Dafoe starred as the iconic artist in November 2018's At Eternity's Gate


When At Eternity’s Gate star Willem Dafoe researched his starring role for the Vincent van Gogh biopic, the details of the iconic artist’s life left him astonished.

Dafoe, who earned his fourth Oscars nomination this year for his role as the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter, told PEOPLE at the 2019 Academy Awards that he was surprised about what he learned as he dived deeper into his portrayal.

“Well, what drew me to the project was Julian Schnabel, a great painter and a great filmmaker, who was going to make a film about [the] painter,” Dafoe said at the Oscars red carpet of the film’s director. “The way he described it to me was that we were going to go to the places van Gogh was, we were going to paint, we were going to try to imagine what he was thinking when he was in his most productive period.”

“It was about getting away from the cliché,” Dafoe, 63, continued. “When I started researching it, I was surprised by many things. His sincerity, his joy, how connected he was to his work.”

91st Annual Academy Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 24 Feb 2019
Willem Dafoe with Italian actress and filmmaker Giada Colagrande at the 2019 Academy Awards
| Credit: Christopher Polk/REX/Shutterstock

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The film follows van Gogh during his time at an asylum, as well as his meeting of another famous painter, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), who encourages van Gogh to pursue new forms of painting.

Dafoe is nominated for Best Actor Sunday for his role as the tortured and talented artist.

The 91st Academy Awards are broadcasting live from Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 24 at 8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT on ABC.