Willem Dafoe (‘At Eternity’s Gate’): ‘I worked very hard’ to get into Vincent van Gogh’s mindset [Complete Interview Transcript]

Willem Dafoe is on an awards hot streak, following his many wins and nominations last year for “The Florida Project.” His latest project is “At Eternity’s Gate,” the new Julian Schnabel film in which Dafoe plays the artist Vincent van Gogh. Dafoe has earned a Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe nomination for his performance, following a Best Actor win at the Venice Film Festival.

Dafoe recently chatted with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws about why he wanted to work with Schnabel again, getting into van Gogh’s head and why the film was “scary” but also “fun.” Watch the exclusive web chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: So Willem, this isn’t the first movie that we’ve seen about Vincent van Gogh but it still finds a way to show you something unique and that you’ve never seen before in other versions. Can you talk a bit about what about this jumped out at you and made you want to tell the story of Vincent van Gogh?

Willem Dafoe: This project is very particular because I knew Julian. I’ve known him for many years. I love him as a painter, I admire him greatly as a filmmaker, he’s a friend. I’ve been in the studio with him, he’s done portraits of me. I’ve known him for a long time. I’ve done small roles in his films just a friend to be a part of what he was doing, and when he said he was going to make a film about Vincent van Gogh, that he was thinking about it, I started talking to him about it and he didn’t say immediately, “We’re gonna make this movie.” He wasn’t sure. He was working with Jean-Claude Carriere on a script and he wasn’t absolutely sure it was a film to make. He didn’t know what it was, but with time we decided that it was gonna happen and then I signed on, but it wasn’t traditional at all in the respect that I did it because it was Julian and it was a painter doing a film about a painter, a painter that I thought I knew a lot about but I really didn’t, a painter that I always admired but not with a real understanding. So truly, the initial attraction was Julian. And that’s not odd for me because I’m often attracted to strong directors. I like being their creature. I say it a lot but I think it really expresses how I feel. They’ve gotta watch and I’ve gotta do. I do for them and in the doing for them, I do it for me and I do it for the audience, and I like that relationship because it’s the right measure of serving and submission to an idea that’s bigger than you but at the same time, you have a serious stake in it, because you have a responsibility to protect someone’s vision and you have the opportunity to go towards someone’s vision and have them change your mind or inspire you or teach you something. Any time that can happen it’s great. It’s the thing that keeps you alive.

GD: There’s such an immediacy to the movie in the way that it’s shot and the way that it’s edited and in the way it’s performed, too. You really do feel this symbiosis, if you will, between you and Schnabel.

WD: And the cameraman and the lights. Yeah, it’s true. It was an interesting film in the respect that there was a strong script but it didn’t cover everything we shot, so, often, we’d go to a location, Julian would spend a lot of time redressing the set and getting comfortable and asking you questions and having you also make the space. He would nest and then we’d get there and very quickly, without much preparation, we’d shoot the scene, which usually went very fast, ‘cause he likes to shoot quick, “First thought, best thought.” Not a lot of coverage. Sometimes we’d be finished and we’d have done the dialogue, had done the scene, the written scene, and then we’d have time to go out and just find places and paint and improvise and just be with nature and that started to seep into the other parts and inform them and that started to created the structure, and on one hand you had these formal portraits and text, and then on the other hand, you had silence, nature, landscape, and a very loose way of shooting. Julian would have to answer this, not me, but I think we found that by accident, but when we found it felt like a very organic way to do it. I think his collaborator, Louise Kugelberg, very much steered him and encouraged him to get out in nature more. I’m a city guy but somewhere deeply I’m a nature boy. That’s easy for me. I love shooting outside. Nature leads the way. It tells you what to do. It’s the best place to shoot. So I was very happy, and then Julian really got onboard. I’m digressing but you get the idea. It’s not a traditional movie in we knew what we had to do and then we execute it. We had a lot of good elements. Some invented, some taken from the letters, we had the paintings, we had the activity of paintings, we had the real places, we had lots of things to deal with. We did some execution and we did some experimentation and then they started to dovetail into each other and they became the same thing.

GD: Some of the most riveting moments in the movie are when you are doing the painting. It’s so hard to show an artist at work sometimes.

WD: That’s why I had to learn how to paint! It’s not like a cute method thing. It’s not just the key, not a showoff thing of, if you’re a horse racer you get good at horses. It was the way to let me into his head because that rooted it. I understood some of the things he was talking about in a deeper way because I was experiencing some of those things. Not at the same level. Not comparing myself to van Gogh! But you understand. And then on top of that, you also had Julian’s input because van Gogh says, “I am my paintings.” Well, this movie is Julian. It’s also me, but primarily it is Julian, so I’m taking all that in and it’s working on me and I’m wanting, I’m willing myself to be molded by this experience and when you have something concrete, new, particularly when you’re learning and someone’s teaching you, no matter what kind of egotistical jerk you are, it creates a kind of humility and an openness that opens the door to new impulses. He gave me a beautiful opportunity, without getting too sloppy about it. Actors always thank their directors publicly for things, but it’s a big gift. He works from a place of deep love and when you think about his movies, “Basquiat,” African American artist, “Before Night Falls,” a Latino poet. What’s the other one?

GD: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

WD: Yeah. A guy that has a disability. He’s really talking about a particular person in relationship to society and that’s not just artists or outsiders. He’s really trying to reconcile a personal vision or personal experience with the society in a way that I really find really valuable.

GD: In relationship to their work as well. What makes those scenes where you’re painting so riveting is that you really do get the sense of how much of a life and death thing this was for him to create this art.

WD: Right. I had a lot of pressure (laughs). You don’t wanna make it inauthentic and you don’t want to be a fool. So I worked very hard to, not be a great painter, that’s not the point, but really get behind what he was saying and try to experience that thing of making marks, putting color next to each other, letting the thing happen, really seeing what I see, see the light, see the dark, paint the light. No such thing as a bad mark, don’t think about it, do it. If you make that, then that’ll show you another way to go. All these lessons. Very beautiful.

GD: There’s a scene where he’s reading Shakespeare and talking about how he likes Shakespeare.

WD: I like that scene!

GD: Yeah, and it’s great because when he says, I can’t quote the line verbatim, but, “The lines are mysteries to me and I like that.”

WD: He basically says, “I don’t understand all of it but that’s okay.” She asks if it’s well written, he says, “Oh yes, very much, but I don’t understand everything ‘cause Shakespeare is the most mysterious of all writers.”

GD: And it gives you kind of a window into why van Gogh was so under appreciated in his time, ‘cause you see people all the time not quite knowing how to react to his work ‘cause he was so ahead of his time.

WD: He took a big leap, I think. I mean, I’m no artist or art critic, but you see what was going on at the time and then you see this leap. It’s really something.

GD: You see that also in the scene with him and Mads Mikkelsen when he’s in the sanitarium and he calls the painting disturbing, which I thought was really interesting. It’s a painting of rabbits.

WD: That was quite clear. It was disturbing because it wasn’t a good likeness. He couldn’t get past the primitive quality of it and he was judging it totally on that as a mark of accomplishment, of a profession, and if you don’t recognize other ways and you hold a standard that’s only tied to a good likeness or a certain kind of technique, then yeah, it’s gonna be disappointing and you’re going to be disturbed by it because this guy says he’s an artist but from my criteria, this is not good at all. It puts people in crisis because they think, “Oh my god, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do,” because we’re so culturally oriented to have stuff function in a way that we totally understand, and art is mysterious that way. I like that very much because that painting doesn’t looking particularly good to me (laughs). It looks a little amateurish. But maybe that’s not limitation.

It goes back to, “Hell, that don’t look like no sunflower!” But it’s better than a sunflower. That’s not why the movie exists. I really was struck when someone said, “Painting is just a device just to say how things are.” And all this talk about painting, yes, it’s about painting, but painting is a vehicle for us to understand the nature of things, and I think he with his spiritual longing and his relationship to nature and his alienation and his ability to get beyond a dualistic thinking, he was a revolutionary and you get a taste of that in this and you start to have a shift and you start to think differently. He talks about waking people up. The doctor says at one point, “Do you think people aren’t feeling alive?” Well, we know they don’t feel alive and he has this not egotistical, it seems a really genuine and sincere desire to share with this people because he thinks it’ll give them comfort, because I think it gives him comfort, or at least the act of doing it gives him comfort because he feels at union with nature and a higher power when he’s not thinking, when he’s painting, when he’s feeling useful and all those themes are floating around. They’re gonna be evocative for some people more or less. That doesn’t matter. I think Julian knows this material and he was open and played with it and had good things to work with and for me, it was a real pleasure. Some people say, “Oh, it was hard.” Nothing was hard, it was fun! It was mysterious. It was scary, and I won’t even say whether I think it’s good or bad, but it was a wonderful experience and I think the movie is strong and personal and can mean a great deal to people, particularly if they can get past some of the conventions of not a traditional movie.

GD: Right, the thing that struck me watching it was that in its filmmaking style it’s really reflective of all that stuff we were talking about. We’re used to movies like that and movies in general being made in a certain way and shot in a certain way and put together in a certain way. The movie in the way that it’s constructed, it’s almost jarring at first. It puts you off kilter but the more you open yourself up to it and let yourself in, the more it becomes this beautiful, reflexive work of art.

WD: I think the key is that opening monologue where he says, “I just wanna be one of them. I wanna have a drink with them and paint and give them a painting.” Such a modest but such a sincere desire, and who knows. We’re not saying that’s Vincent van Gogh but that’s our van Gogh. I like it.

GD:  Well it’s an extraordinarily beautiful movie and another great performance by you. Thank you so much for your time.

WD: Thanks.

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