Willem Dafoe portrays Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate by Globe-winning director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2008). The tormented Dutch painter has most famously been played on screen by Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life (1956), directed by Vincente Minnelli, and by Tim Roth in Vincent and Theo (1990), directed by Robert Altman. Schnabel, who co-wrote the script with French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, and photographed it in the artsy style of French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, wanted to show the inner life of an artist obsessed by his creative drive. Dafoe had to learn to paint in the style of van Gogh, with his intense yellow and blue colors and separate brushstrokes.
He told HFPA journalists: “For Julian to teach me how to paint was the key to approaching this role, and it was a beautiful life experience because it really changed how I see. It isn't just a painting technique, it deeply changes how you think.” The film is set in the last few years of van Gogh’s life, when he lived in Arles, in Provence, where his fellow painter Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac) visited him for a couple of months in 1888, then left after van Gogh in a fit of madness cut off his own ear with a razor. His younger brother Theo (Rupert Friend), an art dealer, offered emotional and financial support. Much of what we know about the painter’s life is based on the letters Vincent wrote to Theo. The film dispels the notion that van Gogh shot himself at age 37 in 1890.
Despite the film’s depiction of the painter’s tragic life – he died poor, without seeing his work recognized – Dafoe says, “I don't agree that it's a depressing movie. I found it kind of joyous because you're dealing with a time where he is really engaged and he's doing what he loves to do, he's making a painting almost every day and he was profoundly inspired. So that's a rich life, even though he wasn't selling paintings and died penniless.”
Dafoe found a connection between painting and his artistic work as an actor. “Stories are really devices, structures, to figure out who we are and how to proceed, to console us and give us a perspective. Acting is an expression of empathy, it can make you a more whole person and connect you to other people, so it's a beautiful profession if you can do it.” The thrice Golden Globe-nominated actor started acting in experimental theater, joining the Wooster Group in New York at age 21. He played a variety of film roles, memorably portrayed Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) by Martin Scorsese. But doesn’t follow one religion, “I do a spiritual practice and I have always been interested in religion; not so much organized religion, but this impulse to want to believe in something.”
Dafoe was a villain, Norman Osborne/Green Goblin, in the Marvel Comics Spider-man trilogy (2002-2007) by Sam Raimi, and a hero, Nuidis Vulko, in DC Comic’s Aquaman (2018). Counselor to the king of Atlantis, he remains faithful to Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), secretly training her son Aquaman (Jason Momoa) on how to fight and regain his rightful throne.
Dafoe, who was nominated for Globes for Shadow of the Vampire in 2001 and The Florida Project last year in addition to this year’s nomination, enjoys his choices as an actor. “I identify with work so much that, when it’s stimulating, and you feel like there are opportunities, I am happy.