For Willem Dafoe, star of Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, performing is akin to painting. Studying the latter craft under the painter-director, for his portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, Dafoe recognized that each art form is “an accumulation of marks,” coalescing over time to produce a remarkable effect. “They start to sing to each other, to vibrate. They start to create a rhythm. They start to create a life,” the actor says. “Something starts to happen—play of colors, play of shapes—but it starts out with marks. With an accumulation, they start to move, and something is born.”
With regard to cinema, the three-time Oscar nominee observes a dissonance. As alive as films are—as eternal as they feel—the process of making them sometimes feels akin to death. “After a while, this stuff takes off,” he says. “It’s almost like you aren’t there anymore.” For Dafoe, the notion of disappearing is something to embrace wholeheartedly. While films are preserved in archives, in memories and conversation, he approaches performance like Tibetan monks would a mandala, building his castles in the sand and letting them wash away.
“I always aspire to be an actor that comes off as a non-actor,” he notes. “I’ve always loved movies from other cultures, where you can’t tell whether the people are actors or not.” (At the time of our conversation, Dafoe hasn’t yet seen Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which is led by non-actors, though “that’s probably the movie I want to see more than anything else.”) To act without ostentation or artifice, the key for Dafoe is looking for “engagement in an action,” throwing himself into the worlds of his characters such that, like Van Gogh, he can forget to think. In the case of At Eternity’s Gate, this meant spending time with a master of the canvas, learning not only how to paint, but more importantly, how to see.
How did you and Julian Schnabel first meet? What did you see in him early on that pointed toward an exciting future collaboration on At Eternity’s Gate?
I met Julian probably about 30 years ago. Maybe through Oliver Stone, I’m not sure. At some point, I went over to his studio. I was around him when he was painting; I liked how he approached things. Then I was involved in minor ways in a couple of his movies. I did a cameo in Basquiatas a friend; I did a little part in Miral. I liked how being on his set is very hands-on. He shoots a movie like he paints. He was someone that I liked being around, and I like how he makes things, so when this filmmaker was proposing to do a movie about a painter, and I knew that he was going to teach me how to paint because it was necessary to do in the movie, that was pretty exciting.
Was the art world a subject of interest to you, prior to working with him?
Yeah. I moved to New York in my early 20s, in the mid ’70s, and there was a lot going on then. I was involved in a theater group there for many years, but there was lots of cross-fertilization. Painters were making music, musicians were making dance pieces, dancers were making films. It was all mixed up. I felt very comfortable, and I knew a lot of artists. I would be in studios, I would be around galleries, and I always found them quite inspirational, maybe even more so than theater or film.
Could you break down the primary components of your prep for Schnabel’s latest, and the resources you turned to in the process? I know you read Van Gogh: The Life, a portrait of the artist written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.
The main thing was painting, but that book was very important. The combination of painting and his letters, and then later the script, is what excited me, and was how I started. But it was a whole process. I can’t overestimate how important Julian’s teaching me to paint was.
You’ve said he taught you to paint, but also to see. Was that about coming to observe details most people take for granted?
No, in fact it wasn’t that. In a funny way, it was about looking beyond the details, and coming into the moment. Van Gogh talked a lot about painting what you see; Julian talked a lot about painting the light. It’s not about function; it’s not about representation. It’s about finding what comes off of something, where something exists in the overall scheme of things. That’s what it was about for me. It was about looking at those flowers there, and rather than rushing to say, “Okay, I can draw that flower to make this look like that,” it was more about seeing the play of light, seeing the shape, seeing the colors pop and vibrate. Van Gogh didn’t really care at all about colors being true. He cared about them bringing him to some relationship to what is eternal, driven—as evidenced by his letters, and in my imagination—by this incredible spiritual impulse. He was trying to figure his place, see his place, see our place. Beauty is nature, and nature is God. I mean, it’s a pretty simple equation. He went out into nature. He said, “I don’t invent the picture. I find it in nature, and I just have to free it.” His way to free it was to see what was there, and create a piece of art to explain the piece of art—which is kind of what Julian was doing.
The film examines in some detail Van Gogh’s ideas about art, and the conditions in which it’s created. Did you find that these notions aligned with your own?
I don’t know how they align. I just came to be turned on by many of the things he said, and what I imagined his point of view was. The movie is not about explaining him away, or telling people who he is, because we don’t know that. What we do know is, we look at his paintings, we paint, we go to the places he was, we read his letters, and we write—sometimes historically based things, and sometimes invented things. We inhabit those things, and hopefully come up with our imagination of what he was thinking, and what his life was like. It’s our Van Gogh, and hopefully it will be everybody’s Van Gogh. But it’s not the historical Van Gogh, in a similar way that when I’m playing Jesus in The Last Temptation, the last thing I thought was, “I’m interpreting Jesus.”
How did you learn to paint, on a technical level?
It was kind of what you’d think. It was about setting up, getting to know your materials, finding the right place, looking at something, finding out how to hold a brush, how to mix your paints, what kind of pressure, and what kind of attack you have. It’s about making marks, each one a thing in itself, that start to express something that’s not bound by representation, but really gets to the wonder, and gets into the swirl of the rise and fall of things. This is your key. This f*cking brush is your key. You’re putting your finger in the wall socket, you know? [Laughs]
What was your experience of your scene partners on this project? You share some remarkable moments with Oscar Isaac and Mads Mikkelsen, among others.
All my scene partners in this movie were great, and generous. I’m there every day, so it’s my world, and they’re coming into my world. It’s an act of generosity, coming in for a short time on a movie like this, to find the rhythm to enter the world. So much of what is said in those scenes is without guile. People are being quite sincere with each other. In many movies, the drama comes out of this beautiful subtext that you feel in the conflicts of things, but people are really being straight with each other. For those actors to keep that alive—keep that discourse alive, that is actually quite formal—was great, was something of a miracle. Because they weren’t selling anything. They were melting into the world, and serving the words and the ideas. In the scene with Mads, he represents the world, really. Like so many movies of Julian’s, it’s really a very subjective, first-person view of one person against the world.
You shot with Schnabel in a number of locations that were graced by Van Gogh’s presence at one time. What did that mean for you?
It was enormous. It gives you an experience that gives you a strong personal relation, but you’re also deeply affected by seeing what he saw. I mean, he’s there. My experience of close relatives that I love that died, sometimes when they’re gone, they’re more present than they were when they were with me. [Laughs] Without getting too mystical or strange about it, it plays on your imagination. You’re going, you’re making the pilgrimage; you’re there in these places in an effort to inhabit them, or meet them, or understand them, or approach in your imagination what their experience was, and that effort does get rewarded by some sort of communion, or some sort of feeling. Then, it’s really heavy when you’re in a landscape, and you recognize the landscape from a famous Van Gogh painting—and then, on top of it, you’re painting it. Out of that kind of ritual, that kind of imitation, that kind of proximity, all that makes you a little closer, and gives you more the authority to pretend, or the authority to inhabit that character. Because you’re making an effort. It’s an offering.
I’ve been told that the process of making this film was very freeing, and unusual in a number of ways. Is there any kind of creative experience that would faze you? Or do you simply go with what’s in front of you?
I try to embrace the experience, and I always protect myself by attaching myself to someone that excites me, or someone I believe in. I think if you dedicate yourself to someone else’s vision, the process of making the movie or inhabiting the character is going toward that vision, and understanding that vision. You don’t have ownership of it, but you’re going towards it, and you’re transformed by that journey towards it. And with that shift of understanding, or that new learning, you’re able to apply it to this new person that’s created for the circumstance. It’s a new me. If you can trigger that, without hanging on to the old you, then it’s fantastic. That’s creative freedom, because you’re creating a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking, a new way of being. Then if you’re framed, and you’re dealing with collaborators who direct that experience, it can become quite powerful.
It seems like a film like At Eternity’s Gate, which is so organically constructed, could only be wrangled by a master.
That’s why I’m like a heat-seeking missile for directors. I believe in a director-driven cinema. Even though I work at incredible levels of collaboration with Lars [von Trier], or Wes [Anderson], or Abel Ferrara, still, I need someone outside that’s framing the experience.
I understand that occasionally on this film, you were asked to operate the camera yourself, while inhabiting Van Gogh.
Sometimes. I don’t want to overstress that.
Had you ever done something like that before?
I had, but not to this extent. This was about a very subjective camera, and sometimes I felt like Julian, who invited my collaboration on a level that I loved, wanted my input on it, as I was the character. There were times where he wanted me to make those kinds of framing decisions, and be the one who shot the thing. Benoît [Delhomme, cinematographer] built a rig that had two handles on it, so it was quite point-and-shoot. They basically took this idiot, novice cameraman, and let him be the eyes of the character.
When had you operated camera before?
On big projects sometimes, there would be an extra camera. I remember Oliver Stone letting me shoot some stuff once.
You never felt the inclination to try directing a film yourself?
No, because I’m too involved in performing. I like it too much, and I need that body experience. Basically, I like ritual, I like practice, I like being in motion. I’m not a watcher; I’m a doer.
So, what was this exercise of operating camera as Van Gogh like for you?
Benoît and I were dancing partners. We simply switched parts, that’s all. The nice thing about working on this movie is there weren’t rigid industry spheres of responsibility. Julian was fixing my hair, you know? He was adjusting the paintings; I was shooting. I don’t want you to misunderstand. It’s not like a hippie commune, where we’re just going out to play with a camera. It was structured. Julian was a very strong, central figure, and he had very clear ideas about what to do. But within the structure given, there was lots of freedom, and there was a hands-on approach where you rolled up your sleeves. That particularly was useful because we were out in nature, where you can’t run around with trailers and all that stuff. So, you’re footloose. You’re going into nature; you go out on safari, and see what’s out there.
The movie heavily contemplates questions of eternity, and legacy. How do you approach those ideas, in contemplating your own career?
I don’t. I just like to keep the opportunities coming, work with good people, and try to develop a sense of equanimity. Be engaged. I can’t control everything, and I don’t want to control everything. I just want to stay alive, stay awake. That’s another thing that is discussed in this movie: People are asleep. I don’t want to be asleep. Life is too precious to be asleep. Being a performer is not just adventure; it’s about not getting stuck. It’s not about a list of preferences, and rigid thinking that gets you, your whole life, dedicated to protecting your point of view. I’m interested in being more fluid than that, and being able to receive anything.
What is the gist, when it comes to your work right now? What is it that is keeping you alive and awake?
Just being light on my feet.