In this series, we take a closer look at iconic actors and the roles that made them.

To start, we take a look at Willem Dafoe, whose film career began with an uncredited role in 1981's Heaven's Gate and has since included some of the most memorable villains ever captured onscreen. But of course it hasn't all been bad guys. He has also played the likes of the good Sergeant Elias in Platoon, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and, well, Jesus Christ.

His most recent film, The Florida Project, is also shaping up to be one of the buzziest movies of 2017, and you can listen to him talk about the role on Thursday.

Below, we present five of Dafoe's most iconic roles.


Sgt. Elias, Platoon (1986)

Part of the genius of Oliver Stone's Vietnam war masterpiece, Platoon, was how it pitted Private Taylor (Charlie Sheen) against two sergeants in a game of tug of war. As they travelled further into the heart of darkness, Taylor was forced to choose between good and evil. On the evil side was Tom Berenger's battle-scarred Barnes, and on the good side was Dafoe's idealistic Elias, a guru-like presence in the film. They were both nominated for Oscars for their performances, but it was Dafoe who stole the movie with one of the most iconic death scenes ever portrayed in a war film.

Willem Dafoe - Platoon

(Christine Lieu )

Jesus Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

If playing Jesus Christ wasn't daunting enough, playing this particular version of Christ was even more so. In Martin Scorsese's controversial film, Christ struggles with doubt and temptation, even imagining himself in a sexual act — something that caused outrage from Christian groups at the time. Dafoe brilliantly straddled the fine line between Christ as saviour and Christ as man, earning him rave reviews from the likes of Gene Siskel, who called it "perhaps the most honestly Christ-like portrayal of Jesus ever filmed."

Willem Dafoe - Christ

(Christine Lieu )

Bobby Peru, Wild at Heart (1990)

Psychopath Bobby Peru is easily one of the most vile, frightening characters David Lynch has ever created, which is to say, also probably one of the most menacing characters ever captured onscreen. It speaks to the strength of Dafoe's acting that he could convincingly play such forces of good (see above roles), but also, as he put it, "someone without regrets and just pure hunger and pure evil."

Willem Dafoe, Bobby

(Christine Lieu )

Max Schreck, Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

In Shadow of the Vampire, Dafoe plays German actor Max Schreck, who in turn is playing Count Orlock in the 1922 classic film Nosferatu. Schreck is so committed to the role that he never breaks character, even when the cameras stop rolling, impressing and disturbing the cast and crew so much that they begin to wonder whether he actually is a vampire. Writing about the portrayal, which earned Dafoe a best supporting actor Oscar nomination, Roger Ebert wrote that Dafoe embodied Schreck "so uncannily that when real scenes from the silent classic are slipped into the frame, we don't notice a difference."

Willem Dafoe - vampire

(Christine Lieu )

Norman Osborn/the Green Goblin, Spiderman (2002)

Dafoe has played his fair share of good guys and bad guys, but he seems to truly excel at the latter. He once said that villains "are the best roles," especially for actors who are not "conventionally good looking or conventionally charming." While Dafoe was originally considered for the Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, it wasn't until Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man adaptation that he got to truly show his chops as a comic book supervillain. Considering most of his camera time was spent under a 580-piece costume, Dafoe's portrayal of the Green Goblin earned him praise, even from the staunchest comic book fans.

Willem Dafoe - Goblin

(Christine Lieu )

The Florida Project is in theatres now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Jesse Kinos-Goodin is a Toronto-based producer for CBC Music and the editorial lead for q digital.