The movie "At Eternity's Gate" (playing at the Uptown in Minneapolis) chronicles the final days of Vincent van Gogh. We spoke recently to Willem Dafoe about his approach to embodying the painter.
Q: One of the film's most powerful scenes has you coming inside on a windy day. You take off your boots, and then just stare at them. Finally, you begin to paint them. It's unusual for a film to capture the actual creative impulse so directly and persuasively. How did you approach that scene?
A: That scene was one of the most challenging scenes, because I was painting in real time. I was rehearsed and coached, but I was under the gun and had to paint well.
In the painting, what's conveyed that I like so much is that you can really see how a series of marks and a series of colors — little individual acts — start to come together in this swirl to make something that captures those boots. Van Gogh said great painting is not painting what is there but what you see. It's not a good likeness; the colors are not "correct." But what you can see is how those marks start to work with each other to make a thing. You experience those boots. You're brought into the presentness of that creation, and I think that's what good painting does.
Q: Another scene has you outside in a field, around sunset, obviously feeling euphoric. What was the source of this euphoria in van Gogh?
A: By painting and being out in nature, he started to see in a different way. That really opened things up, not just to painting, but to the nature of things. Van Gogh talked a lot about turning away from the visible and turning toward the invisible. He was talking about a spiritual impulse. But I think when you see in a different way, you get a sense of the rise and fall of things, of how things come in and out of existence. That's a very powerful thing. It puts you in touch with things as they are.
Marrying painting as a physical exercise to some of the things van Gogh wrote in his letters, I started to get a sense of this power, this ecstasy that he felt, that you get little inklings of when you perform sometimes. … You're in the swirl of things that are bigger than you. I think we all long for that. That's what he talks about when he says he wants to share this vision that's basically better than the reality we think of, the surface reality.
Q: Why do you think people bullied and tormented him? People didn't understand him, obviously. But were they also motivated by envy?
A: I think so. He had this intense inner life. He didn't develop other skills. He didn't know how to deal with people. … Van Gogh is experiencing something he doesn't know how to share, except through his art. His art is taking such a leap from what is considered acceptable and fashionable and digestible in the day that he feels alone. Because that is the most articulate he can be, that is the greatest service he can do, and people aren't quite taking it.
Q: How did you approach playing him physically?
A: I believe in the wisdom of the body. Doing things — that's the key to everything. I don't think so much about psychology or dramaturgy. I feel much more like a dancer than an actor. Acting is usually associated with great texts and interpretations and choices. I don't feel like that. I feel best when I try to inhabit something, I try to lose myself in an action. It's that kind of flexibility that opens up my heart and opens up my mind.
Hopefully, if I do it in good faith, and do it in a true way, then the audience experiences it with me. That's the idea: to have things happen to you and be transparent, not to dish out an explanation or show them a bag of tricks.
Q: The meatiest conversations are between Vincent and Paul Gauguin. How hard was it for him to disagree with Gauguin over their approach to art?
A: They were very different personalities. They painted in very different ways. But there's evidence they admired each other, even if, socially, it wasn't the happiest of friendships.
He always worked from models, and the truth is I kind of relate to that as a performer, because I have a parallel thing: I value very much starting with imitation. It's very useful. The ideas happen in the doing. I have no ideas to express or anything particular to convey. But I will give my body and my heart and everything I've got to submitting to a situation that works on me.
As it works on me, there are discoveries, planned and unplanned. But if I open myself to it, we experience something very human and something that wakes us up, and reminds us how we need each other.