Many fine movies have been done about the life of artist Vincent van Gogh, but none quite like At Eternity’s Gate. With Julian Schnabel directing and Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh, we get a fascinating portrayal of the last years of the artist’s life. “I can’t do anything else,” van Gogh tells a priest in one scene. Painting is all he knows. His brother Theo (Rupert Friend) loves him unconditionally even though Van Gogh is not the easiest person, but Schnabel and Dafoe take us inside the creative genius’ mind, his thoughts and what drives him, immersing us through a vibrant and artistic lens.
Dafoe has earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of the tortured artist and we caught up to talk about painting.
What was your relationship with Van Gogh prior to doing this and what did his work mean to you?
It’s hard to say, I know his work well. I spent a lot of time in Holland when I was a young man and the Van Gogh museum was probably one of the first museums I visited when I was 18, outside of the USA.
There wasn’t really a special relationship. I knew him as the poster child for the tortured artist. You think you know a lot about him, but you don’t until you start to learn about him.
I loved that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill biopic. Every scene was how he was inspired or things that drove him. What did Julian say to you about it being a painter himself and how did you attack it?
What was so essential was to learn to paint. I had a great teacher in Julian. I also had a French teacher who helped me with some of the drawings but learning the painting coupled with being in the places where he painted and reading the letters were the three things that helped me with the preparation.
I had to learn how to paint practically because I paint so much in the film in real time. I learned it technically, but what was most important was that Julian taught me to see in a different way. He taught me how to make marks. He taught me to paint what I see, not what I thought I see. He said to paint the light, paint the dark. It was a new way of getting beyond representing something and really going to what the essential elements are. That coupled with the wisdom, sincerity, and intensity of his letters was quite a strong move to deal with.
You painted in To Live and Die in LA, but that was completely different.
He was more of a counterfeiter and murderer.
Did that help you as far as the painting or was that just a completely different experience?
It was completely different. I learned things about mixing paint and the canvas, but Van Gogh was totally different.
You talked about being on location. What was it to be walking in his footsteps? To be 300 feet from where he was buried?
It was just fantastic. You see landscapes that are still preserved and those are the landscapes he painted so you are walking in his footsteps. You are dealing with the same light and the same topography. You are doing what he was doing and that gets you closer. It creates a personal relationship. It gives you a different stake. Just being there is a ritual to inhabiting him.
You’re painting in real time. It’s about brush strokes and painting something so iconic as Shoes.
In the scenes, the most notable being the Shoes which I painted in real time, that was very practiced. Julian advised me about strategies, you had a sense where the shoes would be on the canvas, the colors you’d use and you’d have an approach. So, I’d practice it. I painted them many times before I did it in the actual scene. He’s also coaching me as we’re doing it.
I don’t want to be an actor bragging about his preparation, but what it does do is you really saw how the painting developed. Initially, it doesn’t look so good, but slowly it takes shape. In my mind, it’s not a good likeness, but it certainly captures the spirit of those shoes and that becomes a real key to the audience to get in that kind of frame of mind so you’re not judging him from a point of expertise or function or craft. You’re seeing that he is painting something. He’s painting the invisible parts. He’s painting the wonder. He’s painting what’s coming off of that object. He’s capturing the presence of those things and when you start getting inside his head, I think you have a different take on it and you have a shift of understanding and a shift of seeing because the camera is so subjective. You’re with him so you start to imagine how he thought and you start to imagine his daily life. So, for me, that’s a far more satisfying approach than doing the biopics that explain why he is and why who he was.
How did reading his letters change your impression of him?
He’s very sincere and it’s very inspiring. His intensity. His devotion is very apparent in the letters. The letters really create a portrait of the artist. That coupled with you seeing him in his daily life and painting really informs and gives you an understanding of the beautiful things he wrote. Some of those things are weaved into the text of the scenes.
Oscar Isaacs plays Gauguin, it’s an interesting moment in those two scenes. Talk about that dynamic there.
That’s partly to explore their two different views, it brings another point of view into the mix. Socially, his need to have a community. You see how he struggles to reconcile the joy that he finds in the work and how that folds into his personal life. Gaugin is about as close to a friend he has outside of the people in Arles. I think it gives you a different way of seeing him and gives you a feeling of the approach of the time. I think it really speaks to his social difficulties.
In contrast, Mads is the priest and you have those scenes.
He was a great partner. That script is so beautiful there. We see his spiritual impulse and his identification with Jesus Christ.
Your body of work runs the gamut characters whether it’s comic book villain to The Florida Project, going back to Grand Budapest Hotel and then Last Temptation of Christ. What do you look for in your roles?
Curiosity. Something that has my interest but I don’t know what it is. So much of the doing is finding something out. Also, I have to say, I choose projects based on the company I keep. I look at directors. The greatest script in the world is just a guidance, if you don’t have a guide or the people to realize it, it’s no good. As far as character, you don’t really know a character until you do it. Generally, I read the script and see if they resonate with me? Am I going to learn something? Will it change me in an interesting way?