By Maureen Lee Lenker
January 22, 2019 at 09:43 AM EST

At Eternity's Gate

  • Movie

On Feb. 24, winners will be crowned at the 91st Academy Awards. But before the red carpet is rolled out and envelopes are opened, Entertainment Weekly has inside intel on the 2019 nominees. Keep checking back at this week for spotlights on contenders in all the major categories.

Willem Dafoe
Starring in: At Eternity’s Gate
Age: 63
Oscar past: 3 nominations, 0 wins
Role call: Vincent van Gogh, the renowned painter in the final years of his life as he grapples with mental illness and his muse

Biopics are often Oscar darlings, but Willem Dafoe offers a fresh canvas with his take on 19th-century master Vincent van Gogh, earning him his fourth Oscar nomination and first in the leading actor category.

Directed by Julian Schnabel — a painter himself — At Eternity’s Gate privileges van Gogh’s own point-of-view. To tackle the role, Dafoe immersed himself in the artist’s life, learning to paint, reading his letters, and ultimately shooting on location in artistically recognizable landscapes.

“You’re not illustrating who you think van Gogh is: You’re communing [with] his memory and what he’s left behind,” Dafoe says of his elemental approach to the film, which required he pick up a paintbrush onscreen. “It all comes together in a swirl—a swirl of color, a swirl of light. It’s not naturalistic representation. But it captures the spirit…. [Van Gogh] thought art was a language; art was a way of seeing; art was a way of waking us up.”

Looks like the Oscar voters are awake.

Dafoe was also awake to learn of his fourth nomination, currently working on location. “I had to wake up early anyway,” he tells EW. “I got to admit I was very aware of the exact time of when the nominations were being announced. I padded out in my little pajamas in the dark. It was quite surreal because I sit there and I’m watching it, and I gave a little cheer and did a little dance and that was it.”

Dafoe says he was particularly pleased to get the nomination as it was something he’d been hoping for. “This is a movie that I really care about,” he notes. “I have some awareness of prognostication and what the press thinks how it’s going to go, so I was hoping we’d get a nomination. Not only personally but even more so, so the film can continue to have a life and be seen and have a greater awareness of the film because I think it’s a very strong, affecting film.”

His first call Tuesday morning after learning the was to his director Julian Schnabel. “We were friends, but we became very close on this and it was a very happy shoot,” Dafoe explains. “He’s a very generous director, and he gave me a great gift by being with him in the south of France filming this. So, yes, I share this honor with him and I wanted to make sure he knew that.”

The film and Schnabel pushed Dafoe to new places, including learning to paint. Because of this successful partnership, Dafoe says he’d be eager to partner with the director again. “I’d love to work with him again but he’s a painter foremost and when he’ll make another movie — who knows? But I’m always happy to be in his company and I like how he works, whether it’s in the studio or making a movie,” he says. “He’s inspiring, he does things with a lot of love, a lot of daring, and a lot of energy. That’s intoxicating to be around and it pushes you to places that you’ve never been before. He’s a big personality and I really enjoy working with him.”

That being said, there’s one thing Dafoe likely won’t do again — paint. “I haven’t had the opportunity. I’ve been working pretty much since I finished that movie and I’ve been working on location,” he explains. “Listen, I’m an actor first. If I paint, I don’t want to do it as a hobby. I love it too much. So, at this point, no, I don’t think I’ll be painting.”

See the full list of nominees here.

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At Eternity's Gate

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Julian Schnabel