Willem Dafoe has played tough guys in films like “To Live and Die in L.A.,” starred in boundary-pushing pics like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and been Oscar-nommed for his roles in “Platoon” and “Shadow of the Vampire.” He got sentimental as he reflected on coming of age in the 1970s New York theater scene and starring in his first film, 1981’s “Breakdown” (later retitled “The Loveless”). That film, which earned him his first mention in Variety, also marked the debut of director Kathryn Bigelow.

How did you get the “Loveless” role? 

Kathryn saw an early performance of the Wooster Group’s “Point Judith” at the Performing Garage in New York City, where I was playing a roustabout on an oil rig. She called me the next day, and offered me the part.

What was it like seeing your name in Variety?

I’d been a glorified extra in “Heaven’s Gate,” and I’d had some downtown art films. “The Loveless” felt like I was a real movie actor.

What do you remember about that point in your career?

I was at a theater company working very hard. I felt more a part of that than of Hollywood. (After “Loveless” came out), a manager called me up and said, “I saw this movie. I think you have something. Would you like to do more?”

What was the best thing about that time in your life? 

I was having fun doing things that I hadn’t done before. I was the young one at the theater company. I was excited by the company I was keeping. I was introduced to new things. I didn’t feel pressure to worry about where it was all leading.

What was the worst?

Actors always live with a sense of uncertainty. That uncertainty was intense, because I didn’t have any formal training. When I did negotiations on “The Loveless,” I had to call a friend and say, “What should I ask for?” The truth was, any amount of money seemed like a lot. I asked for $10,000, and they gave it to me.

A few years later, you broke through with “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Platoon.”

The one that had the biggest impact was probably “Platoon” (in 1986). But having said that, the beginning of my career was the most precious. I’m very proud of being in Kathryn Bigelow’s first film. How it was made was dear to me. What was in the air downtown, it wasn’t a career-driven thing — it was people trying to do things.