Willem Dafoe: A portrait of the artist as a young man

Vincent Van Gogh: Willem Dafoe as the painter in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate
From blockbusters to art house, Willem Dafoe throws himself into every part. But he makes sure to have fun doing it, and doesn’t mind playing a character half his age

“If I have one talent it’s that when I am doing something that’s all I am doing,” Willem Dafoe says. That sounds about right. Nobody could fault him for commitment. He threw himself at the title role in The Last Temptation of Christ. He annihilated the surrounding cast in Wild at Heart. His current, Oscar-nominated turn as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate swells with the actor’s characteristic intensity.

He also brings that focus to the art of conversation. When Dafoe gets stuck into a question he doesn’t let go. He’s an enormously warm and funny guy – yes, he was only pretending to be a maniac in Spider-Man – but he is rigorous in his chat. He even learned to paint for At Eternity’s Gate.

In the film I am painting a lot. It is informing and shaping the scene. I would feel like a fraud if I didn’t have some contact with the actual act of what I was doing

“That was essential. It’s a movie about a painter made by a painter,” he says. “Julian was a great teacher. It was practical. In the film I am painting a lot. It is informing and shaping the scene. I would feel like a fraud if I didn’t have some contact with the actual act of what I was doing. It illuminated the things that really interested me about Van Gogh.”

He goes on to downplay his painting abilities, to note that “learning something concrete” is vital and to stress the importance of getting beyond “the critical mind”. He smiles. He laughs. That unmistakably brittle voice crackles.

“All that addresses your emotional and intuitive sense. Van Gogh said that when he wasn’t painting he wasn’t thinking any more. I understand that. I understand that through performing. I understand it better through learning to paint.”

Willem Dafoe: “Van Gogh said that when he wasn’t painting he wasn’t thinking any more. I understand that through performing.” Photograph: Joyce Kim/New York Times
Willem Dafoe. Photograph: Joyce Kim/New York Times

I’ve got a madcap theory. Stay with me.

Willem Dafoe was raised in Appleton, Wisconsin – a town of some 75,000 citizens – by two hard-working parents. Mum was a nurse. Dad was a distinguished transplant surgeon. The amateur psychologist would surely note that he was the seventh of eight children. I’m betting that the taste for performance sprang from a desire to stand out in that busy family.

“It’s not wrong at all. I’d tell it to you if you didn’t tell it to me,” he enthuses. “I liked being in a big family. Both my parents worked. I did not have a hard upbringing. My parents were very loving. When I talk about looking for attention, I don’t mean a need to be validated or whatever. But . . . Ha, ha, ha! It was a roomful of people and if you liked the feeling of being in something rather than watching something you started to act out. I am happiest when I disappear into the doing of something.”

There’s that inclination towards focus again. Dafoe could not be mistaken for Roger Moore – strolling in from the cabin cruiser for a bit of light acting. He really means it. But there is no hint of pretension or arrogance in his conversation. Dafoe is also at home to fun.

I was not the kind of kid who grew up with a picture of Brando above my bed. That’s not who I was

He studied drama at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, before heading for the underground theatre scene in downtown Manhattan. (A few years ago he told me that he drank in the Meatpacking District when they still packed meat.) Dafoe was among the early members of the Wooster Group, an experimental troupe that sprang up in SoHo during the later punk years. For all his mainstream success, he’s never shaken off that avant garde sensibility. I wonder if the young Willem, deconstructing classical texts and improvising new ones, would be surprised to learn he’d eventually have a career in blockbusters such as Aquaman (in which he rides a dolphin) and Speed 2: Cruise Control (the lunatic villain)?

“I think so,” he says. “When I started I thought being an actor meant being a theatre actor and, not just that, but also being an unconventional theatre actor. Working with people whose identities were more as artists, as makers of things rather than theatre people. That’s where my ambitions lay. That’s where my desires formed. I was not the kind of kid who grew up with a picture of Brando above my bed. That’s not who I was.”

His small role in Heaven’s Gate was one of the few to be cut out of that enormous film. He appeared in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless, a fascinating, art-house biker flick influenced by Kenneth Anger, and then secured a marquee breakthrough as the idealistic Sgt Elias in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. That was 1986. Dafoe had just passed 30. He has remained a busy player in American cinema ever since. He doesn’t have the face for romantic leads (I doubt if he’d want them, anyway), but his singular, heavy-browed charisma has energised endless character roles.

“When I began to make movies, I was unsure that the two worlds could talk to one another,” he says. “People in the movies had no awareness of the Wooster Group. And people who saw me in the Wooster Group didn’t really see me in the movies.”

But he seems to have found a balance between those two universes. Nobody would accuse Dafoe of selling out.

Platoon: Willem Dafoe in Oliver Stone’s 1986 film
Platoon: Willem Dafoe in Oliver Stone’s 1986 film

“I don’t have a good answer because I don’t really recall what my ambitions were,” he says. “When you start you just want work. When you get work you want better work. When you get better work you then want more engaging work. That’s the nature of human desire. You get hungrier and hungrier. How those desires got satisfied is the story of my career.”

He goes on to explain at length that there is no explicit strategy at work. We note that Aquaman has just conquered the world and that At Eternity’s Gate has played to more select audiences. As we speak he is just finishing the second of two upcoming films with his old chum Abel Ferrara, the irrepressible director of Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral. But he’s not doing “one for them and one for myself”.

If you go to the same world too much, you may get a level of refinement but you’re not going to surprise yourself. That’s all. I look for chances to surprise myself

“I think if you go to the same world too much you may get a level of refinement,” he says. “But you’re not going to surprise yourself. That’s all. I look for chances to surprise myself. But I am not that much in control.”

At Eternity’s Gate nonetheless feels like a personal project for director and star. Shot in delicious rural shades by Benoît Delhomme, the film focuses most closely on Van Gogh’s final days in the Arles area of southern France. Rupert Friend is touching as the painter’s brother Theo. Oscar Isaac is persuasive as Paul Gauguin. But Dafoe dominates the film. He is in virtually every scene. His furrowed face contorts at moments of despair and loosens joyously when the creative urge strikes.

“We were able to dismantle the cliche of the tortured artist,” Dafoe says. “Yes, he is very challenged. He has trouble reconciling his vision with daily life. But there is joy. There is optimism. When he is in work there is a state that all of us would be lucky to have. It’s not just the value of what he was giving us. The act of painting gave him great joy.”

At Eternity’s Gate: Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh
At Eternity’s Gate: Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh

It’s impossible to avoid some comparison with Dafoe the actor. His own passion for work, his own total absorption in the material.

“When he was depressed he knew the value of those states. He didn’t push them away,” he says. “He went into them. He accepted that just as, in nature, you have to accept the sh**ty weather with the good weather. He had an understanding of that.”

The Oscars is David and Goliath. Being a romantic, I embrace the David and reckon we always have a chance. But you know how it turned out

The role brought Dafoe his third Academy Award nomination and his first in the best-actor category. He was previously up in the supporting category for Shadow of the Vampire and, just last year, for his lovely role as a caring motel manager in The Florida Project. He seems content with his lot. He’s been married to the actor Giada Colagrande since 2005. The work is still coming in and the work is still good. He laughs merrily at the suggestion that he should be disappointed to lose the Oscar on his third crack.

“Listen. I was very happy,” he says. “I was aware of the huge advertising budgets the other films had and that we had zero. It’s David and Goliath. Being a romantic, I embrace the David and reckon we always have a chance. But you know how it turned out.”

We’re getting on so well I think I can risk asking an indelicate question. He is now 63. Van Gogh died in his 30s. Did he have any reservations playing a character young enough to be his son?

“No, I didn’t,” he says. “When I started doing research I realised he died at 37, but we knew he had a lot of physical problems. Also I found that the median mortality then was close to 40. Today’s 70 was maybe that era’s 40. I only think about that in retrospect when people like you ask it. But it’s a perfectly fair question.”

He shouldn’t get me wrong. He looks little older than Kirk Douglas did playing the part in Lust for Life. The age gap never struck me until somebody pointed it out.

“Who was it? Who pointed it out? I want that guy’s number! Ha ha ha!”

At Eternity’s Gate opens on Friday, March 29th

VAN GOGH ON FILM

Lust for Life: Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 film. Photograph: Silver Screen/Getty
Lust for Life: Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 film. Photograph: Silver Screen/Getty

LUST FOR LIFE (1956)
Kirk Douglas’s portrayal for Vincent Minnelli remains the best known. Based on a hugely successful pot-boiler by Irving Stone, the role gave Douglas opportunity to exercise every acting muscle.

DREAMS (1990)
Akira Kurosawa’s fitful anthology features a famously eccentric episode starring Martin Scorsese as Van Gogh. Technically dazzling recreations of the artist’s work and world.

VINCENT AND THEO (1991)
The centenary of Van Gogh’s death in 1990 triggered much interest. Robert Altman’s solid film stars Tim Roth as Vincent and Paul Rhys as his caring supportive brother.

VAN GOGH (1991)
A little overlooked now, Maurice Pialat’s biopic was a sensation on its release in France. Jacques Dutronc won a best actor César for his title performance.

LOVING VINCENT (2017)
Undeniably a technical marvel, the first ever hand-painted animated feature asked questions about the nature of Van Gogh’s death. Beautiful, busy, but to what end?