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Willem Dafoe on his fourth Oscar nomination for ‘At Eternity’s Gate’

Willem Dafoe on his fourth Oscar nomination for ‘At Eternity’s Gate’
Willem Dafoe is nominated for lead actor for "At Eternity's Gate." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

For his portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate,” Willem Dafoe received his fourth Oscar nomination and his first in the lead actor category.

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Directed by artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, the movie is an unusually immersive take on the life of the artist, with Dafoe’s deeply felt performance providing a guide through a world of both punishing misery and overwhelming beauty.

Where am I reaching you?

Right now I'm in Alberta, Canada, filming in the Canadian Rockies.

>And what is it that you’re shooting there?

It’s a film called “Togo,” for Disney.

Were you up this morning for the nominations announcement?

I was. I have quite a late call today, thankfully, but I did get up special and I was very aware of when they were announcing it, to be honest with you. And I went to my little computer and streamed it and it was a little surreal because here I am in the quite deep north and alone in my little room in the dark and that's how I received the information.

This being your fourth nomination, do you ever get used to it? Is it still exciting?

It's special, because I think it's unique. For me, it was an opportunity to inhabit a character in a very deep way, in a very complete way. I enjoyed making the movie so much. I enjoyed watching it, and I think it deeply addresses ways of seeing that can really transform an audience member. They can really not just see art in a different way, but see the way of perceiving things and how we look at things in a different way. And for me, that’s thrilling. I mean, that was my experience, and the camera is so subjective, that the hope is that it'll be the audience's experience as well.

So it's not a traditional biopic, and I think that's quite amazing. Julian did a beautiful thing where he avoided the traps of doing the traditional biopic and found a very good spot where it’s a very personal film. It draws on some facts and some invented things, but it really expresses experience, and to some degree my experience, of being in those places. Painting, saying those words, getting very close to Vincent van Gogh and imagining in our minds what he was feeling like, what he was thinking, how he was coping and how he was making these beautiful works that still remain very vital today.

Julian Schnabel made the movie in an unusual style — the camera is so close on you through so much of the movie. Did you know he was going to shoot it that way when you were first getting started?

It's always hard to remember what you felt before the fact. But I feel pretty safe to say that, no, we didn't discuss that. I mean, that was just in the making. We had a very clear idea about it, but he didn't really share that with me. I mean, he had a very clear text. I've been with him in the studio, I've worked with him in some minor ways on some of his films. I love how he works, so I really basically prepared, learned how to paint, showed up, walked with him in nature and took it from there. But he didn't really explain that, and that's not indicated in the screenplay. The screenplay is very bare bones, doesn't indicate anything.

Is it exciting for you to not just be nominated this year, but back-to back with your nomination last year for “The Florida Project”?

It’s very exciting, because they’re very different films, and I have love for both of them, very different circumstances, so I can love them equally. Also, it's just a wonderful feeling, both of them being independent productions. In fact, every time I’ve ever been nominated, it's been an independent production, which is gratifying.

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's "At Eternity's Gate."
Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's "At Eternity's Gate." (Lily Gavin / CBS Films)

I remember when you were promoting “The Florida Project” and you were growing your beard for “At Eternity’s Gate” and you were going off to do the movie, so it must be nice that these two movies that kind of flowed together both produced such great results.

That’s true. And they're both personal movies, they're both movies that are difficult to get out there because they don't have traditional approaches and they don't have, you know, box office certainty or advertising budgets. I'm not complaining, that's just the case in these two movies. So it’s real gratifying when the actors branch recognizes something's going on, and I think that will help the movie to get seen. So I'm totally pragmatic, and you know, I don't like to think about what it means for me so much. It's much easier to think about what it means for the movie, and because I care about the movie, it makes me ecstatic. Also, I'm very happy for Julian, because he wasn't cited. You know, Vincent van Gogh said, “I am my painting.” This movie is Julian. It's really steeped in all things Julian, and I was his creature for it. I was the doer, and the way we worked together was so happy and so organic and so engaging.

At the same time that you're in a movie like “At Eternity’s Gate,” that it hasn't done a lot at the box office and maybe hasn’t been seen by quite as many people, you're also an “Aquaman,” which is a worldwide sensation.

Very nice. Congratulations to Jason [Momoa] and Amber [Heard] and James [Wan], and that's very nice. And people liked the movie a great deal. It's nice to know there's different ways of making movies, and it's possible to be involved in different kinds of movies. That gives me great energy, and it's a great stimulation for me. It's not just an actor's trick to try to show diversity, it's really a way to go back to reinvent or question the whole nature of performing, imagining, making things. I love it when I can mix it up like that.

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