Visiting one of his old haunts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for the first time in more than 40 years, Willem Dafoe started off by telling a ghost story.
Dafoe, the four-time Oscar nominee from Appleton who spent two years as a theater student at UW-Milwaukee in the 1970s, was on campus Saturday before his starring role on Sunday as the featured speaker at the university's 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. commencement ceremonies at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena in downtown Milwaukee. At the latter ceremony, he's receiving an honorary doctor of arts degree.
Saturday afternoon, Dafoe spoke to about 750 students in an "Actors Studio"-style forum at the Peck School of the Arts' Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts. Later, he stopped by the Mainstage Theatre at UW-Milwaukee, the launchpad of his acting career.
There, he remembered the ghost story.
Dafoe was playing Ariel in Shakespeare's "The Tempest," and, after he said a farewell on the stage, he made his exit crawling up "this kind of jungle gym" to the proscenium ring above the stage.
"I was ready to chin up and swing my legs up there and I felt like someone was in the way," Dafoe recalled. "There was someone standing right where I would usually put my feet to get on the ring. (He said,) ‘Go! Go! Move! Move!’ Eventually, they moved. I got up there, I went up against the wall because of (audience) sightlines — there was one last speech. And I could feel this breathing next to me. … Eventually, it went away, I went down to the curtain call.
"I said, ‘Who left the door to the catwalk open? There should be nobody up there. There’s a speech, and also I almost hurt myself getting up there.’ They said, ‘It was locked. Nobody was up there.’ And I thought, ‘OK, I’m mistaken.’ And then someone said, ‘You know … when they built this and they were pouring the concrete, a guy fell from the ring and died.’ I don’t know if it’s true.”
'Milwaukee to me was the big city'
This weekend was Dafoe's first stop in Milwaukee since 2007 when he took part in a three-film retrospective at the Milwaukee International Film Festival.
He first came to Milwaukee as a 17-year-old from Appleton eager to pursue acting.
“Milwaukee to me was the big city. And it was college," he said, emphasizing the last word. " … I grow up middle class, but when I come here I fail two classes, because I have to work (two) jobs because nobody’s paying for my education. I didn’t know anybody here. It was like being an immigrant … but that didn’t discourage me, I just thought that was my next chapter in life — moving away from my hometown and my big family and pursuing what I was interested in.”
Dafoe said he had wanted to be part of UW-Milwaukee's theater program after seeing a university production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest."
“I had a friend that I had worked with in summer stock in Appleton who was a technical director here, and he invited me and I saw the show and I said, 'Wow, the level of production is very high. I want to go to school here.' He said, ‘Cool. You can sleep on my couch.’ ”
'Always felt like a kid here'
But the adjustment was daunting: He hadn't even finished high school when he first auditioned.
“I always felt like a kid here … I felt like a kid among adults,” Dafoe admitted. “I wasn’t very sophisticated. I remember, there was a production class, and part of the warmup was we gave each other massages. I’m a 17-year-old kid and this beautiful woman that’s probably 10 years older than me says, ‘OK you’re my partner.’ I don’t think I had ever given anyone a massage before.”
“I get thrown into the deep end, but I was fine with that, and somehow that seems to be a scene that repeats itself in my life,” he continued, laughing. “But I think that’s a good thing. I embrace that because it makes forever a beginner, and I think I can brag that I still love what I do, and I still get excited by it. So I have this kind of a beginner’s mind.”
Since his acting days in Milwaukee, at UW-Milwaukee and two years with the experimental theater troupe Theatre X, Dafoe has made more than 100 movies.
“I like to say, even my mother hasn’t seen all my films,” he said, smiling.
To Marvel and DC movies, and beyond
Dafoe has worked with just about every notable director of the past 40 years, from Wes Anderson and Kathryn Bigelow to Guillermo Del Toro and Martin Scorsese. Although he often plays a villain, he's done his share of comedy and even a number of leading-man roles, although three of his four Academy Award nominations are for best supporting actor: "Platoon," "Shadow of the Vampire" and "The Florida Project." (The fourth, for 2017's "At Eternity's Gate," was for best actor.)
He's been in Pixar films (the voice of Gil in "Finding Nemo") and, in an elite club, both the Marvel (as Green Goblin) and DC (the hero's mentor, Vulko, in "Aquaman") cinematic universes.
But the beginner in him is always looking for a new acting experience.
“Every time I see a movie that I like, I think, 'I wonder what it’s like to work with them.' Or I see something that’s very personal and resonates with me and I think, 'Oh, I’d like to be in the room with them and make something with them,' Dafoe said.
"That has to be weighed also against the fact that sometimes you see someone you admire and you like their films, but you’re not their guy … you’re not seeing the fit because either they don’t get you, or you aren’t the physiognomy or something doesn’t work, and you’ve got to accept that sometimes. That’s like a heartbreaker sometimes.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Willem Dafoe returns to UW-Milwaukee campus for honor, ghost story