Willem Dafoe on Becoming Van Gogh

Willem Dafoe explains how he walks in Vincent van Gogh's shoes in At Eternity's Gate... as well as why he enjoyed making Aquaman.

Willem Dafoe, one of the most recognizable and celebrated character actors in modern cinema, has played real-life historic figures before, but perhaps none with as much legend and mythology around him as Vincent van Gogh. For in the new Julian Schnabel film, At Eternity’s Gate, Dafoe gives a very humane and impressionistic look at the painter alleged for more than a century after his death to have committed suicide following decades of struggle and isolation on the edge of society. But like everything else in the movie, Dafoe’s performance challenges what you think you know about the man.

It’s a remarkably minimalist turn in the career of an actor known for his eclectic mixing of genres, and auteurs with tentpoles. Fresh off his Oscar nomination for last year’s The Florida Project, the veteran performer is standing tall on a career that includes indelible performances like the doomed Vietnam sergeant in Platoon, the eponymous Undead creature in Shadow of the Vampire, and even Jesus Christ in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. These performances mark impressive contrasts with some of his more (eventual) mainstream favorites, be it as the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man or the scene-stealing federal agent of Boondock Saints.

We caught up with Dafoe shortly after At Eternity’s Gate premiered as the closing night film at this year’s New York Film Festival, and we sat down with him to discuss the process of sinking into another man’s life and the experience of portraying Van Gogh, or the act of any’s artistic creation, on set. We also happened to discuss his little December release called Aquaman

Obviously, Vincent van Gogh is somebody who we have a personal feel for through his letters to and from his brother, but is any of that important to you when forming your version of him as a character?

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I don’t think about these things. I don’t think about Van Gogh when I’m playing Van Gogh, when I’m inhabiting Van Gogh because I don’t want to interpret him; I want to be him. I want to inhabit him. So I concentrate on the actions and of course I did do the research, and of course I take these things on but I try to find my relationship to him. That’s the way to do it.

Otherwise, you’re just interpreting and you’re just saying what you already know, and the beautiful thing about film is it can change your minds or open our eyes to something that we couldn’t imagine. I concentrate on the actions. I don’t think so much about the character. I concentrate on the painting. I concentrate on his sincerity. I concentrate on thinking about the things that he said in his language. I’m not trying to make a physiological portrait or make a decision about who he is.

But tell me about a physiological portrait you thought must have considered, because I would adhere to the idea that he was somebody who was bipolar before we kind of knew what a bipolar disorder was.

I don’t know, and I still don’t have an opinion about that. It’s clear that he had a great difficulty reconciling these moments of ecstasy that he experienced through his communion with nature and also through his work and the everyday dealing with everything from food to relationships with women, and to relationships with children to relationships in the village. It was difficult for him to deal with those two extremes.

As a viewer of the film though, we are meant to feel that we are witnessing things through Van Gogh’s eyes. Images are slightly distorted at times, or seen through odd angles. Did you personally discuss with Julian what was happening during a scene compared to what was going to be seen through the lens? Or how you wanted to express his painting in your performance?

I just tried to make myself available to the [landscapes] and have them work on me and then while I was doing that. I was painting, and when you’re painting and you’re learning to paint, it’s an adventure. It’s an adventure of discovery, and of going places that you don’t know. You don’t know where you’re going because it’s an experience of putting marks, you know, next to each other and having them sing, having them talk to each other. It’s an experience of looking at that tree and not necessarily seeing a tree but trying to receive what’s there.

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Van Gogh talked about, “I don’t invent the picture. It’s already there in nature; I just have to free it,” and I liked this idea very much. It applied to my experience in painting because we are so conditioned to see a tree and try to represent that tree. Good job, you know? That’s if it’s a copy of the tree, it’s for real but there’s something else that can be more deeply expressed by breaking it down and seeing it in a different way. It expresses that the relationship about that tree in its tree-ness.

It did feel like there were a lot of wide angle lenses being shoved right into your face. Did that affect your performance in any way, or how you thought you would appear within certain scenes?

No because you know, I feel like I was an extension of the camera and the camera was an extension of me. I felt very fluid with Benoît [Delhomme], who was the DP who also operated all the time. He’s little… I’m not so big myself but he’s a small guy and he’s tough and he’s flexible, and he was my dancing partner. I mean, really, it was quite fluid and we didn’t over rehearse things, and we didn’t do a lot of takes. There was something very fluid about the process so it’s like anything that’s fluid. You’re in movement so you’re not measuring things all the time. You’re fluidly going places and you take that with you so if he’s here—or whether he’s a million miles away—it’s the same to me.

What I love about great acting is being able to see the subtlety. So for insistence, when you’re sitting there, talking to Mads Mikkelsen, I’m just watching your face before you make this glorious expression come out. So in a case like that, with a camera so close to your face, it never has any affect?

No I think just about true behavior and trying to listen to him, and I’m trying to think how I feel. It’s a conversation. I don’t think about my face. I don’t think about expressing … Yes, you sometimes make choices but they’re guided by sense of comfort–and comfort is comfort. Interest, lack of interest, and when you feel things get canned, or produced, or pointed at, or demonstrated, or shown as opposed to done; that’s where the little thing goes off in your head and says, “Beep, beep, beep, beep. There’s something not legit about this.”

Go back, go back. Let’s do it again. Let’s get back to things as they really are. Don’t point, don’t lay it out there. Experience it and if you experience it in a way where you’re really present, and every ounce of your body is awake and engaged in that moment, then it will take care of itself. I mean, there are other things. People are framing it. There’s a whole process but what I can bring to the movie, besides helping create it and all that, is the quality of being there. The quality of being there doing these things and awake, conscious, flexible, in an open way. That’s my job.

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Would you say your job is easier when you do work with people you have worked with before? Because you have worked with certain filmmakers on a regular basis, so it’s the idea that you can just come on a set and “be you.”

It’s not being me. In fact, I don’t want to be me. I want to be in the mix, I want to be doing things. You have a trust with them. Once you have a relationship with a director and also you know what they’re interested in, and you know what they need, but it’s different every time. You don’t waste time trying to figure out what’s going on. You know, it’s like with friends: You can cut through a lot of shit very quickly.

What about afterward? Do you ever find yourself surprised by the reception of a film or a role after the public sees it?

All the time. We know very well that certain films, when they’re released, they’re considered fantastic and then years down the line, they don’t hold up. We also know films that have been failures, but much later are appreciated. So I think films are living things and how they’re received is colored so much by what else is out there, what else is in the news, what’s happening in the world, how people’s heads are, yeah. There are no guarantees but that’s what makes it fun. [Laughs]

I find it interesting, because one of my favorite films is Mississippi Burning, and there was controversy around that when it was released.

Yeah, but I think minor compared to its good reception.

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Of course, I love Alan Parker.

Yeah, he’s great. He’s great.

You’re also making a jump back into another superhero film this year with Aquaman. Can you share with us any of your experiences working on that film?

It’s one of many films coming out. I like James Wan and I haven’t seen the film yet, but I love that I got to do some wire work and some action stuff in it, and I always enjoy shooting on location. We shot in Australia. There were lots of pleasures in that underworld water of that world. How they created it was interesting.

At Eternity’s Gate opens in limited release on Nov. 16.