Get to Know the Nominees: Willem Dafoe For At Eternity's Gate

Best Lead Actor prospect Willem Dafoe on working with Hollywood's premiere directors, his iconic comic-book villain, and the performance that could (finally) earn him an Oscar.

by | February 22, 2019 | Comments

Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate  (Photo by @ CBS Films)

Rotten Tomatoes’ “Get To Know Your Nominees” series will provide an in-depth look at one nominee from each of the major awards categories – the four acting categories, and directing – diving into their highest-rated work from both fans and critics, essential titles from their filmography, and featuring thoughts on their nominated film drawn from an extended interview.

The Nominee: Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe scored his first Oscar nomination for his inspired performance as Sgt. Elias in Oliver Stone’s war epic Platoon. This weekend he heads back to the Academy Awards, nominated – for the first time as the lead performer – for his portrayal of Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. When we spoke with Dafoe for an extended pre-Oscars conversation, he contemplated the similarities between the roles. Though decidedly different – the military man vs. the tortured artist – they share one common thread for the actor who played them: intense preparation.

“It’s hard to compare because they’re different experiences, but both required that effort, and that became a key to inhabiting the character,” said Dafoe. “In Platoon, it was very important to know how to do soldier things and do them with grace, certainty, and ease. Similarly, for the painting, I [had] to be comfortable with it. We don’t have a lot of cutaways.” That commitment to realism in the unconventional 2018 biopic earned Dafoe high praise, including the Volpi Cup (Best Actor Prize) at the Venice Film Festival.

The lyrical tale, from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly director Julian Schnabel, morphs Van Gogh’s paintings into surrealist images that float across the screen documenting the final years of the famed painter’s life – his exit from Paris to Arles, his friendship with French painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), and his last days, during which he was committed to a sanitarium. Dafoe recalls that pre-production on the film was especially memorable because Schnabel – himself an artist – took a hands-on approach to tutoring the actor.

“Julian [Schnabel] is a painter,” Dafoe explained. “Having him teach me certain things – strategies, or techniques – helped me to understand what Van Gogh talks about in his letters. I learned so much through the painting.” Throughout his 39 years as a working actor, he says it’s often the directors who’ve drawn him to projects. “The best thing a director can do is give you a beautiful setup. When the world is complete, when you enter it, you know exactly what has to happen.”

As Van Gogh remarks to Gauguin in At Eternity’s Gate: “We don’t invent the picture, we find it.”

Fan Favorites: Spider-Man’s nemesis, a marine adventure, and a fantastic fox

Dafoe played the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-man (Photo by @ Columbia / courtesy Everett Collection)

Dafoe’s affection for directors has endeared him to several auteurs,  including Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Oliver Stone, Sam Raimi, Wes Anderson, and fellow 2019 Oscar nominee Spike Lee. His partnerships with Scorsese, Anderson, and Raimi gave birth to some of his most iconic characters. His work with Raimi as arch villain the Green Goblin to Tobey Maguire’s web-slinger in 2002’s Spider-Man is one of the reasons many point to the movie as the birth of our modern-day cinematic superhero obsession. Could we possibly fathom a Marvel Cinematic Universe without the global success of Spider-Man – and its cackling villain? Not likely.

His relationship with Wes Anderson – who frequently collaborates with the same A-listers for his mammoth ensembles – is something the 65-year old actor holds particularly dear. Dafoe says it was he who originally sought out Anderson. “I thought he was doing interesting things. He came to the theater that I was working at, and we really hit it off, so I asked if we could work together. I thought, ‘I would love to work with this guy. Maybe we’ll work together in three years’ time, like we’ll see each other down the line.’ Then about three or four months later, I got a call and he said, ‘I think I have something for you,’ and that was The Life Aquatic.” It was the start of a 15-year working relationship that now spans four films. Dafoe also told us he is forever indebted to Anderson and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou for personal as well as professional reasons. “It was a beautiful role, we shot it in Rome, and [on set] is where I met my wife. I feel very sentimental about the film now because of her.”

The underwater Jacques Cousteau parody debuted to mixed reviews – its currently rated 56% on our Tomatometer – but his next two efforts with Anderson received near-universal acclaim: Fantastic Mr. Fox was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, while The Grand Budapest Hotel would take home four Oscars. In the first film, Dafoe played the Psychotic Rat; in the second, the sinister tough guy, J.G. Jopling. On the subject of his constant genre shifts, Dafoe says, “I take great pleasure in that – when you mix it up and do different kinds of movies, different genres. Different people are aware of you in different ways. Someone that watches Spider-Man doesn’t necessarily watch The Last Temptation of Christ or The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Willem Dafoe Essentials: Jesus, the property manager, and Gill

The Florida Project
Dafoe with Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project. (Photo by @ A24)

Wisconsin native Dafoe says his voice has been a calling card since almost the start of his career, but Disney-Pixar’s Finding Nemo launched him into a new class of voice acting. For many, the actor’s sultry baritone shall be forever linked with Gill, the worldly Moorish Idol fish who takes orphaned Nemo under his fin. While shooting The Florida Project with director Sean Baker, his young co-stars immediately pegged him as the voice of Gill – or so they said. He remains somewhat skeptical on whether Brooklynn Prince, star of the indie darling, made the recollection on her own. “Yeah, they said they did, but it’s hard to tell if it’s them or their parents are whispering in their ear,” he jokingly told us.

Set at a motel somewhere at the margins of the Disney World Resort in Orlando, The Florida Project features Dafoe as a no-nonsense manager who cares for the run-down property, a precocious girl who calls it home (Prince), her friends, and her troubled single mother. His portrayal of the surrogate father and caregiver to the poverty-stricken community netted him his third Oscar nomination (he would lose that year to Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

Dafoe told RT he was delighted that long-time collaborator Paul Schrader had received his first Oscar nomination this year for Best Original Screenplay for First Reformed. “I’ve known [Paul] for years and I was surprised that this is his first nomination,” he said. “I just assumed he had been nominated somewhere along the line, or for one of the films that I’ve done with him.” Dafoe has worked with Schrader multiple times over four decades, first playing Jesus in the Schrader-penned Last Temptation of Christ, which earned director Martin Scorsese his second Oscar nomination. The role, which proved to be career-defining, could have just as easily derailed his trajectory in the late 1980s (not all actors who’ve played the Son of God have recovered).

Dafoe’s commitment to, as he says, “keeping the audience guessing,” has prevented him from being typecast. “I’m drawn to performances where you feel the people, but not the actor. They aren’t showy. I like disappearing into the material and being a creature of the director.”

Surprise Gems: A Campy Detective, and a John Waters jailer

Dafoe in cult favorite Boondock Saints. (Photo by Courtesy of Indican)

Dafoe says it is his brilliant and campy turn as Agent Smecker in The Boondock Saints that fans comment on most frequently – despite the fact it never got a theatrical release. The straight-to-VHS action-comedy about a pair of avenging Irish brothers was abruptly shelved before release, but fans remain undaunted. “People love that movie. They love it to death. They watch it over and over again. It’s a bona fide cult classic,” he gleefully told us. “I can usually spot [a Boondock Saints fans] because they come enthusiastically up to me. I’m like ‘I know what movie you’re going to say!'” The actor doesn’t seem put out by his more passionate fans. “[Smecker] was a fun character to play. It was a great opportunity to be comedic.”

It is another comedy that comes as a close-runner up to fan favorite, he says. He may have only appeared briefly in John Waters’ Cry-Baby as the lead character’s jailer, but he made an impression. “I mean, people still talk about me patting Johnny Depp’s butt.”

At Eternity’s Gate is available to purchase or stream now. The Academy Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, February 24, 2019 on ABC. 

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