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Willem Dafoe on embodying Vincent van Gogh for 'At Eternity's Gate'

TORONTO — Like one of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, Willem Dafoe’s acclaimed new role as the Dutch post-impressionist artist came together with passionate brush strokes. There was also “a very bad fake beard.”

First came the development stage for “At Eternity’s Gate” when Dafoe got involved — not to audition for the part but to help director/co-writer Julian Schnabel, who is his longtime friend.

The filmmaker asked Dafoe to read the lengthy biography “Van Gogh: The Life,” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, and pick out things he found interesting.

“He didn’t even ask me to play the role yet,” Dafoe recalled in a recent phone interview. “I read the book and made the notes just out of sheer pleasure of studying something that was interesting and contributing.”

The three-time Oscar-nominated actor then became more deeply involved in the process, which culminated in a dinner at Schnabel’s house with co-writers Jean-Claude Carriere and Louise Kugelberg.

“They put a very bad fake beard on me and put me in certain situations and we took some pictures,” recalled Dafoe, who’s earned Oscar nominations for roles in “Platoon,” “Shadow of the Vampire” and “The Florida Project.”

“By the end of that, that’s when he really asked me to do the role. It wasn’t a conventional way to be cast but we are friends, so we could keep it loose for a while and then finally he asked me and I was happy to do it.”

Opening Friday, the film depicts van Gogh as a troubled intellect living in poverty near the end of his life in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Oscar Isaac co-stars as French post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, van Gogh’s friend who tries to convince him to slow down and plan out his paintings.

Rupert Friend plays van Gogh’s brother and main support system, Theo, who tries to reassure him that he is indeed a great artist.

The story is part biopic, part interpretation about van Gogh — it’s driven by his letters and other real-life records, as well as myths about him and Schnabel’s personal response to his paintings.

Dafoe learned how to paint from the New York-born Schnabel, who is internationally renowned for his large-scale paintings made with broken ceramic plates.

The director of “Before Night Falls” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” set up canvases with Dafoe outdoors, guided by the light and weather in “brutal” temperatures on “a very bleak landscape” in November and December.

Dafoe found the painting “quite thrilling” as he came to understand how the marks on the canvas “vibrate and they talk to each other,” said the Wisconsin native.

“I had to concentrate so much on the painting, because I had so much pressure to paint in a way that approached some sort of connection or some sort of joy,” he said.

“Of course I didn’t always succeed and right now, this film has not turned me into a painter. But I did have a shift in how I see things.”

The film touches on van Gogh’s infamous mutilation of his ear and his mental-health battle, showing breakdowns and manic episodes that he feels might actually fuel his art.

Dafoe, a founding member of experimental theatre company The Wooster Group, said he didn’t focus on van Gogh’s mental state.

“I really concentrated mostly on trying to find some inkling of that union with nature; that union through some sort of connection to higher power through the nature and through the painting,” he said. “And if that’s madness, well, what can I say.”

Overall the film is a meditative look at van Gogh’s life, with many scenes free of dialogue as the camera follows him on his long treks through gorgeous landscapes, sketching, painting and being one with his surroundings while wearing his signature straw hat.

“It’s no accident that he paints in these great swirls sometimes,” Dafoe said. “I’m imagining, by seeing his painting and by reading his letters, he understood some sort of swirl — the rise and fall of things — and he was able to contact that through his play of colours, through his brush stroke, through his painting.”


Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press