Willem Dafoe’s New Way of Seeing Everything that Happens in Our Lives

by Silvia Bizio July 28, 2020
Willem Dafoe


American actor Willem Dafoe received the Wind of Europe Award at the Ventotene Film Festival on July 25, 2020. Ventotene is a small Mediterranean island known for its ancient Roman harbor. Dafoe, 65, considers himself partly Italian, having been married since 2005 to Giada Colagrande, an Italian film director. Dafoe's love story with Italy itself goes back many years: he has been a steady presence at the Venice Film Festival through the decades, and he won the Coppa Volpi for Best Actor there in 2018 for his portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate (for which he received his fourth Oscar nomination – the first one was for Platoon in 1986 – and his third Golden Globe nod). Recently seen in The Lighthouse, Dafoe is a hard-working actor, able to alternate big and small productions and to adjust effortlessly to both mainstream fare and the most experimental auteur cinema. He is an artist in many senses, as his love for painting – of which he talks in this interview – attests.

We talked to Dafoe via Zoom from his home in Rome, where he spent the lockdown period, to talk about Ventotene, where At Eternity's Gate was screened under the stars, and about his future projects.

Willem, why is At Eternity's Gate so important for you?

This film was very satisfying to do. I liked working with Julian Schnabel – he’s a great filmmaker. I enjoyed the role, playing Van Gogh at the time he lived in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, in France. I don’t think the film is a traditional biopic, and one of the beautiful things about it is that we see what goes through Van Gogh’s mind. I also learned how to paint.

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in “At Eternity's Gate” (2018)

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity's Gate (2018)


What does painting mean for you?

For one thing, after learning how to paint thanks to  Julian [Schnabel]’s teaching me, and having to paint in the film quite literally, I don’t look at a tree the same way anymore: I don’t directly see the tree, I see it as a display of colors and shapes, and that opens up a whole new way of seeing the origins of things and the rise and fall of everything in nature, and everything that happens in our lives. So that has had a profound philosophical effect on me. When you receive that kind of stimuli, everything changes.

How do you see cinema changing in this trying COVID time, and how do you see the future for the film industry?

It’s a big question! Well, I love that traditional experience of seeing a movie with a bunch of strangers, all of us going into a dark room, sitting together, watching pictures on a screen, and if the movie is beautiful, you have an experience that is like nothing else, because you all respond to it together in a collective way. When you see a movie at home, or you see it on a smaller device, you don’t have to submit to what’s in front of you because you can control it too much. I don’t like to be sentimental about the older experience, but I think we miss something then, because it doesn’t allow us to enter the experience in a proper way – it just indulges our arrogance and our lack of ability to pay attention to something for very long.

Can you tell us about your new projects?

I have two things coming up: I am going to work with Robert Eggers, who made The Lighthouse, who is a great filmmaker. The film is called The Northman, and it looks like I’ll be going to shoot with him in Northern Ireland in August. And then after that I’ll join Guillermo del Toro in Toronto for a film called Nightmare Alley, which is a re-imagining of the classic film with Tyrone Power. I am also looking at some other things, so hopefully I will get back into the swing because I love to work, I love making movies. 

There are also several films that you were on that were finished pre-COVID, that hopefully will be out soon. What else will the audience see from you this year?

I have, basically, a cameo in Wes Anderson’s film French Dispatch, which I haven’t seen yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing it. I love working with Wes and I’m happy to be a part of it, but the truth is I’m not a central character in that film.  And then I also did a role for Paul Schrader’s next movie, The Card Counter, with Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish.

Talking of Ventotene, you were already acquainted with these beautiful small islands near Rome, right?

I was in nearby Ponza, south of Ventotene, for some days of shooting Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. I’ve shot many films in Italy, including part of The English Patient. But The Life Aquatic was a particularly important movie to me because it was during that trip that I met my wife, and that made me stay in Italy. It was the beginning of a very good period in my life.