How Willem Dafoe unlocked Vincent Van Gogh for "At Eternity’s Gate"

Julian Schnabel’s new film, “At Eternity’s Gate,” explores one of the world’s most storied artists: Vincent Van Gogh. While Van Gogh has long been a subject of intense interest, having died at just 37 years old after suffering what is believed to be a series of psychotic episodes, this latest film starring Willem Dafoe seeks to make a point about life as an artist.

For Dafoe, painting was the key to getting inside the troubled artist’s mind. The film focuses on the final few years of Van Gogh’s life and features Dafoe painting in real time, a skill he had to learn for the role.

“It’s about painting and it was important for me to paint in the movie, and that really became the key to unlocking a relationship to Van Gogh,” Dafoe told “CBS This Morning.”

With more than 100 credits to his name, Dafoe is known for his versatility. This latest role has earned him praise of the highest degree from critics – some of whom have called it the best work of his career – and from director Julian Schnabel, a celebrated painter himself, who said he can’t picture anyone but Dafoe portraying Van Gogh.

Dafoe said of Schnabel, “He taught me many things about painting, how to make marks, how to paint light. It really changed how I see, and that was essential. And that’s really the heart of the movie, because if you can kind of get into how to look at Van Gogh’s work, you can get in his head and that’s the experience of the movie.”

Asked by “CBS This Morning” co-host John Dickerson to describe what he sees at that moment, the Oscar-nominated actor effortlessly slipped into a description that seems only possible from someone with an artist’s eye.

“Well, looking at you right now, initially I would have tried to paint a man there. But right now I’m looking at you, I see that white highlight here, I paint the light,” he said. “It’s not just deconstruction, you start to see the origin of things, the rise and fall of things. And it really opens everything up and it’s a new way of seeing. And really, for me, when you start to see that happen in the movie, and you do as you watch him paint.”

Though deeply troubled, Van Gogh’s final years were his most productive, resulting in some of his best-known works produced at a pace of almost one per day.

“It appears from his — from my view, it appears he was happiest when he was painting and he was very productive then. … I didn’t think so much about the tortured aspect, I really concentrated on the painting. It was tortured in that it was hard to reconcile those ecstatic states with everyday life,” Dafoe said. “I think that he’s deeply steeped in spiritual impulse — that he was much more joyous than we often think.”

 “At Eternity’s Gate,” is distributed by CBS Films, a division of CBS. 

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