Why Julian Schnabel Taught Willem Dafoe How to Paint

The Oscar-nominated actor portrays Vincent Van Gogh in the upcoming film 'At Eternity's Gate.'
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“We spent a lot of time on the set just painting,” says the 66-year-old artist-turned-filmmaker.

Willem Dafoe shouldn’t quit his day job to become an art counterfeiter, but he does apparently do a pretty decent Van Gogh. To play the tortured, ear-lopping artist in the biopic At Eternity’s Gate, which finished shooting over Christmas, Dafoe got painting lessons from a master, the film’s director Julian Schnabel.

“We spent a lot of time on the set just painting,” says the 66-year-old artist turned filmmaker, now in the editing bay assembling Eternity’s footage. “Willem paints Van Gogh’s paintings in the movie — like the self-portrait with him in the fur hat and the pipe — so he had to know how to do it. He had to know how to hold the brush and how to look like a painter.”

Of course, Dafoe didn’t do all 100 Van Gogh art works re-created for the film — Schnabel and other hired hands painted a bunch. And in some scenes, Dafoe just filled in spots on mostly completed canvases. But still, Schnabel says the actor, whom he’s known for 30 years, “inhabited the spirit” of Vincent Van Gogh. “He had a lot of buttons to push with the character and he pushed every one of them,” he says. “I don’t know what you’d call what he was doing but it wasn’t acting — it was more like channeling.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.