Willem Dafoe on Art, Acting and "Embracing the Mystery"


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Now, he gives what critics are calling the performance of his career as Vincent Van Gogh in added turn ities gate, which opens in theaters Friday. November sixteenth he received the trophy for best actor this year's Venice film festival for the movie. And I'd say the odds are better than good that you'll be seeing a lot of him this coming award season today. Willem Dafoe comes on the podcast is share how his beginnings. In experimental theater inform. His acting what draws him to independent films time and time again, and what it's like to make his one hundred movie he talks about how his latest film challenges the image of Van Gogh as an unappreciated mad genius and rethinks the constructs of the traditional bio pic. He reveals what it was like to immerse himself in van Goghs world and find inspiration in the very same scenery. That inspired one of the greatest artists of all time. He discusses the pressure of having to recreate iconic works of art with the cameras rolling. And how artists in director Julian Schnabel taught him if you want to paint like Vincent Van Gogh you have to learn to paint the light, plus the proper pronunciation of Van Gogh or is it van guy the time he tried to summon the ghost of Houdini and the beauty of embracing the mystery in life coming up with actor Willem Dafoe in just a moment. Damn talking with three time Oscar nominated actor Willem Dafoe who gives what many are calling the performance of his career as Vincent Van Gogh in the new film called Ed attorneys gate, Willem Dafoe, welcome. Thank you. Well, we were just talking before we came in here because I have a bunch of magic posters in my office about the fact that you are from Appleton, Wisconsin. Which is the birthplace of who. While it's not the birthplace sky. The hometown grew up their hometown of Eric Weiss, better known as Harry Houdini the great Houdini late Houdini. Wow. Yeah. And you were saying that at one point, I guess you guys tried to contact him with a ouija board. While that I when I was a kid friend's father was in a building that he was going to turn into a restaurant and someone said, you know, this used to be where the family home of Harry Houdini, and we were kids, and we. Kind out the ouija board and said Harry Houdini if you're their contact us in it kept on going E W E W E W. We thought this doesn't work, of course, years later, we found out that his given name was Eric Weiss. Wow. And that's funny because like his whole thing was disproving mediums. And he said if you can really come back from the other side, he told his wife tried to contact me on the nursery of my death for ten years and was his whole thing. Trying to contact him from the other side, and you managed to do with no one else can do. That's incredible. Growing up in Appleton. Wisconsin was he like the biggest celebrity from there. I'm afraid there was another celebrity Senator Joe McCarthy. Oh, right, Wisconsin. Yeah. Wow. Tell Ghana Joe. Yikes. Yeah. So we had we had a range there. Yeah. Well, now, maybe you're the best biggest. I mean, people forget politicians. They forget turn is entry magicians though, you might have taken things over. I'm not so sure. Well, I read that you come from a big family. I think your seven out of eight kids is that right? That's right. Wow. That is a big Wisconsin family. Right. They're not even Catholic. Yeah. And not even farmer. So what's what's so many pets? I don't know. My parents. I don't know they. What can I say? I mean, I suppose a psychologist might say, you know, with so many siblings. You must have always been trying to fight for attention. Of course, that must be why you're an actor. Fair to say, I've never thought about it too much. But that's fair to say, I think where you like that as a kid were you outgoing and trying to entertain I think so. Yeah. So you look for your place. And so I was like the prankster and the the joker. I guess now your whole family, including your siblings, their doctors, and nurses. So how the hell did you end up getting into acting? It's a good question. I mean, basically, it's about the no when you're young there was a community theater in my small town. And it was very good one, actually. And they used the physical theatre of the university that was there. So it was like a semi professional summer theater, and I started working there and doing place at school, and that sort of thing. And of course, it starts out just as a pleasure. And then later Yuki on. Thinking you going to learn to do something else? Do something us for living. But it never quite happens. And I just basically been working as a performer for ever since. I was about eighteen do you still feel like you're still doing it for the pleasure? Yeah. I do actually. Yeah. Because it's always different than that's pretty suspicious and in. I see it depends on the person. You know, I see some people that I started out with that are my age and have been doing it like for forty years like I have in some still alike may enjoy it in find challenges and others. I think just you know, move on. Yeah. And it seems like you don't do it necessarily for the paycheck, you seek out things that interest you 'cause you do probably what maybe three or four indie films for every studio movie that you'd do it. Probably true. That's true. I think just generally I feel the mo- I find the most. Interesting -tunities in more in the independent world. I'm happy to do studio films, and sometimes they can be very satisfying. But I live more a lot has to do with. I'm tracked it too strong directors strong directors can't have their hands tied and in the independence world. There's a possibility that they have final cut and that they are they're respected and their vision this respected where sometimes in the studio world, not always. But most often in the studio world, it's a more. Corporate, you know, they're they're conscious of what the aims are. And from the get-go often, there's great they know what they have to deliver. And it's very rare, particularly for young directors to get final cut in the studio world. And I think they need that kind of power to really exercise their their vision. Yeah. So I guess it's sort of a self selecting situation where the directors you wanna work with probably aren't driven to work on studio films. I think so it's know. No, listen. I don't I never have. And I still don't have absolute control of thanks. So it's always a combination of what's available to me. And what I seek out. And but I do like diversity because as I said before I still enjoy it because it's always different. My job is always different. There's certain things that are consistent with performing all the time. But they're pretty basic the particulars and the life experience each time of doing something is quite different. Yeah. And you play such a interesting and quirky diverse range of characters when you're considering a role. What are the priorities that go into that decision? Is that the script the director working with certain actors, maybe the location where you're where you're going to think I think the director's very important. I think the the group of people working on. It's very important location location location is important because sometimes that can be really a pleasure. Off the movie, you just did you're shooting in Arles, France. Yeah. What could be better not only are? But also Paris San remain over Sua was all the places that Van Gogh was and I like to seek those things out not only because they helped the movie, but they also give you a life experience. Then changes you, and you can apply the things that you learn and to what you're doing. So you feel growth and transformation as human bang and in the at the end of the day that's more important than anything in that. Ultimately is what feels your work? Yeah. Now, are you an actor who likes to watch your own movies after the fact, you know, I'm not allergic to it? I can't do it. But generally because I like to work once I finish something. Yeah. I take care of it. And I care about it. And I tried to if I particularly. I liked the movie I try very hard to promote in that sort of thing. But then after that, I'm onto the next thing. It had it's like, you know, as you get older, you realize what you put in your brain is what you sit with you now. So, you know, when you're when you're finished with something the lessons learned in the pleasures will stay with you intuitively. But as far as bang with it, you've gotta make room for other things. Yeah. So yeah. I do look I, you know, if if I'm if I'm going to film festival or something you have retrospective. Or I see it's very rare. But if I see something on TV, and you know, I can watch for a little while and say, oh my God. And I get a flat of associations, and it's fun for me by it's not bringing back the memories of the filming. Absolutely. But I never I never liked say on. Let me look at sound. So smart myself. Yeah. And that's the other thing I'm somewhere. Yeah. You gotta make room for for the. No, yeah. How about dailies do you like to look at your day's work? Or do you leave it on the set? Usually. I'm usually I think I mean, this is it depends with each project and depends on what the director wants. But normally I avoid that. Because you know, the mantra is I guess if you like what you say, it doesn't help you because feel a pressure to keep it up, and you can become self conscious. And if you don't what like what you say, it can make you insecure and put you into a fit of doubting yourself is out. You know, I try to concentrate on the doing and the reflecting and the judgment of what's going on. You know, you address. Yourself to that. But you try not to obsess on that. And there's something there's other people to debt can watch that. That's why you wanna strong director. Yeah. I mean, I suppose if you're not a director and editor at sort of an exercise in futility because there's nothing you can do about it. Well, that's the other thing because as a as a performer, I mean on some projects more than others you're invited to collaborate in the post or you're involved some some beer there purely as an actor. Sometimes you're there as an actor and filmmaker and a collaborator. It depends on checked. Yeah. But generally. It's you know, where your concentration is is really giving a performance that's integrated and comes from someplace, and no matter how they caught it. No matter how they lied. It. No matter how whatever happens. However, it gets mediated at least. You have something that's whole and and connected. And you're not outside of it. You're not judging yourself. You're not second guessing yourself. You're not thinking, oh, how this apply you're not self conscious. You're doing because for performing his doing doing gun stuff happens and you react to it. I think less about choice, and you know, conscious choices than about being open and flexible and responsive now that's not to say that you just sit there and wait for inspiration to happen or things to happen to you. It's not you go forward. And then as you go forward things you react to you know, there's a cause and effect to things and you react. And then before you know, it a rhythm starts to happen. And that rhythm puts you deeper and deeper into in a what you're trying to inhabit, and then you start to create. Relationship, and then it becomes a life. It's like a creation, and when that that thing is put into play in this put into play in a way that you aren't stopping it and a very beautiful thing can happen. And you can surprise yourself. You can do things that you couldn't even dream up. You I it becomes e-. You know, you start to address the wisdom of the body in your intuition, rather than your conscious mind always trying to control and put yourself in a place that you feel comfortable with or that. You've you intellectually in field clear about because the truth is the best things had our our beyond that the s things are beyond. Our understanding like Van Gogh had deep understanding of that in. He talked a lot about turning away from the visible and really addressing your south to the invisible. He. Talked about great painting is is not painting things as they are. But painting things as you see them. Yeah. It's you had about reproduction. It's about in having a response the way that you talk about acting, and you relate it in a way to physical art and dance which I've heard before where you're talking about the body and the rhythm, and you know, acting is doing and so forth. Do you find that those kind of things inform? Your acting other mediums, you know, many things were formed. You know, when I was starting out in the theater, I still work in the theater about for many years. I was with a company called the worst group ride that was very physical theatre, and we made original theater pieces, and that really informed my approach to to performing in making things I know that when you're filming you don't like a lot of outside. Distractions. In fact, I as somewhere I read that you don't like to watch movies and TV because you don't want it to influence your performance. You seem to really be into immersing yourself in the moment when you're on a movie, I think that's true. When you say it, it's like, I don't quite recognize that because that about other actors, I think, oh, it's a meth method. Yeah. Exactly. I. It's true that when I it depends on the movie, but like right now, I'm making the movie, and I find myself rarely when I have free time. I just want to read things connected to the movie or safe things connected. The movie or practice things connected to the movie, and I feel like when I go outside of that. And I do occasionally in my dreams in my wakened moments. I'm thinking about other things that don't necessarily relate to the movie. I like him more concentrated approach, you know, it's because somewhere you pretending you're you're reordering ordering your life. I mean, one of the great things about should in on location. Is you leave your life behind? You know, you leave your habits for fine behind your living in a different place. You're you have different relationships. You you know, it really throws you off your your normal impulses, your normal habits, and that sort of a blessing because it plans as you of your impulses. And then it makes room for new impulses. And where do you get those? No impulses by feeding your your your new routines. You're no head with things relating to you're doing we're gonna take a quick break. And then I'll be back with more with Willem Dafoe when we come back in just a minute. Almost every day. We hear something on the news about a cyber attack. 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Because like we said here you are living in the same place as Van Gogh and painting ARL, France. And in some cases, you're sitting in the same spot painting the same landscape says he painted. That's amazing. It's fantastic. And of course, the painting was very crucial because Julian is a great painter. And he was very Jeter director, Julian Schnabel. Yeah, she nobble actually, it's not just. Put it out there. Okay. Within since you did that is a Van Gogh of ring Vanja. What are you? It's funny because. Country by country. It's very different like, for example, in Italy where I live. It's then then Gog, oh, try vow, which is the Dutch pronuncia judge pronunciation is more like an anyone that speaks Dutch out. There will have a good laugh, but then hawk you know, his has more Ohka guttural thing. Okay. Of course, anglicized we say Van Gogh. Yeah. And then there's of course, what does it? Annie hall that famous theme where Woody Allen is complaining about how Diane Keaton pronounce as Van Gogh. Thinks that is. Yeah. So Julian Schnabel, of course, comes from the art world he was a painter and a big deal in the art world before becoming a director. And he's still is a big deal. Yes. Whereas. Always made for movies. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Was that the diving bell and the butterfly also I like Baffour nightfall fair among musk yacht morale. Yeah. Yes. Did he have some tips because you were doing a lot of your own painting in this movie rise as I made us for the most part? You know, when you say painting in the movie, it's may painting. There's no stunt painter. Yes. I see your face the hand and painting. I mean, there's one sequence where paint these shows that we basically painted in real time. Wow. Which was important because you see how a series of marks become a painting, and you can see the play of colors with each other. And I and it looks terrible for a long time. And then you see it kind of go cut chunk in turn into something. And that's a beautiful thing to say. And it's something that I've seen very much a lot watching Jolyon in the studio. Really? Yeah. He taught me he taught me to think in terms of a series of marks y'all. So taught me how to paint light to look at something. Like when I'm looking at you now rather than thinking of a good likeness. I'm saying what I really say. And I'm saying there's a white. There's a white hard white line on your nose. That's clearly comes from the light. There's also an area over here. That's that's really dark. It's you know. Exactly, you're your face doesn't have white and dark spots on it right by I m painting, the lightning and when I start to do that. Things these marks start to talk to each other. Yeah. And they make something that somehow captures. What you are. It's not a good likeness. But it does capture what you are. And I think it's partly because it brings in nature at brings in something natural it brings in something elemental, and in this case, it's light. Yeah. And he was obsessed by that. When you went down, I went down to our it was to find a new light. He was tired of the greatness of Paris. He wanted to find a no light visual imagery is light. There's no there's no such thing as it without light. That's the only reason we see is because of the light. And the only reason we see colors is because the fraction of light when you get in that kind of head. Okay. It's one thing to think in those terms as far as painting. But if it really starts to affect how you see everything really well in the sense that the way looking at your face connects made delight connects made a nature, what is nature nature is creation. What is creation in? It puts you in a place, and it's not just about it's not about just deconstruction. But it does give you a key into kinda rise and fall of things, which if you have a new take on that it that runs deep love that about this film because it kind of connects like you said the light to nature nature to God. And he was very spiritual man, which was the pricing. I didn't really under saying, but he was steeped in because his father was a pastor when he was younger. He tried to be a a religious man, and he remained quite religious throughout his life. Yeah. Not formally. But in his in the relationship, he had tonight you to God, it was very intense, and it kinda has the sense of himself as the martyred artists, which knows a great seen. I think toward the end where he's talking with a priest and he actually compares himself to Jesus you're someone who's actually played Jesus. In the last temptation of Christ. Did you take similar approaches to playing these characters only in the respect that I had to forget that? I was playing Jesus when I was playing Jesus forget, I was playing Van Gogh when I played video, you know, I had to concentrate on what we doing not think of it as an accounting of who these historical figures in or more precisely you're not making the movie to explain who these people are you're making a parallel thing, you're making hopefully a piece of art to express something, and it's your reaction or it your experience of than thing. It's not the thing itself. So you're kind of free. And that's why this this film is, of course, to some degree fact fact-based, but other in other cases in other aspects, it's it's. Invented. But that's the only way you can make something on one of the things that I really love about this film that makes it stand out is that the audience kind of gets to inhabit his shoes along with you. Because as much as any bio pic that I've seen recently with the steady Cam the inner monologue. The pacing of it at attorneys gate really allows the audience to sorta inhabit the man and get a sense of what his world was like, I think it's very it's a subjective experience with him. You're with this thoughts and your with the experience because primarily by how it shot, and it's you know, Jolyon being a painter is very visual guy thinks in visual terms. He really has you with Van Gogh Nagel of the shots, the framing that kind of movement, the kind of cutting it all has you with Van Gogh the audience really gets a sense of his isolation when he's by himself on a cold day in his room and. You know, longing to be with a friend like all again and have some company or is ecstasy when he's out on a sunny day in running through the fields can't wait to start his latest painting. And I could this film calls into question. A lot of the long held assumptions about Vincent Van Gogh's, such as this idea that he was some obscure totally unrecognized struggling artists to didn't get discovered until after his death. I mean, yes, he was a starving artist. Who relied on the charity of his brother? But he was not some obscure person there were people who recognised his genius in the art world in real time. Yes, he had a very one of his shows at a great reception. Gauguin was in Meyer of his toward the end of his life. Yes, he wasn't selling paintings. But he did have a reputation. He was connected to many of the impression that socially. He knew these people. It wasn't like he was totally isolated and more importantly. This was a very productive period of his time. Yeah. By the of his lifetime of his life. It's a period where he was basically painting a painting a day. Wow. And this is even when he's in the hospital, and he's very disturbed and struggling with certain mental and social challenges from the film. I want to say that he says something along the lines. That painting is how he frees himself of his mind or get away from his mind. That's their sense. I think so I mean, but I relate to that. I think we all reload. Sure. Wait, a long we all long to bay free. And we're usually free when we contact something outside of our some where we're not thinking about worse ourselves, we aren't worrying where in movement where we're not thinking where where part of the whole swirl of things. Yeah. And. It's kind of jokey but swirl is a useful word. I when we speak about Van Gogh, right? Because you you say it quite literally in some of his paintings. Yeah. He had a deep understanding of the swirl of things now when you were painting as Van Gogh was that hard because he was as you mentioned a fast painter. Yes. He's liked to paint. Factually, Julian really taught me well, how to use the materials in how to hold a brush outta work the paint. How to think in terms of Mark's painting light many things he it was really a very strong experience for me. But I think of him making lots of little marks. And having them talk to each other. You particularly feel that in the drawings. Some of those PALEA ink drawings that I did with columnist. You know that those little movements the Cyprus tree that breaks down to. Just a series of swirls interconnecting that that was that was a great. Really opened up a different part of my brain to work that way. Yeah. And I was interested to learn that a lot of those drawings that were in this notebook were lost to the world for I think over one hundred years, right? I I don't know how long but. Yeah. Long long time, and they know fairly recently were discovered. That's incredible. Now, do you think Van Gogh knew that he was a head of his time, or do you think doubted himself, we know they doubted himself as evidenced over and over again in his letters to his brother, and of course, that was very intimate loving relationship. He was very very close to his brother and his brother supported him most of his adult life supported him financially and emotionally I he had great doubts. He had great doubts had fins of doubts. One thing that I like about this film again, like I said, it challenges certain assumptions, such as this idea that he was totally obscure or what the deal was with cutting off the ear whether he committed suicide or whether he was murdered one point Van Gogh talks about what he likes about. Shakespeare is the mystery and the embassy of his words and similarly Van Gogh is a man who you can never really truly know you can only get a sense of the man as an actor. Do you find yourself drawn to the intangible mysterious elements of a character is is that we're the good stuff is. Absolutely. Yeah. And you're very I I appreciate your selection of bringing out that moment where he says, I don't always understand all of it. But that's okay, because he's the most mysterious writer, and and he's he says he's attracted to mystery because mystery is very close to wonder and wonder is very close to life. You know, nothing can be explained away. I think he particularly on modern age. Where obsessed with function and raisin, and we have to in order to live in the northern to stay alive and wake up we have to, you know, address ourselves through the stuff that can't be explained, and certainly an art and entertainment and in life, those that's where the gold is for me. Now, do you have a favorite painting of his I don't I don't know. I don't I mean, I remember when I was a kid, and I mean, I kid teenager. And I I saw I I went to Amsterdam and went to the Van Gogh museum 'cause I was performing there with theory company. I quite a bit in Holland in those days. I didn't know how to look at his paintings. Yeah. I don't think and I remember I always got a big kick out of at skeleton smoking a cigarette. When I was young now that it's a minor work to me. Yeah. I don't know. I of course, I like his later work. And now I have a huge relationship to the shows because I practiced pair of shoes. I was gonna say is there one that you like painting. That was probably the scariest part because there was a real tangible sense of success or failure. While I had Jillian helping me and he was coaching me through it. It was difficult because we were basically painting it in real time. Yeah. And so the camera, you know, we didn't want to cut out of it. Because the the the painting ceased to be interesting earth Saint ceased to function, but I think it sort of does function, and and one thing that's beautiful in the film. Even though we it was filmed it was painted in real time. We do cut away from it. But still even with cutting away not to cover it not being painted, you know in real time. But more for rhythm. You still get the sense how a series of marks can earn an and how colors and talk. Talk to each other. And and make something is not a representation, but really captures the essence of something. Now when you were painting the shoes and other moments when you're painting in the film, did you find that you were trying to please Julian Schnabel the director or Julian Schnabel, the artists more both. I must admit I was he was very generous with me, and I didn't want to disappoint him. And he became you know, no, it was very important because he was my guide. And I he was my teacher. So it's like when you're dedicated to a teacher you want to do. Well, so I must admit that's that was difficult because I know he would like to be doing the painting. But he he's got a frame and direct. So I'm his creature. I'm his thing. I'm the thing that is him. And is me, and he sends it out in the world. He's creating that's where it was crazy about this movie. It was so collaborative between the deep pay between. The actors and totally you hear this often people, basically, it's kind of just been positive about the experience. But in this case, you know, when actress talk about oh, how what a great collaboration that was. This was a real collaboration Julian has very strong vision was very clear about what he was doing. But he has also an ability to invite you into collaborate with him and make room for you to find your personal stake. And then once you make that personal stake that gets transformed into a kind of collective stake net is all driven by the rhythm. And the the the the birth of the movie, and that's that's a wonderful thing to be part of then I've had it to some degree with other directors people that allow me because of a certain level of trust in a certain level of on generosity. They. Vite you to collaborate. That's I like that most I don't like. Sometimes I can just function as an actor. But I like to function as an actor that's a creature of the director, but even more so with this movie, I guess because you're seeing things through the artists size. So there's a relationship between you and the art director in the cinematographer in also at the wanna say you were doing some of the steady Cam work yourself. Well, I have the Cavs look really when practically he wanted made to contribute. Yeah. He wanted made to do the framing wanted to give me that power. He wanted to give me that stack. So that was it sounds like just, you know, let's exciting. It wasn't big responsibility to it was but I felt comfortable also because. Ben wa dalom was very close with me on this shoot because we weren't shooting conventional locked off from coverage. Yeah. We didn't get a master. And then go tighter and tighter. And tighter tighter. It the way it was shot was very fluid now there are some very composed sequences when you think about the movie it's really a series of landscapes and portrait's. I mean, that's how it's framed. Yeah. So there's he's fluid nature shots. And then there's these very formal conversations that were really quite close, and we're really dealing with talking heads sometimes heads talking directly to the camera. So that was nice because in the structure of the movie Julian really was reflecting. What did Van Gogh paint primarily landscapes and portrait's, and there was a scale to it that correspondent to his work? So I don't know. It must have been an experience. It was. It was the looks like I one is they I think I have this right? That this is your ninety ninth film. So what aquaman will be the hundred is that right? We have. No, I I don't know where you're counting. But. Okay. It depends how you count move because some are cameos. Some are, you know, ROY very involved in six months showed some you're a couple days. I think and some are considered documentaries some our voice in. But I think we're talking about you know, almost hundred third. Yeah. Oh, wow. So then looking over hundred or one hundred and thirty movies. Have you come to any sort of a unified theory of acting in making? No, okay, honest, man. No, I really don't know goal. I now is it still calls me. And it's still mysterious. But, but I've been I've been in that mysterious place in that space placed scratch, my head about it that it's a place of insecurity or uncertainty that I love and I can work from that place. And I can also make things from that place. And that's a that's a beautiful failing. Because you don't feel stuck embrace. The mystery we go well at eternity is gate is just fantastic. I think you've got another Oscar nomination in your future. Not that. I want to jinx you. But everyone should definitely see it Willem Dafoe. Thanks so much for talking about my pleasure. Thanks again to Willem Dafoe for joining me on the podcast. See his terrific Oscar worthy performance as Vincent Van Gogh in addi tourneys gate in theaters beginning Friday, November sixteenth. The flat iron school will teach you everything you need to get a job in code data science or design, but they'll also prepare you for the jobs that don't even exist yet. Go to flat iron school dot com slash podcast and read about graduates new careers, salary ranges upcoming courses and explore these exciting new careers. You can start building your own career and coding data science or digital design at one of flat irons, local, we work campuses. Or you can take courses online. Go to flat iron school dot com slash podcast, read, the reviews and sign up for a free. Intro course enrollment is open. Now, if you haven't already be sure to subscribe to kick ass news on itunes and leave us a review, you can follow us on Facebook or. On Twitter at at kick ass news pod. And as always, I welcome your comments questions and ideas at comments at kick ass, news dot com. I'm Ben Mathis. And thanks for listening to kick ass news. Kick ass. News is a trademark of Mathis entertainment Inc.

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