'At Eternity's Gate': 6 of the Film's Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations

3:18 PM 11/16/2018

by Adam Yuster

Willem Dafoe stars as Vincent van Gogh, the quintessential tortured artist, in a soulful reimagining of his final days.

At Eternity's Gate Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

Set in 1890, At Eternity's Gate tells the story of Vincent van Gogh's (Willem Dafoe) stay in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, leading up to his tragic death.

Today, van Gogh is recognized as one of the greatest and most influential artists in history, but his prickly personality and mental illness prevented him from being accepted by his contemporaries in the art world of the late 1800s. The creative genius behind The Starry Night died a virtual unknown, having only sold one of his over 2,000 works during his lifetime.

Although At Eternity's Gate's screenplay is inspired by true events, the film is not a strict biopic. "The important thing is we're not doing an interpretation," Dafoe told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film's North American premiere at the New York Film Festival. "We're making something. We're making something that's more of an expressionist portrait."

The film co-stars Rupert Friend as van Gogh's brother Theo and Oscar Isaac as van Gogh's friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner also play key roles.

Read on to see how the cast compares to their historical counterparts.

  • Vincent van Gogh, portrayed by Willem Dafoe

    Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in the town of Groot-Zundert, Netherlands. At the age of 16, van Gogh joined the art dealer firm Goupil and Cie. He was fired seven years later for his poor attitude, which modern-day psychologists commonly attribute to an undiagnosed mental illness.

    After spending a couple years as an evangelist, van Gogh devoted himself to art. He spent some time living in Paris with his brother before moving to the countryside, settling in Arles, France in 1888.

    At his brother's prompting, van Gogh invited his friend Paul Gauguin to visit him in Arles. Gauguin's brash, self-absorbed personality clashed with van Gogh's humbleness. The two got into violent arguments, the most explosive of which ended with van Gogh threatening Gauguin with a razor. Fearing for his life, Gauguin fled to Paris, and Van Gogh cut off part of his earlobe in a fit of despair.

    After Gauguin left, van Gogh committed himself to a mental asylum in Saint Remy-de Providence, where he painted what is arguably his most well-known painting, The Starry Night (1889). The following year, van Gogh was released into the care of Dr. Paul Gachet, a heart specialist and amateur artist whom van Gogh considered a kindred spirit.

    In June of 1890, van Gogh experienced a relapse. Following an intense argument with Gachet on July 27, he wandered into a field and walked out with a bullet in his chest. He died two days later.

    Accounts of how van Gogh received the fatal wound differ: some believe it was self-inflicted, others think the artist was murdered. In their 2011 biography Van Gogh: The Life, Pulitzer Prize-winning scholars Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith propose that van Gogh was accidentally shot by a friend's 16-year-old brother.

    Julian Schnabel, the director of At Eternity's Gate, always had Willem Dafoe in mind to play van Gogh. "I never thought of using another actor,” Schnabel stated in an interview with Esquire. “There’s nobody else who could have done what he did.”

    Schnabel, who is respected in the art community for his neo-expressionist "plate paintings," taught Dafoe how to paint to prepare him for playing van Gogh. "It was a transformative experience,” Dafoe told The Hollywood Reporter. "It gave me an understanding — or an imagination, anyway, not an understanding — but an imagination about what van Gogh was talking about and what he was expressing through his painting. I'm not an expert on van Gogh, but I have a deep feeling for his paintings."

  • Paul Gauguin, portrayed by Oscar Isaac

    Paul Gauguin, an arrogant but brilliant artist, was one of the originators of synthetism, a post-Impressionist art style that saw practitioners using pure colors and two-dimensional flat patterns to express their emotional relationship to the image. Gauguin's masterpieces — like Vision After the Sermon (1888) and The Yellow Christ (1889) — went unappreciated in his own time, but became renowned after his death.

    In 1888, Vincent van Gogh invited Gauguin to stay with him in Arles, France. The artists' conflicting personalities created a heated environment in which the two bickered incessantly. Tempers flared to an all-time high when Gauguin rejected van Gogh's proposal to turn Arles into an artists' colony. In a rage, van Gogh chased Gauguin with a razor blade and later severed part of his own ear.

    Oscar Isaac plays Gauguin in At Eternity's Gate. Isaac earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as the eponymous character in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. He went on to play X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron in 2015's Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens and 2017's Episode VIII — The Last Jedi cemented his superstar status, and he has also appeared in hits like Ex Machina and X-Men: Apocalypse.

    Unlike Gauguin, Isaac hasn't let his success get to his head. "I’m an actor, not a star,” Isaac said when asked about his fame in a 2016 profile with Rolling Stone. “I don’t really know what you mean when you say ‘star,’ ‘movie star,’ that stuff.” For the past three years, the actor has balanced his roles in blockbusters with roles in smaller, more personal fare, including a sold-out run as Hamlet at The Public Theater in 2017 and his upcoming turn as Gauguin.

  • Theo van Gogh, portrayed by Rupert Friend

    Theodorus "Theo" van Gogh was Vincent's younger brother. He was born on May 1, 1857, four years after Vincent. Like his brother, Theo worked for the art dealer firm Goupil and Cie, joining the Brussels branch in 1873. By 1884, he was running his own branch in Paris.

    Though Vincent's work was rejected by both his peers and the wider public in the late 19th century, Theo always believed his brother was a talented artist. He showed his support by single-handedly financing Vincent's work. In 1886, Theo invited Vincent to join him in Paris. During Vincent's time there, Theo introduced him to many celebrated artists of the time, including Henri Rousseau, Paul Cezanne and Vincent's idol and collaborator, Paul Gauguin.

    In January 1890, Theo named his son Vincent Willem in honor of his brother. When Vincent died six months later, Theo was heartbroken. He died the following January of paralytic dementia.

    Theo is played by Rupert Friend in the film. Friend, who rose to fame playing Peter Quinn on Homeland and currently portrays Ernest Donavon on CBS All Access' Strange Angel, called the role of Theo an "incredible part" in a recent interview with ColliderThe opportunity to work with Willem Dafoe particularly excited Friend, who added, "Working with Willem is wonderful because he is 100 percent in every moment, which sounds like a bit actor hippy-dippy, but he really is one of the best living actors. I was very, very fortunate to play most of my scenes with him."

  • The Priest, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen

    Mikkelsen plays a fictional priest who assesses van Gogh's sanity after his treatment at a hospital.

    Born in Copenhagen, Mikkelsen was originally a gymnast and dancer before breaking into the Denmark film industry at the age of 30 via his role as Tonny in 1996's Pusher. He went on to become one of Denmark's most prominent actors, starring in films like Flickering Lights (2000), Shake It All About (2001) and Pusher II (2004).

    Stateside, Mikkelsen is arguably best known for his portrayals of villains. He played the terrorist financier Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (2006), the cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lector in Hannibal (2013-2015) and the evil sorcerer Kaecilius in Doctor Strange (2016). He also played Galen Erso, the father of Felicity Jones' character, in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

  • Marie Ginoux, portrayed by Emmanuelle Seigner

    Marie Ginoux was a cafe proprietress whom van Gogh painted extensively during the last year of his life.

    Van Gogh stayed in the room above Ginoux's cafe from May to September of 1888. That November, van Gogh painted L'Arlésienne, a series of six paintings of Ginoux done in a style reminiscent of Gauguin's.

    Unbeknownst to van Gogh, Ginoux's husband was one of the largest supporters of a campaign to have him institutionalized. Historians suspect Ginoux may have been involved in the campaign as well.

    Ginoux is played by French actress Emmanuelle Seigner. At Eternity's Gate marks Seigner's second collaboration with director Julian Schnabel after The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). The French actress began her career as a model before being cast in Jean-Luc Goddard's The Detective (1985). She quickly came to the attention of Roman Polanski, who cast her as the female lead in Frantic (1988). Polanski and Seigner married in 1989, and she has consistently appeared in his films, including Venus in Fur (2013), which co-starred At Eternity's Gate castmate Mathieu Amalric.

  • Paul Gachet, portrayed by Mathieu Amalric

    Dr. Paul Gachet was a French doctor who cared for van Gogh during his final months. Van Gogh moved into Gachet's attic in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, on May 20, 1890, following his release from an asylum at Saint Remy-de Providence. Gachet, an eccentric heart specialist and amateur artist, quickly developed a strong friendship with van Gogh.

    During his stay with Gachet, van Gogh produced over 70 works, including two Portraits of Dr. Gachet (1890). The first Portrait of Dr. Gachet broke the record for most expensive painting ever sold when it fetched $82.5 million at auction in 1990. Adjusting for inflation, the work of art held that record for 25 years, until it was dethroned in 2015 by the $180 million sale of Picasso's Les Femmes d’Alger (Version "O").

    The French actor Mathieu Amalric plays Gachet in At Eternity's Gate. Like his costar Emmanuelle Seigner, Amalric first collaborated with director Julian Schnabel in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Aside from his acclaimed performance in that film as journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, Amalric is well known in France for his roles in Ma Vie Sexuelle (1996), Venus in Fur (2013) and The Blue Room (2014). In the states, he is perhaps best known as Bond villain Dominic Greene in Quantum of Solace (2008), but he has also appeared in Munich (2005) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).