The 63-year-old actor talks about playing Vincent Van Gogh in Oscar-tipped biopic At Eternity’s Gate and how he’s juggled art and commerce in his career
19 November 2018 | Amy Nicholson | The Guardian
You can’t confuse Willem Dafoe with another actor. That red hair, those fierce eyes, the gaunt cheekbones that make him look hungry for the next intense role – whether it’s Jesus, the Green Goblin, or a motel manager in The Florida Project, the part that just scored him his third Oscar nomination. Even in a fine art museum, his face is still unique.
“I think maybe there’s some figures in a Bruegel painting or something that I thought, ‘Oh, that’s an ancestor of mine,’” Dafoe says. But in his new biopic, At Eternity’s Gate – the film that might get Dafoe his fourth Oscar nomination – artist turned director Julian Schnabel sticks a paintbrush in Dafoe’s hand and plasters a bandage over his ear and suddenly, he’s the spitting image of Vincent Van Gogh.
“It never really occurred to me,” says Dafoe of the resemblance. Yet the connection is more than skin-deep. Van Gogh and Dafoe share a restless creativity. Van Gogh moved constantly, searching for inspiration in 20 cities before dying of a gunshot wound in Auvers-sur-Oise at 37.
“I’d like to find a new light,” he insists in the film. And Dafoe refuses to sit still.
“Flexibility is important for an actor,” he explains. “Otherwise corruption sets in. You get stuck in certain patterns, and a certain kind of performing language that keeps you from a kind of sense of discovery or danger or mystery.”
He has four films hitting theaters between this week and Christmas, and three more already in post-production for next year. “I’ve been apart from the world, working away on these little interior worlds,” says Dafoe. “Basically, I’m like a cloistered nun.”
Still, the director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Basquiat wasn’t going to shellac Van Gosh in some staid biography of suffering for one’s art. At Eternity’s Gate’s Van Gogh is wily and unpredictable, as is the camerawork bringing him to life.
Instead of airless still lifes, Schnabel shoves the audience inside the painter’s point of view, tramping across fields, staring down at his shoes, squinting at trees and faces that loom towards him so garish and distorted that his attempts to capture them in oils make sense. Schnabel shoots Dafoe from manic angles, somersaulting around him until the audience isn’t sure if the artist has both feet planted in sanity.
Van Gogh isn’t sure, either. When interrogated by a local priest, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who wants to know why he gave his severed ear to a prostitute, Van Gogh has a calm defense: it was meant for Paul Gauguin, played by Oscar Isaac. But when the priest questions his art – “God gave you a gift so you could paint this?” he sneers – a wounded Van Gogh counters: “Why would God give me a gift to paint ugly and disturbing things?”