Willem Dafoe is one of the English-speaking world’s very best actors. Able to switch easily (and convincingly) between menacing and friendly, average guy and unpredictable lunatic, Dafoe has become a cultural and artistic treasure. Back in 1980, though, he was just a young actor doing his best to work on movies whose roles he may not have been fully qualified for—including one that required him to speak fluent Dutch.
This story comes up near the beginning of a Vanity Fair video that sees Dafoe discussing the many films he’s appeared in throughout his career, leading off with his “first IMDB credit,” which was for Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Dafoe heard that the director of The Deer Hunter was looking to cast “ethnic faces” (watch the expression he makes after remembering that wording). The audition asked actors to prepare “one monologue in English and one in another language.”
“I had a friend of mine phonetically write out that speech in Dutch,” he says. “They just assumed I was fluent in Dutch!” He remembers Cimino wanted him to “improvise in a scene” and then asked him to do it again in Dutch. Dafoe explained that he couldn’t actually speak the language, but somehow ended up in the movie anyway—until he ended up laughing at a joke while on set during filming and, presumably having pissed Cimino off one too many times, was fired. Still, he’s visible as a cock-fighter “if you look hard enough.”
“That was a very particular situation,” Dafoe says with a grin. Later, he adds both that he “doesn’t really count that as my first movie” and that, all the same, appearing in it with a tiny part means that, yes, he got to “fight Jeff Bridge’s cock.”
The Vanity Fair video has a lot of other great stuff in it, including Dafoe reminiscing on some of his most famous work, from Platoon and Antichrist to The Last Temptation Of Christ, Spider-Man, and The Lighthouse, talking about the kind of roles—and filmmakers—he’s been drawn to throughout his career. None of them, you may notice, involve him pretending to speak fluent Dutch, even when he plays, in French and English, Vincent Van Gogh himself.
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