Willem Dafoe has a very apt comp for his relationship to awards show season: “I think of those guys in Cleveland when they have their insurance conventions,” he says. The veteran actor is known for everything from his work with The Wooster Group to his turn as a comic-book villain in Spider-Man opposite Tobey Maguire. He’s also played Jesus Christ, T.S. Eliot, and now Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, Julian Schnabel’s film about the artist which explores his work and mental illness. Dafoe’s performance has earned him widespread acclaim, from the Volpi Cup in Cannes to a Golden Globes nod—all this following an equally buzzy turn in The Florida Project. For W‘s annual Best Performances issue, he chats about finding the physicality in Van Gogh’s painting, living in Italy, and why he loves being a member of directors’ families.
Julian said you’ve known each other forever, but how did the project come to you?
The project of the Van Gogh movie came to me very slowly. Julian initially wasn’t sure whether he wanted to do it but he was sure enough that he wanted to start developing a script with Jean-Claude Carrière. He started talking to me about it, and I started doing some research for him. Then one day he invited me over to his house. He put a silly fake beard on me, we shot some pictures, and by the end of that little photo shoot, he said, “I think I want you to do this.”
And did you want to do it all along?
Yes. All along.
You’ve played a few artists. What’s great about the way you play an artist is that it becomes almost physical.
The way I play anything, I always work from the physical as an actor. The one thing that’s consistent is I start by doing things. I try to tap into the wisdom of the body rather than the idiocy of the mind.
Did you have any painting experience before?
I did paint before, for a movie called To Live and Die in L.A. But the movie wasn’t about painting, it was more about counterfeiting and killing people. Whereas this, [painting] was the key to the character. Also it was practical; I had to do lots of painting in the movie, so I had to know what I was doing. I was painting in real time. [Van Gogh] painted very fast.
I also love the scenes where—and Julian said you worked very hard at this—you’re stretching the canvas and you’re setting up the easel and you can feel the physical weight. Was that a difficult thing to master?
If you’re not used to painting, it takes a certain amount of organization which sounds like a kind of obvious thing, but it isn’t. Holding six brushes in your hand at one time or organizing your colors, knowing how to set up, enjoying being out in nature but not having it distract you so you can concentrate on what you’re doing, all those things were in the mix. But it was very exciting to go walking through nature, find a place to paint, see something and then paint it, with Julian usually coaching me.
He said he taught you to treat it like stabbing somehow.
He always said, “Hold it like a sword.” [laughs] And he’d say, “There’s no such thing as a bad mark.” And then it was about making a cumulation of marks, playing with color and painting the light. That was like a new concept to me, and when it became clear, that really transformed how I see things.
For all the technical detail which is considerable, your performance is also a portrait of a man going insane. In every given scene he sort of starts out stable, becomes unstable. Was it difficult to chart that out as an actor in terms of the moments, and did you carry it with you?
Strangely enough, I didn’t think about that. I always tend to not plan an arc for a character. It’s just my nature to play scene by scene. In terms of his mental state, of course I addressed it, but I didn’t think about it. It’s all there in the writing and it’s all there in the situation. My approach was basically to paint well, go deeply into nature, make some sort of deep contact with nature and whatever the swirl is beyond nature that unites us all, and just to get through the day as Willem the actor and get through the day as Van Gogh the painter.
Going back earlier in your life, what was the first job that you auditioned for that you got?
The funny thing is, I didn’t audition that much. I usually met people and started hanging out with them, and then they asked me to do things. I grew up in a theater tradition that was not the traditional theater tradition, it was about artists coming together in a space and trying to make something. And, I mean, that’s significant. I have auditioned, but I come more from situations and people, and that really guides me. A lot of people talk about characters and scripts. I talk about people, situations, and directors.
Well, you’re part of different directors’ families, which is interesting.
Right. And I like families, I like to be part of a family as long as they full of jerks. [laughs]
You’re in the Wes Anderson family…
You’ve been in the David Lynch family.
Beautiful… Paul Schrader. Julian. Abel [Ferrara]. My wife’s family.
Your wife’s family, maybe your own family. Let’s just take the Wes Anderson family for a minute. Does he tell you beforehand you’ll be transformed from a devoted employee to a serial killer to…
There’s not a lot of discussion ahead of time with Wes because while he’s very open to collaboration wants you to personalize what you do, he’s got the film made in his head. He made a stick figure animation of Grand Budapest Hotel and he showed it to me. I said, “You don’t have to make the movie.” It was fantastic, it was fully realized. He just has a very clear vision and gives you a beautiful structure; once you get there, it’ll be adjusted or you get to really fill it and inhabit it. It’s very clear.
You were in Italy for a long, long time.
Yes. I met my wife and I moved to Italy after that.
Did you speak Italian before you went?
And now you do, I hope?
Yes. You hope. I hope.
Some people live in foreign countries and never learn the language.
No, listen. I’m not totally fluent, but I speak well enough. You know, I go away a lot.When I come back, I always have to retake it. But when I’m there for a while, I get in the groove.
Do you dream in Italian?
I’ve dreamt in Italian, I’ve performed in Italian. Always with probably a frightful accent. But I just did a movie with Abel where I had to even improvise in Italian, which was a challenge.
You seem to work a lot. Do you not like to not work? Do you miss it?
I love to work. But I also have fun when I work and often I shoot a lot on location, so that’s a life adventure. And when I don’t have downtime, I learn things and have fun. And I try to take some of my life with me. Sometimes my wife can come with me. But other than that, no, I love to work. The only problem is there’s not enough time.
That’s a good problem.
It’s a beautiful problem, they’re champagne problems.
Did things change after last year with The Florida Project? Did you get deluged?
They changed before that. Let’s face it, it helped a great deal because when you get that kind of recognition, it wakes people up a little bit.
Were you surprised that people had the reaction they did?
Yes and no, because I thought it was a beautiful movie, but I’ve made beautiful movies that haven’t really been seen or gotten attention. So that’s no guarantee. So, was I surprised? Let’s just say, I was thankful. And, and even as it was, I think it was under seen, quite frankly.
What were the Oscars like? Did you have fun?
I always have fun in these kinds of things. I mean, they’re stressful if you let them be stressful. But you get clear about what they’re for, and what you can do and what you can’t do. I like seeing people and I like little structured social behaviors so it’s fun. I’m not an LA guy, so when I come to Los Angeles, particularly if it’s an industry event, I love seeing people that I’ve worked with, people that I haven’t worked with but I admire. It’s like a convention, let’s face it.
When did you move to New York? How old were you?
I tried when I was 20 years old. And then someone in the Midwest called me back to work on a theater company and I worked with them for a couple of years. But I tried at an earlier age and then, at 22, I was in New York for the rest of my life pretty, pretty much.
Until you went to Italy?
I still live in New York, but I also have a place in Italy, ’cause my wife’s Italian and I’m close to her family and we have lots of Italian friends.
Did you know Julian even back then?
Of course, I had heard of him. And we had mutual friends, but I think I can say I actually, personally knew him around the time that Platoon came out. That was one of our first conversations. He loves movies and he responded to that movie.
He said he would have never made this movie without you.
It’s a big leap in our friendship. He was very generous with me. He’s notoriously a very big personality. When you’re making something, he makes it with a lot of love, and he’s very affectionate and very generous. I gotta quote Van Gogh, you know? He says, “What you make with love is made well.”
Best Performances: Featuring Nicole Kidman, Claire Foy, Rami Malek, and 29 of Hollywood’s Biggest Stars
Claire Foy wears a Burberry top, corset dress, socks, and shoes; Charvet scarf. Emily Blunt wears a Burberry dress, shirt, socks, and shoes; stylist’s own top.
Kiki Layne wears a Prada top and headband; Tiffany & Co. earrings. Jonah Hill wears The Row jacket, shirt, and tie.
Margot Robbie wears a Chanel cardigan and skirt; stylist’s own top. Michael B. Jordan wears a Calvin Klein 205W39NYC cardigan and vest; Brioni trousers.
Nicole Kidman wears an Armani Privé dress; Cartier earrings; Cornelia James gloves; stylist’s own veil.
Mahershala Ali wears a Prada suit; his own top and bracelet. Amy Adams wears a Givenchy dress and belt.
Eddie Redmayne wears a Givenchy shirt and pants. Rami Malek wears a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shirt.
Saoirse Ronan wears a Celine by Hedi Slimane dress.
Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased and Destroyer
“In Destroyer, I play a cop who’s been through a lot—she’s very American, very angry, distressed, and disturbed. I wasn’t the first choice for that role—it went to somebody else and she didn’t want to do it. I read the script and put my hand up and said, ‘What about me?’ ” Did the wardrobe contribute to the character? We took so long to find the leather jacket that I wear in pretty much every frame of the film. I became so obsessed with that jacket, I would wear it at home. I put it on first thing in the morning. My kids visited the set and were shocked at the way I looked. You know, I’ve been working as an actor since I was 14 years old. It’s a choice, but it’s also a calling. Sometimes, I kind of try to move away, but it always pulls me back.
Comme des Garçons coat, T-shirt, skirt, tights, and boots; headpiece by hairstylist Malcolm Edwards. Inflatable latex costumes by artist Sasha Frolova (throughout).
Amy Adams in Vice
“My role in Vice is Lynne Cheney, Dick Cheney’s wife. It’s a huge responsibility to play a living person. I didn’t meet Lynne, and that’s interesting too—playing somebody who’s alive but whom you’ve never met. Plus, I age from 20 to 70 in the film, so that was another challenge.” Did her conservative politics affect your performance? I really just absorbed her point of view. Whether I agree with it or not doesn’t really matter. To get into character, I would have long debates about policy and politics as Lynne Cheney with our director, Adam McKay. I called him many names. I teased him about wearing shorts on set and how that was disrespectful. But I didn’t swear, because Lynne wouldn’t swear.
Valentino gown; Valentino Garavani earrings; Marc Jacobs boots.
Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots and On Chesil Beach
“This is the first time I’ve played any queen or monarch. Mary had to hold herself in a certain way when she was presenting herself at court, but when she was on her own, in her intimate quarters, she was quite different. I began to feel like a bit of a boss. A boss queen!” Did you learn any royal skills? Yes, I learned to ride. My horse in the film was also Wonder Woman’s horse—his name is Prince, and he is the biggest diva I’ve ever met. Prince doesn’t do anything for anyone, especially me, and had a nervous cough that you’d hear right before we’d do a take. Everything I did was for that horse, just to get his approval.
Balenciaga dress and shoes.
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You
“The director of the film, Boots Riley, had been following me for quite a while before I finally met him. He handed me the script for Sorry to Bother You literally put it in my hands. I was like, Who is this strange person? When I read the script, I realized I had no idea how deeply strange he is. But his strangeness revealed itself to be another form of beauty.” Growing up, who was your cinematic crush? Jennifer Love Hewitt. I loved her. I couldn’t comprehend anything, except that she was beautiful. What’s your favorite Halloween costume? I’m always the Joker. Every year. Soon there will be a black Joker movie, and it will be me.
Maison Margiela Artisanal Men’s Designed by John Galliano suit; Tiffany & Co. earrings; John Hardy cross necklace; Chrome Hearts thick chain; Hoorsenbuhs long chain; Stanfield’s own rings.
Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots
What was your first red-carpet outfit? I was 18. The Australian equivalent of the Emmys is called the Logies, and I was nominated. It was my big moment, the biggest thing that had happened to me. So I went all out on the dress: It was very short at the front, long at the back, lots of layers, bright colors, and shiny fabric. It was, like, orange, black, orange, black—with a big bow at the back. I had stipple-looking hair, and I was very tan. It was…a look. I don’t regret it, because I was 18 and having fun. I can dress boring for the rest of my life.
Staud coat; Giu Giu turtleneck; Vex Clothing tights; Urstadt Swan gloves; Manolo Blahnik shoes; stylist’s own veil.
Timothée Chalamet in Beautiful Boy
“Beautiful Boy [which is about a father and his son, who is addicted to drugs] was a script they’d been trying to get made for 10 years. Every guy actor my age had gone up for it. I’ve been lucky, but a lot of the bigger Hollywood movies like Spider-Man, things like that, I didn’t get. So, for Beautiful Boy, I did a lot of research and read about drugs, and I brought the books to my first meeting with the director. I could see in his eyes that he was thinking, This kid is nuts. But I felt this movie—the subject of drug addiction—was so important. I wanted to make an anti-glorification-of-drugs movie. And I think we did.” Did you meet Nic Sheff, whom you play in the film? Yes. I met him a week before we started shooting. And there was nothing about Nic that fit my stereotype of an addict. That was the learning grace of this movie: Nic is alive and well, but the reality is, it’s a day at a time. You never really beat it. You lost so much weight. Was your mom worried about you? My mom was worried! I lost 18 pounds. First, I’m in a movie where I was having sex with a peach, and then it was like, “I got another movie!” She said, “Great!” And then I had to tell her what it was about.
Claire Foy in First Man
Growing up, what was your favorite toy? I had a disgusting pillow until I was about 21. Shamefully, I took it to university. Do you get nervous before filming? Oh, yes, I get nervous. It’s a gradual process of trying to work yourself up to being brave enough to be on set. You always worry that everyone’s going to say, “Ooh, we’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.” What was the name of your first pet? Thumper. And the first street that you lived on? I don’t know. So you’re a one-name sensation: Thumper is your porno name. Thumper it is.
Burberry cape; Falconiere bonnet.
Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
What was the first record you bought? Bon Jovi. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is such a good song. I love a good emotional ballad. The greatest YouTube hole to go down is Leona Lewis when she was on The X Factor. Every week, she just came and delivered. Occasionally she’d take her shoes off. Do you watch other reality shows? I’m quite excited because The Hills, which is my original reality-TV guilty pleasure, is coming back. I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Heidi Montag. Do you have a secret skill? Yes. I’m incredibly good at being early. I’m always the person who gets to the airport four hours early. I drive everyone crazy.
Dior Men jacket and pants; Urstadt Swan gloves; Givenchy boots.
Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther
Do you have a favorite movie villain? For me, it’s a tie between Heath Ledger as the Joker and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Villains, like Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, are the most interesting characters. They are the ones you can empathize with—they want you to not like them, but you can still understand their motivation.Even though you’re the villain in Black Panther, do people on the street still say “Wakanda forever” to you? They don’t immediately realize that my character is not exactly pro-Wakanda. Midway through saying something, it registers: Oh, he wasn’t really with Wakanda. But by then they’ve already committed.
Is it difficult to act when you’re basically naked? I’m always naked. So, no.
Joanna Kulig in Cold War
“The director, Pawel Pawlikowski, wrote the part of Zula for me. I knew that the inspiration for the character came from his mother. Zula is her real name, and, like me, she was blonde. I saw her photo.” Was that the hardest part about portraying the character? No. The hardest part was the dancing. In general, I have a problem with coordination. I spent six months in a Polish folk ensemble learning how to dance. We partied together, we drank together, and we’d dance for six hours during a concert. It was like a family, and I started to build the character of Zula. Soon, I had her thoughts and personality. And I finally learned how to dance!
Chloé dress; Louis Vuitton hat.
Elizabeth Debicki in Widows
“I was a dancer for many, many years, and I thought I was going to be a ballerina. When I was about 12, I went to a summer school for the Australian ballet and I was already taller than my teacher. So I remember saying to myself, I’m going to have to rethink this plan.” Did you audition for Widows? Yes, I put myself on tape in my friend’s garage. How glamorous! I remember wearing a lot of eyeliner. I picked out some hoop earrings. And, funnily enough, in the finished film, she ended up looking a lot like she did in my test.
Marc Jacobs coat; Noel Stewart headpiece; Cornelia James gloves; Falke tights; Vivienne Westwood shoes.
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk
“I took a break from making films. My son, Ian, was getting to the age, around sixth grade, when kids are starting to spread their wings, and everything that was being offered to me was outside of Los Angeles, except for TV. I didn’t want to travel to make films. So I like to say I was one of the first movie actors who made the leap into television.” Do they call Beale Street your comeback film? I like to use the LL Cool J song: “Don’t call it comeback. I been here for years.”
Givenchy dress; Graham Tyler hat; Linda Farrow sunglasses.
Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate
“I painted in a movie called To Live and Die in L.A., but it wasn’t about painting—it was more about counterfeiting and killing people. In playing Vincent van Gogh, painting was the key to the character. I had to know what I was doing. The director, Julian Schnabel, would say, ‘Hold the brush like a sword’ and ‘There’s no such thing as a bad mark.’ I began to think that painting is about making an accumulation of marks. Acting is the same: You create a character scene by scene. It’s a series of marks that start a rhythm, and that rhythm sends you where you need to go.” Who is your cinematic crush? Warren Oates. When I saw him perform, I thought, That’s not an actor, that’s a man. It kind of broke my heart to find out he was actually a trained actor.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace
“I play a girl who is with her father in the wild, far away from civilization. Since I live in New Zealand and couldn’t fly to America, I auditioned on tape. We had a lot of props: a bucket, a toothbrush, a sleeping bag, and a rabbit named Coco. I also ran through the New Zealand bush with a GoPro in my mouth and sent that off as well. I didn’t meet the director in person. Six months later, on Christmas, I found out that I had gotten the part.”
Moschino Couture dress; Capezio tights; Sergio Rossi shoes.
Steven Yeun in Burning
“I like filming death scenes. When I was on The Walking Dead, I had known for some time about my character’s death. I was really excited for that day—I was looking forward to getting my skull bashed in. In Burning, my death scene was really fun. That was the only time it snowed, which was unexpected, and it added some magic to the moment. Everybody fantasizes about what it would be like to die. If I could make a career out of being killed, it would be okay.” Do you have a secret skill? Yes. I’m really good at getting parking spots. I’m so confident that the spot is going to be there, that it’s always there. Right in front.
Gucci jacket, shirt, pants, hat, and shoes; Charvet tie.
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
“I have been acting since I was 5. My first job was doing the voice of Agnes, the youngest daughter, with the big ponytail on top of her head, in Despicable Me. I was in the sequel, but I was too old for Despicable Me 3, because I can’t do my 5-year-old voice anymore.” In Eighth Grade, there is a pool-party scene that is nerve-wracking. You wear a very awkward green bathing suit. Yes, it is anxiety inducing. I did not pick the bathing suit. They wanted a lime green one so my character would stick out. I still have it. I mean, I don’t go to the pool that much, but that’s my bathing suit now. I love it.
Gucci dress; Eugenia Kim hat; Sophie Buhai necklace.
Jonah Hill in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
In the film, your character, Donny, has a fantastic fashion sense. One of the things that inspired me was a photograph of Yves Saint Laurent in Morocco in the ’70s. I looked at it and was like, Oh, level-10 Marrakech! So Donny wears a lot of caftans and Moroccan stuff in the movie—kind of our Tom Petty and Yves Saint Laurent level-10 Marrakech. He also has a very calm, Zen outlook on life. Donny had conquered a lot of the things that were dark and demonic about himself, and he was able to be peaceful and calm. That was a joy to play. I miss being Donny— even his long blond hair. What was your most memorable birthday? My mom once sent a mariachi band to play my favorite song, “Feliz Navidad.” It was winter in New York and eight mariachis played my song. I was like, “Am I hallucinating right now?”
Raf Simons coat; the Row T-shirt and jeans; Paul Smith boots.
Kiki Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk
How did you find out you had the part in Beale Street? It was nine in the morning and Barry Jenkins, the director, called and woke me up. He just got to talking and didn’t introduce himself. Finally, he said, “Girl, do you even know who you’re talking to?” He went on to tell me that they were giving me the role! I was trying to rush him off the phone so I could really go crazy and cry and call my mama. What is your go-to karaoke song? “Drunk in Love,” by Beyoncé. Especially if you’ve got somebody that’ll hold down Jay Z’s part. That’s definitely the move. I feel like you have mood hair: Sometimes it’s long, sometimes it’s short—up, down. Oh, yeah, we gotta switch it up. You never really know how it’s gonna be: Will it be curly? Straight? And watch out when those colors start coming in!
Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello dress and boots; Prada headband; Tiffany & Co. earrings.
Carey Mulligan in Wildlife
“Paul Dano, who cowrote and directed Wildlife, called me and said he was going to send me the script. I was kind of flattered that he thought I could play Jeanette.” She’s a tormented character. Did you have trouble shaking her off at the end of the day? No. When you’ve got kids, they expect you to come home and be Mom, not some weird drunk woman. At the end of the day, I take off that hat, leave that person at work, and come home and watch the Food Network. I love Chopped. They make disgusting things, but I do like Bobby Flay. Chopped and Bobby Flay are the perfect antidote to films like Wildlife.
Michael Kors Collection dress; vintage hat from New York Vintage, New York; Tiffany & Co. earrings; Carolina Amato gloves; Capezio tights; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Yalitza Aparicio (far left) in Roma
“The shoot for Roma lasted six months. We shot in chronological order. It was a very long process for me. I had not seen any of Alfonso Cuarón’s films. I actually didn’t know who he was. Alfonso asked me not to watch any of his films until we were done with the filming. He didn’t want me poisoning my mind with any images or ideas.”
Marina de Tavira in Roma
“I was the only actor in Roma with any previous experience. It was really challenging. First-time actors—and many of them were children—have a completely different way of working. Alfonso Cuarón would play tricks on us—make things happen that we were not expecting. That way, he made real life appear on set.”
From left: Valentino gown. The Row gown; Tiffany & Co. earrings.
Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns
“The hardest thing about playing Mary Poppins was learning how to dance. One day, you’re handed a hat and a cane, and I was like, Oh, my God. And, also, the initial idea of taking on a character that iconic was daunting. But once I got over my fears, it was deliciously fun.” What was your first red-carpet outfit? It was for My Summer of Love, and I was far too tanned. I was wearing a very bright yellow dress. I always laugh at how sweaty I looked. Horrible. Who is your girl crush? Rihanna. I mean, come on. She’s smoking.
Louis Vuitton coat; Eugenia Kim hat; Manokhi gloves.
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody
“The first thing I auditioned for I almost wasn’t allowed to audition for. I got a call from a casting director, and she asked to speak to the agent representing Rami Malek. I said, ‘Uh, speaking.’ She kind of laughed and said, ‘Call me when you have an agent.’ I go, ‘You’re already laughing—give me a shot.’ It was three lines in Gilmore Girls. I convinced her to let me read, and I got the part.” Besides in the film, have you ever sung any Queen songs in public? In Japan, with our version of the band, we dressed up in animal onesies and did “Bohemian Rhapsody,” like the original video. It was filmed, and I’m sure someone will get drunk and throw it out there into the ether.
Officine Générale pants; Atsuko Kudo Couture Latex Design gloves.