposed to be there. He wasn't supposed to be anywhere. He didn't have a job, exactly. He had acted at the University of Wisconsin and, after he dropped out, had joined a small troupe in Milwaukee, but after several months in New York, he hadn't landed a single role. So when a friend invited him to attend one of the Wooster Group's meetings, he figured what the hell and showed up. When he walked in the door, his friend piped up, saying, "This is Willem. I want him to play a part in Cops." He was floored; he could feel a career opening up; he could hear the knock-knock of opportunity. ... until, out of nowhere, the theater director began cussing him out. "I don't know who this guy is," she shouted, "but I want him to get the fuck out of my house!" That was Liz. And that was the moment he fell in love with her.
"I fell in love with her passion," he says. "I started hanging out at the theater. I'd do anything just to be around her. I was twenty-two, she was thirty-three, so that was exciting. And over time, she was taken by my passion for her work. I remember she would take me to galleries. I mean, I was still a pretty unsophisticated kid, so I would just see what she gravitated toward, which paintings or whatever, and sometimes I would ask her why."
Back at the theater, she started giving him roles, which raised more than a few eyebrows. "Let's just say it was presented to me that there was a possibility I was a plaything," he says. Even now, the suggestion could be made. After more than two decades together, Liz is still the director and he's still the actor. "The power shifts are hard," he admits. "But I never accepted this idea that the man should be in charge. That's bullshit. Because when roles are too fixed and you get someone under your thumb, you start to look someplace else. The first thing I ever heard her say was, 'Get the fuck out of my house,' and that was twenty-three years ago. It's my house now. So that's pretty good."
I WAKE UP EARLY, do my reading. Sometimes the paper, but I do other reading, lots of scripts. And I don't want to talk much about it, because it's something you do and not something you talk about. But six days a week, I do Ashtanga yoga practice. So you can't stay out till two o'clock doing Orange Schnapps Night. There aren't enough hours in the day for all the work that I want to do. I need sleep, unfortunately.
TO SEE HIM on a movie set is to see a stage actor wildly out of place. While the other actors finish their scenes and retreat to their trailers, he sticks around, even when he's not needed, carrying props, chatting with the sound guy. When the director shouts through a bullhorn to the extras, he's standing there next to him, pretending to translate into sign language, his face twisted up in false seriousness, giving everybody the middle finger at the end. And when a giant boom microphone falls on an old man, he's the first one on the scene, crouching by the victim, calling out for water and a towel.
He can't help himself. Acting, to him, isn't a job so much as a disposition. At the Wooster Group, there are no fixed rules except this: Every free hand gets used. You might goof off and fuck around on the set, but you also sweat and bleed the performance.
"When you get older," he says, strolling now through the movie set's centerpiece, a stone castle wedged into the hills, "you realize there needs to be balance between being serious and not taking yourself too seriously. People humiliate people who reach too high, call them pretentious. But you might as well reach high sometimes."
He climbs to the top of a stairwell, begins tightroping a thirty-foot ledge, a testimony to his Ashtanga yoga practice and, at the same time, a sign that he doesn't worry too much yet. "I mean, having a broad view of what's possible and not shoring up an idea of who you are. I know nothing about myself in a way. I'm very attracted to this idea: There is no fixed identity; it's a flexible thing."
Perched at the top of the ledge, he can see clear across the Mediterranean to Morocco. "It's harder with success, but it's the best way to be honest with yourself. The more you appreciate the conflicting parts of yourself, the more you appreciate the interdependence of things. People who crystallize into a persona, they dry up."
He looks out for a minute longer, then turns the other way, unzips, and takes a piss.