News

Get to Know the Nominees: Willem Dafoe For At Eternity's Gate

Best Lead Actor prospect Willem Dafoe on working with Hollywood's premiere directors, his iconic comic-book villain, and the performance that could (finally) earn him an Oscar.

by | February 22, 2019 | Comments

Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate  (Photo by @ CBS Films)

Rotten Tomatoes’ “Get To Know Your Nominees” series will provide an in-depth look at one nominee from each of the major awards categories – the four acting categories, and directing – diving into their highest-rated work from both fans and critics, essential titles from their filmography, and featuring thoughts on their nominated film drawn from an extended interview.


The Nominee: Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe scored his first Oscar nomination for his inspired performance as Sgt. Elias in Oliver Stone’s war epic Platoon. This weekend he heads back to the Academy Awards, nominated – for the first time as the lead performer – for his portrayal of Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. When we spoke with Dafoe for an extended pre-Oscars conversation, he contemplated the similarities between the roles. Though decidedly different – the military man vs. the tortured artist – they share one common thread for the actor who played them: intense preparation.

“It’s hard to compare because they’re different experiences, but both required that effort, and that became a key to inhabiting the character,” said Dafoe. “In Platoon, it was very important to know how to do soldier things and do them with grace, certainty, and ease. Similarly, for the painting, I [had] to be comfortable with it. We don’t have a lot of cutaways.” That commitment to realism in the unconventional 2018 biopic earned Dafoe high praise, including the Volpi Cup (Best Actor Prize) at the Venice Film Festival.

The lyrical tale, from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly director Julian Schnabel, morphs Van Gogh’s paintings into surrealist images that float across the screen documenting the final years of the famed painter’s life – his exit from Paris to Arles, his friendship with French painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), and his last days, during which he was committed to a sanitarium. Dafoe recalls that pre-production on the film was especially memorable because Schnabel – himself an artist – took a hands-on approach to tutoring the actor.

“Julian [Schnabel] is a painter,” Dafoe explained. “Having him teach me certain things – strategies, or techniques – helped me to understand what Van Gogh talks about in his letters. I learned so much through the painting.” Throughout his 39 years as a working actor, he says it’s often the directors who’ve drawn him to projects. “The best thing a director can do is give you a beautiful setup. When the world is complete, when you enter it, you know exactly what has to happen.”

As Van Gogh remarks to Gauguin in At Eternity’s Gate: “We don’t invent the picture, we find it.”


Fan Favorites: Spider-Man’s nemesis, a marine adventure, and a fantastic fox

Spider-man
Dafoe played the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-man (Photo by @ Columbia / courtesy Everett Collection)

Dafoe’s affection for directors has endeared him to several auteurs,  including Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Oliver Stone, Sam Raimi, Wes Anderson, and fellow 2019 Oscar nominee Spike Lee. His partnerships with Scorsese, Anderson, and Raimi gave birth to some of his most iconic characters. His work with Raimi as arch villain the Green Goblin to Tobey Maguire’s web-slinger in 2002’s Spider-Man is one of the reasons many point to the movie as the birth of our modern-day cinematic superhero obsession. Could we possibly fathom a Marvel Cinematic Universe without the global success of Spider-Man – and its cackling villain? Not likely.

His relationship with Wes Anderson – who frequently collaborates with the same A-listers for his mammoth ensembles – is something the 65-year old actor holds particularly dear. Dafoe says it was he who originally sought out Anderson. “I thought he was doing interesting things. He came to the theater that I was working at, and we really hit it off, so I asked if we could work together. I thought, ‘I would love to work with this guy. Maybe we’ll work together in three years’ time, like we’ll see each other down the line.’ Then about three or four months later, I got a call and he said, ‘I think I have something for you,’ and that was The Life Aquatic.” It was the start of a 15-year working relationship that now spans four films. Dafoe also told us he is forever indebted to Anderson and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou for personal as well as professional reasons. “It was a beautiful role, we shot it in Rome, and [on set] is where I met my wife. I feel very sentimental about the film now because of her.”

The underwater Jacques Cousteau parody debuted to mixed reviews – its currently rated 56% on our Tomatometer – but his next two efforts with Anderson received near-universal acclaim: Fantastic Mr. Fox was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, while The Grand Budapest Hotel would take home four Oscars. In the first film, Dafoe played the Psychotic Rat; in the second, the sinister tough guy, J.G. Jopling. On the subject of his constant genre shifts, Dafoe says, “I take great pleasure in that – when you mix it up and do different kinds of movies, different genres. Different people are aware of you in different ways. Someone that watches Spider-Man doesn’t necessarily watch The Last Temptation of Christ or The Grand Budapest Hotel.


Willem Dafoe Essentials: Jesus, the property manager, and Gill

The Florida Project
Dafoe with Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project. (Photo by @ A24)

Wisconsin native Dafoe says his voice has been a calling card since almost the start of his career, but Disney-Pixar’s Finding Nemo launched him into a new class of voice acting. For many, the actor’s sultry baritone shall be forever linked with Gill, the worldly Moorish Idol fish who takes orphaned Nemo under his fin. While shooting The Florida Project with director Sean Baker, his young co-stars immediately pegged him as the voice of Gill – or so they said. He remains somewhat skeptical on whether Brooklynn Prince, star of the indie darling, made the recollection on her own. “Yeah, they said they did, but it’s hard to tell if it’s them or their parents are whispering in their ear,” he jokingly told us.

Set at a motel somewhere at the margins of the Disney World Resort in Orlando, The Florida Project features Dafoe as a no-nonsense manager who cares for the run-down property, a precocious girl who calls it home (Prince), her friends, and her troubled single mother. His portrayal of the surrogate father and caregiver to the poverty-stricken community netted him his third Oscar nomination (he would lose that year to Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

Dafoe told RT he was delighted that long-time collaborator Paul Schrader had received his first Oscar nomination this year for Best Original Screenplay for First Reformed. “I’ve known [Paul] for years and I was surprised that this is his first nomination,” he said. “I just assumed he had been nominated somewhere along the line, or for one of the films that I’ve done with him.” Dafoe has worked with Schrader multiple times over four decades, first playing Jesus in the Schrader-penned Last Temptation of Christ, which earned director Martin Scorsese his second Oscar nomination. The role, which proved to be career-defining, could have just as easily derailed his trajectory in the late 1980s (not all actors who’ve played the Son of God have recovered).

Dafoe’s commitment to, as he says, “keeping the audience guessing,” has prevented him from being typecast. “I’m drawn to performances where you feel the people, but not the actor. They aren’t showy. I like disappearing into the material and being a creature of the director.”


Surprise Gems: A Campy Detective, and a John Waters jailer

Dafoe in cult favorite Boondock Saints. (Photo by Courtesy of Indican)

Dafoe says it is his brilliant and campy turn as Agent Smecker in The Boondock Saints that fans comment on most frequently – despite the fact it never got a theatrical release. The straight-to-VHS action-comedy about a pair of avenging Irish brothers was abruptly shelved before release, but fans remain undaunted. “People love that movie. They love it to death. They watch it over and over again. It’s a bona fide cult classic,” he gleefully told us. “I can usually spot [a Boondock Saints fans] because they come enthusiastically up to me. I’m like ‘I know what movie you’re going to say!'” The actor doesn’t seem put out by his more passionate fans. “[Smecker] was a fun character to play. It was a great opportunity to be comedic.”

It is another comedy that comes as a close-runner up to fan favorite, he says. He may have only appeared briefly in John Waters’ Cry-Baby as the lead character’s jailer, but he made an impression. “I mean, people still talk about me patting Johnny Depp’s butt.”


At Eternity’s Gate is available to purchase or stream now. The Academy Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, February 24, 2019 on ABC. 

Tag Cloud

Countdown MCU Universal singing competition MTV New York Comic Con President RT21 Amazon GIFs Epix Fall TV award winner Pride Month IFC Films robots comic spain Binge Guide Trivia Photos Walt Disney Pictures Shudder Watching Series Marvel spy thriller Sundance Elton John Toys FX Holidays Amazon Prime Video Thanksgiving The Arrangement disaster Opinion E3 Comedy Tomatazos sports Polls and Games See It Skip It diversity Podcast Bravo sitcom doctor who Musicals stand-up comedy psycho historical drama Columbia Pictures Extras El Rey SXSW Election Pirates based on movie Acorn TV Paramount Spring TV 24 frames Schedule USA mutant E! hispanic Syfy foreign Winter TV Tumblr Britbox A&E psychological thriller toy story Country anthology FXX Pet Sematary Anna Paquin Grammys revenge blaxploitation spanish language TNT vampires National Geographic Sony Pictures BBC ITV Nominations Marathons war Black Mirror Certified Fresh VICE aliens Paramount Network San Diego Comic-Con Film Festival TIFF Vudu Ovation Teen WGN ratings true crime Premiere Dates hist ESPN OWN TCM Character Guide Oscars PBS Video Games Esquire anime Music adventure Song of Ice and Fire travel nature discovery tv talk Family First Look spinoff Logo Comic Book latino what to watch TruTV comiccon Captain marvel RT History cults Valentine's Day X-Men Rocketman zombie Drama spider-man cooking Apple Emmys politics Starz dceu Freeform Shondaland Superheroe game show cats ghosts TBS 2016 television Spike CMT elevated horror Masterpiece Warner Bros. USA Network space Mary Tyler Moore dragons period drama 2017 VH1 biography DC Universe theme song MSNBC Tarantino DirecTV facebook dc DC Comics Lifetime Sundance Now NYCC miniseries Brie Larson Women's History Month Writers Guild of America movies mockumentary YouTube Red Netflix science fiction Biopics Fox News CNN golden globes ABC Family AMC Musical harry potter PaleyFest CW Seed series Awards Pop The Witch Disney Channel 2015 History Martial Arts DC streaming service Red Carpet jamie lee curtis Mary Poppins Returns IFC Chernobyl thriller crime witnail Mindy Kaling docudrama animated YA Interview crossover festivals game of thrones teaser Lionsgate natural history TCA 2017 Sneak Peek Western Quiz Comedy Central technology Lucasfilm south america Cosplay NBC YouTube Premium SDCC serial killer adaptation Super Bowl 45 Christmas Reality Emmy Nominations children's TV Pixar Rocky Best and Worst Heroines Sci-Fi Awards Tour Trophy Talk Mudbound Amazon Prime The CW Chilling Adventures of Sabrina green book Cannes streaming Mary poppins Comics on TV CBS All Access cops 2019 Box Office 007 Ghostbusters cars Mystery Superheroes book Reality Competition boxoffice composers crime drama American Society of Cinematographers Crackle BET talk show Infographic Fantasy TV zombies Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Cartoon Network supernatural Spectrum Originals Trailer Rom-Com ABC Star Wars dramedy FOX First Reviews HBO Max LGBTQ police drama unscripted quibi TCA SundanceTV Dark Horse Comics Hulu strong female leads Creative Arts Emmys 21st Century Fox Summer TV Land romance transformers GoT Set visit WarnerMedia Horror political drama Action DGA GLAAD zero dark thirty justice league richard e. Grant Kids & Family APB 20th Century Fox TLC kids sequel Film Stephen King casting BBC America medical drama Animation 2018 Calendar CBS LGBT Ellie Kemper Adult Swim Nickelodeon Disney streaming service binge Star Trek finale Disney social media cinemax Showtime Year in Review Rock Food Network Nat Geo crime thriller HBO Winners