Skytalk: Willem Dafoe
© Michael Schwartz/Trunk Archive

He often plays enigmatic rogues but Willem Dafoe is also brilliant as van Gogh. He talks about Arles in the winter and being a goofball as a kid.

Mr. Dafoe, You once compared shooting a film to ­embarking on an adventure. Was playing Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate an adventure too?

We shot on location in Arles, where Van Gogh stayed, but in ­November. It was a killer. There’s a scene where I’m painting the roots and the kids come. Those kids were blue, it was so cold. Our Arles is a different place than Arles in the summer when the tourists are there. Most of the restaurants were closed, it was like a ghost town. But this made it beautiful to shoot there – because it was ours.

What fascinated you about Van Gogh?

I learned many things, of course, because there’s such richness: the letters, the biographies, the paintings. I think the biggest surprise was not realizing how much of his early life was colored by his father being a pastor. All his life, Van Gogh was trying to reconcile or work out his spiritual impulse, the feeling of having something to offer or needing to contribute something. This was very evident in his letters. He was a very compassionate person, but socially, he was a clod. A very difficult guy. Still, he talks very beautifully about working class people, poverty, nature and God.

You and Julian Schnabel go way back …
Is he still the same guy you shot Basquiat with in 1995?

He’s matured, of course. Basquiat was a beautiful film in the sense that it really captured something. It was like a wonderful fairy tale for me because I was in New York in those days. At Eternity’s Gate is Julian’s most mature work. And the bravest.

Speaking of brave, you once said it would take courage to work on a big Hollywood production that you actually hated. But you’ve never tried that, have you?

No, never. I couldn’t do it. Not for noble reasons, it just wouldn’t be fun. There’s not enough money, there’s not enough caviar, there’s not enough … whatever word you want to insert … It’s miserable when you’re doing something you don’t enjoy. I’m spoiled that way.

Skytalk: Willem Dafoe

Dafoe with Catherine McCormack in "Shadow of the Vampire" (2000)

© ddp images

You’ve had a very eclectic career, lots of different roles and genres. Was it a deliberate choice?

Yes, to some degree. But let’s face it, it’s conditioned by what’s available to you, too. I don’t know any actors who really control what they do as far as choice goes. What’s nice is, as I get older, there’s a wider range of things available to me.

You have a very recognizable face and I bet people approach you all the time. Are there certain films that they talk to you about most?

It really varies. By the movies a person mentions when they meet me, I know when in their life they were watching movies. Or when they stopped watching movies. I find with a lot of people my age that when they were single, they saw movies and had a real movie culture. Then they got a job that was demanding, had kids and lived out in suburbia, where the mall was too far and only playing Star Wars… But of course, almost daily, someone calls out “Hey, Goblin.” Almost everyone has seen the Spider-Man movies.

Some of the films you have shot were quite controversial at the time. Do you seek those kinds of parts just to evolve as an actor?

I think sometimes I’m attracted to things that are challenging and that I’m scared of. You’d think they may be challenging for an audience, too. But I don’t seek this out. Antichrist was a rough movie, but as far as audience response goes, I’m innocent. I thought it was going to be a beautiful movie, so why would this disturb anybody? I was equally naive about the movie The Last Temptation of Christ.

Skytalk: Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate"

© DCM

  I don’t know any actors who control what they do as far as choice goes

Willem Dafoe, Actor

Being one of eight kids at home, I imagine it was pretty difficult to get your parents’ attention. Is that what sparked your interest in acting?

I had none of their attention, which probably explains why I’m an actor – or so I would say if you put me on the couch. When you come from a tribe, you’ve got to find your identity, you’ve got to find your place. When I was a kid I was Billy the practical joker, the performer, the goofball. One of my sisters was dating a guy, a semi-professional who was part of the community theater. The director was from New York and they were casting a play called A Thousand Clowns by Herb Gardner. I was 11 years old, and there was a role for a precocious, talkative, smart-ass kid. My sister’s boyfriend said, “Hey, let’s get Willy Dafoe, he’s obnoxious.”

You’ve been acting for quite a long time. Has your view of the industry changed over the years?

Yeah, it’s changed a lot. I’m a little more relaxed and I don’t strive as much. And I don’t think about the business side as much. The biggest difference is that people who finance movies have nothing to do with movies anymore. They know business but they don’t know how to make movies.

The industry has also changed due to the #MeToo movement hasn’t it?

For 27 years I lived and worked with the director of a theater company. Now I am married to a young Italian film director. I see all the time the difficulties, the obstacles, the inequalities. It’s good to challenge what we consider normal or acceptable. I was recently reading an action script with a very romantic, virile, heroic male character. Every woman in it was always walking in, saying hi, taking off her clothes and making love with the guy. Once upon a time, nobody would have said: This doesn’t reflect who we are at all. I think some progress has been made in that respect. I turned down the part.