That Time When is Interview’s weekly trip through the pop-cultural space-time continuum, where we return to some of the most overlooked moments from issues past. In this edition, we revisit our June 1988 cover story, featuring “bad boy” Willem Dafoe where we learn all about his past before acting.
At the time, Willem Dafoe was known as the dangerous actor. The sexy rebel type. The idea seems a bit ridiculous, at least to me, who’s first encounter with Dafoe involved a certain Green Goblin terrorizing Tobey Maguire. But Dafoe’s extraordinary acting talents and diverse body of work distinguish him as far more than a Marvel villain role or an ’80s sex symbol. From the gritty war epic Platoon to the perfectly asymmetrical world of Wes Anderson,to his most recent psycho-thriller The Lighthouse, Willem Dafoe constantly defies expectations.
But even prolific actors like him came from humble beginnings. In Dafoe’s case, he worked odd jobs in Milwaukee (he was born in Wisconsin) before joining the experimental theatre company The Wooster Group. During his 1988 cover story with Interview, author and interviewer Kevin Sessums poked fun at the embarrassing aspects of acting, comparing it to kinky sex. Ironically, Dafoe revealed how he used to spend his nights doing something adjacent to what Sessums described.
KEVIN SESSUMS: You said you’ve just bumped along. How did you support yourself early on, when you weren’t working?
WILLEM DAFOE: Well, I’m lucky in that I’m a guy who never really needed very much. There was a brief period when I worked in a factory back in Milwaukee binding Penthouse and Playboy magazines.
SESSUMS: Speaking of kinky sex… you were binding naked women eight hours a day.
DAFOE: [Laughs]: It was very funny. I got the job through one of these awful agencies. I was like scum there—working the graveyard shift and all. There would be the break and I’d be in the lunchroom and there’d be nothing but old women in there. I’d think, “Where’s everybody going?” But then I found out that every time we’d get a break all the guys would run out to their cars and have beers and joints and look at the magazines. They’d all be getting as fucked up as they could on their breaks. Actually I enjoyed the women more.