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Willem Dafoe Receives Cinema Vanguard Award at Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Veteran actor celebrated for his remarkable role in Sean Baker’s 'The Florida Project'


On the second evening of the the 33rd Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, tribute was paid to Willem Dafoe, one of film’s most prolific and authentic actors.

Lines of fans were on hand along the red carpet to catch a glimpse of the actor who has appeared in more than 100 movies.

Dafoe was celebrated with the Cinema Vanguard Award for his remarkable role in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, an A24 Films release, which opened to critical acclaim in October 2017.

The Cinema Vanguard Award was created in recognition of actors who have forged their own path — taking artistic risks and making a significant and unique contribution to film. 

Previous honorees include Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, Rooney Mara, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, Amy Adams, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz, Vera Farmiga, Stanley Tucci, Peter Sarsgaard, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Ryan Gosling.

“Willem Dafoe has brought countless unforgettable characters to the big screen,” stated SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling. “His role in The Florida Project perfectly embodies his talent and imagination. It is an honor to celebrate his work with the Cinema Vanguard Award.”

Dafoe joined moderator and veteran film critic Peter Hammond on the stage of the Arlington for a 90-minute conversation about Dafoe’s career, complete with clips and montages from his 39-year body of work in film. The tribute evening was sponsored by Bella Vista Designs. 

Dafoe has been recognized with three Academy Award nominations: Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Platoon, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Shadow Of The Vampire, for which he also received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations, as well as his most recent Oscar nomination for The Florida Project.

In fact, Hammond opened the show holding a six-foot long print out listing all of Dafoe’s film awards.

Early in the evening, Dafoe, dressed in a sharp gray suit and black shirt, acknowledged two family members seated in the audience: his two brothers. He is the youngest of eight children, three boys and five girls, born to Muriel Isabel, a nurse, and his father, William, a surgeon, in Appleton, Wisconsin. 

Dafoe said, “I loved being from a big family. Of course, coming from a small town, I never knew anyone who was an actor. I was fortunate that there was a good community theatre where I grew up. I started doing carpentry work around the theatre, gradually picked up some roles, and got hooked on acting.

Actor Willem Dafoe pauses on the red carpet for photographers Thursday night at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, on his way to receiving the Cinema Vanguard Award at Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Click to view larger
Actor Willem Dafoe pauses on the red carpet for photographers Thursday night at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, on his way to receiving the Cinema Vanguard Award at Santa Barbara International Film Festival. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

"Later, I moved to New York City and found myself drawn to avant garde theatre. That is where I wanted to be. I worked at The Wooster Group, an experimental theatre collective, for 27 years, taking breaks when I got a movie role.”

His natural ability and boldness are evident in roles as diverse as the elite assassin who mentors Keanu Reeves in the neo-noir film John Wick, his voice work as Gil the Moorish Idol in Finding Nemo, and as Ryuk the Death God in Death Note

In 1979, Dafoe was given a role in Michael's Cimino's Heaven's Gate, from which he was fired (Dafoe told the audience that they remain friends and Cimino later hired him).

He has acted for some of the most legendary directors in the industry including Kathryn Bigelow, Sam Raimi, Alan Parker, Walter Hill, Mary Harron, Wim Wenders, Anton Corbijn, Zhang Yimou, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Oliver Stone, William Friedkin, Werner Herzog, Lars Von Trier, Abel Ferrara, Spike Lee, Julian Schnabel, David Cronenberg, Paul Schrader, Anthony Minghella, Scott Cooper, Theo Angelopoulos, Christian Carion, Robert Rodriguez, Phillip Noyce, Hector Babenco, John Milius, Roger Donaldson, Paul McGuigan, Lee Tamahori, Roger Spottiswoode, Paul Weitz, Daniel Nettheim, The Spierig Brothers, Andrew Stanton, and Josh Boone.

SBIFF is a nonprofit arts and education organization dedicated to making a positive impact utilizing the power of film. The festival is a year-round organization that is best known for its main film festival that takes place in February.

Over the past 32 years, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has become one of the leading film festivals in the United States – attracting 90,000 attendees and offering 11days of 200+ films, tributes and symposiums.

SBIFF has expanded its year-round operation to include a variety of educational programming, fulfilling its mission to engage, enrich and inspire the community through film.

For more information, contact SBIFF, 1528 Chapala Street #203, Santa Barbara 93101, phone 805.963.0023, or visit

Rochelle Rose is a Noozhawk contributing writer and veteran of many Santa Barbara International Film Festivals. 

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