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CineVegas Vanguard Award: Willem Dafoe

Actor adept at balancing art with commerce

Willem Dafoe, one of Hollywood’s most reliable and versatile actors, has always embraced a challenge, as evidenced by his acclaimed work in such films as “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “American Psycho” and “The English Patient.”

As he’s about to receive CineVegas’ Vanguard Actor Award, Dafoe says he likes “the idea of being in the vanguard. Awards to me are recognition and encouragement, which never hurts.”

Twice Oscar-nominated — “Platoon” and “Shadow of the Vampire” — Dafoe was born in Appleton, Wis., grew up doing local theater, and moved to New York in the late ’70s, where he became one of the founding members of experimental theater collective the Wooster Group. He got his first film break in 1979 with a small role in Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” only to be fired from the troubled production.

Since then, he has worked in more than 70 films, both big (the “Spider-Man” franchise, “Finding Nemo,” “The Aviator”) and small (“Basquiat,” “Auto Focus” and Lars von Trier’s “Manderlay” and his recent Cannes competition pic “Antichrist”).

He says he chooses projects “for diversity and a change of pace,” along with the chance to work with helmers such as David Lynch (“Wild at Heart”), David Cronenberg (“Existenz”), William Friedkin (“To Live and Die in L.A.”) and Oliver Stone (“Platoon”).

“I’m basically attracted to personal filmmakers and stories that are very specific,” he explains. “I really live in the independent world, and that’s where I get most of my interesting offers.”

But the thesp, who keeps fit doing yoga “six days a week, two hours a day” is well aware of the tricky balancing act between art and commerce that every successful actor has to maintain.

“I’m interested in money, I’m interested in living well,” he admits, “but I’m more interested in living with myself and liking what I do. You can’t simply equate money with bad work and no money with good work.”

Dafoe says he tries “not to look back. I always like to pretend whatever I’m doing is the first thing I’ve ever done. Of course, I have great memories and disappointments, but I always get obsessed with whatever I am doing at the moment.”

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