To portray Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe needed to learn to paint in a way that would allow him to see the world through van Gogh’s eyes. “The beautiful thing is you become van Gogh,” he tells EW of his process.
Dafoe had only a cursory knowledge of the artist before signing on to the film. “What I know about Vincent van Gogh is probably what most people know,” he says. “I had seen his paintings. I can’t say I fully appreciated him before this. I do now.”
That understanding came from painting lessons, under the tutelage of director Julian Schnabel. “That was the key to everything,” Dafoe says. “It gave me very concrete examples to exercise different ways of seeing, and I loved that. This movie may have changed me for all time — not only in how I look at painting, but how I look at things.”
Part of the transformative process stemmed from the film’s approach to telling the painter’s story. “The movie, in some ways, is not only about events that happen in van Gogh’s life,” says Dafoe. “It doesn’t really account for them. It’s more about his impulses and the way of seeing. It’s about painting; it really is.
“We’re not saying this is how van Gogh was,” he adds. “We’re trying to make a piece of art to explain another piece of art. Because of the subjective camera, because of the point of view, because of the passion of Julian, you’re with van Gogh, you can imagine what making art is about.”
Watch the video above for more from Dafoe.