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Actor Willem Dafoe reflects on UW-Milwaukee’s part in his development as a performer

Actor Willem Dafoe
Elora Lee Hennessey
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UWM Photo Services
Actor Willem Dafoe receives his honorary Doctor of Arts from UW-Milwaukee during Sunday's afternoon commencement ceremony, where he also served as the keynote speaker.

Actor Willem Dafoe has received four Academy Awards nominations, has been in over 100 films and has over 30 years of experience in experimental theater. He now also has an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from his alma mater UW-Milwaukee and gave the commencement addresses for the class of 2022 this past weekend.

From Appleton, Wis., Dafoe attended UWM in 1973 and 1974 before leaving to become a part of Theatre X, which started as a UWM faculty-student workshop and then became an independent experimental theater company. He would then move to New York to pursue a career in performance full-time.

Some of Dafoe’s first acting gigs were on UWM stages, and he joined Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski on the Mainstage Theater — the same that he performed on over 40 years ago as a student.

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Abby Lease
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Actor Willem Dafoe sits in the audience section of UW-Milwaukee's Mainstage Theatre. He first performed here as a student in 1973.

Dafoe says being on that stage again made him think about the shows he was a part of, the kind of person he was, his aspirations, the flood of memories — "it's not lost, it's still there," he reminisces.

"I was a dopey kid from Appleton who wanted to be around these people that were making theater in the university setting and that was it, because my accent was very much on the theater department, probably to a fault," says Dafoe.

Looking back on it, he took few courses and jumped into production courses and got very involved in the theater. While Dafoe says he wouldn't recommend this path to everyone, "for me at the time, I had ants in my pants and that's what I needed to do. So I look back on it very fondly."

His time at UWM was also an exciting new challenge for then 17-year-old Dafoe. Milwaukee was a big city to him, and he was couch-surfing and living hand-to-mouth taking jobs to pay for school. "So it was an adventure, but I always felt a little bit like I was an imposter — both as a student and as an aspiring actor."

Despite his obvious passion for performing, Dafoe says he didn't look that far ahead to any potential career in acting.

"I was just happy to be around people that I thought were interesting, that were doing interesting things. I was learning things, I had things that were being required of me that had never been required before, I was very independent — it was a whole new life, so it was very exciting," he says.

Dafoe recalls that his backup plan if performing didn't work out was to join the Army. "Can you imagine that?" he jokes.

While Dafoe says he didn't have much free time or money between working and being a student, he did enjoy going to the lakefront and to the Downer Theater while he lived in Milwaukee.

"There wasn't a strong film society that I knew of here, but the Downer picked up the slack by presenting really good programming, so I remember seeing some good art films there and some beautiful things," he says.

Dafoe has grown to be one of the greatest actors of the 21st century, and has worked with directors such as Guillermo Del Toro, Kathryn Bigelow, Spike Lee, David Lynch, Sam Raimi, Martin Scorsese, Kenneth Branagh and more. At this point in his career, Dafoe could choose nearly any role, but for him it's less about the script or character and more about the learning opportunities a film can present to him.

"You want something to do, you want your feet held to the fire, you want some sort of challenge because that's gonna kick it up," he says. "And fly or fail, it's gonna be an experience and that's what you look for and your try to find the right people to do that with."

"The best directors for me are the directors that make a world so complete that when you enter them you know what you have to do. You're not inventing, you're being, you're inhabiting, you're having something happen to you," Dafoe adds.

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Abby Lease
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Actor Willem Dafoe speaks with Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski on UW-Milwaukee's Mainstage Theatre, where he first performed as a theater student.

As a performer, Dafoe has had a pretty nomadic life. But, when reflecting about what Midwestern qualities have stuck with him, Dafoe says it's hard to separate Midwestern values from his family values.

"I have a lot of my father's values about hard work and being self-sufficient, very kind of Puritanical, strong work ethic, discipline, don't lean on anybody. Maybe it's not Wisconsin, but I associate that little bit with how I grew up," he explains.

Dafoe says that returning to Milwaukee to celebrate the 2022 graduates and receive an honorary doctorate is an honor.

"It's fun to come back here and it affords me a particular reflection on my life," he says. "And it's nice that this place that I have a special feeling for is returning that special feeling, that they recognize that they participated in my development and that they value what I’ve done, so it’s flattering."

Dafoe adds, "I'm happy that [UWM recognizes] that there are different roads to take that don't necessarily negate what they're doing here. In fact, what I did maybe [has] something to do with what's going on here even now."

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