Willem Dafoe Treated Painting Like Van Gogh Like "Stabbing" the Canvas

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...

Beautiful.

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?

No.

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."