"If you can channel the best part of you that is bigger than yourself where it’s not about your ego and not about getting ahead, then you can have fun and you aren’t jealous of others. You see other people's talent as another branch of your own. You can keep it rooted in joy...Life is long and there are plenty of opportunities to make mistakes. The point of it all is to learn."
New York, NY. Ethan Hawke--star of blockbuster films Dead Poets Society, Gattaca, Training Day, Before Sunrise and Brooklyn's Finest, theatrical dynamo in The Cherry Orchard and Winter's Tale, author of novels The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday, and director of Sam Shepherd’s play Lie of the Mind--sat down with Notes On The Road to reflect upon the various milestones of his highly successful and versatile career.
Equally supercharged and electrifying as he is on screen, Hawke transformed over breakfast from the rockin’ superstar everyone knows in the media into a remarkably unpretentious man of candid thought and earnest reflection.
What would you say is one of the greatest challenges of your work process?
With plays there is always the challenge of repetition in the rehearsal process. It exists with movies too. You have to do the scene over and over again. You’ve done the scene a thousand times and now they are going to move in a giant dolly and they’re gonna move the camera. And again, you have to act like it’s the first time you saw your mother in 30 years right at that moment. So you have to have a way to get inside of it where everything else goes away.
I always think about Willy Nelson playing Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain. I saw him play that a year-and-a-half ago at the Beacon or something. The first time I saw Willie Nelson, I was a kid, in 1978 he played that song. And here I am completely moved. I was so happy he played it. It’d be so easy for him to decide he’s sick of the song, but he plays the damn song and he was really singing that song that night for the 3,039,231st time but he was completely engaged and playing with the song and enjoying it and the audience was into it and that’s what you have to do. You can’t just play it; you have to be inside it.
How do you create that? How do you act like it’s the first time you’ve seen your mother in 30 years again and again? How do you create chemistry with other actors? What’s that process? A co-star? Especially if it doesn’t exist naturally? Or does it always exist naturally?
I think the possibility always exists naturally. That would be my theory. With some people—you must have this in music too—chemistry comes really easily and with some people it’s a tremendous amount of work. There are some times where two people can’t get in sync with each others’ rhythms. I’m sure there’s a reason for it. I remember—this can sound a little self-aggrandizing—but I remember my screen test for Training Day. It was pretty obvious right away to everyone in the room that Denzel and I were good together. That there was some weird chemistry that worked well. When he went left I went right..when he went right I went left. It worked well. I remember the director Antoine Fuqua coming up to me and he said “it was obvious to everyone in the room that that was how we were going to make the movie.” It was nothing I did. It had nothing to do with any kind of preparation I did. It was just a combination of those people. With that bit of chemistry, with that director, with that co-star.
In the theatre sometimes it's mysterious when it’s not happening and you know it should be…there’s some chemistry problem…there’s some give and take of energy that’s not happening. So as a director, how do you get the actors to step up to the plate?
It’s very difficult. Ultimately the actors have to have a burning desire within themselves to make it right and to not stop rehearsing until you unlock something.
This director, Jack O’Brien, once said to me and it’s really true: “Once you have a breakthrough in rehearsal you never go back.” It’s like learning to ride a bike. You are sitting there trying to stage a scene…should she go left should she go right? should we try it with her sitting on the couch? and the scene keeps falling apart and then all of a sudden this breakthrough happens and you realize you can do it with her sitting anywhere, if your mind is in the right place. The penny drops in some strange way and then everything clicks.
What do you wish you had known ten years ago, that you know now?
I think a lot of young people have this pressure on themselves that they have to do something right, as if there is a right way of doing things at all. Success isn’t permanent and lasting. It’s not. It’s all transient. I think I may have suspected this when I was young but I didn’t really trust it: Life is long and there are plenty of opportunities to make mistakes. The point of it all is to learn.
When I was younger, I wish I had had a more positive mindset. I vacillated a lot and reflected on the disappointing things that I think could have gone better. For everything that was going well, I would think “There are 5 movies I haven’t been able to get made” or I was considering disappointments, parts I didn’t get…
If your point is to get something back in what you do, then you’ve taken your eye off the prize. It sounds corny, but I really believe that you have to strive to never lose a kind of innate gratitude, that it’s a gift to be alive. You aren’t owed anything. I think if you can tap into that, you can start judging yourself by the things that are going well. You can judge yourself by your best.
There is a lot of energy given to young people who are 16 or 19, towards what they want to be when they grow up. But there isn’t a tremendous amount of energy given to 40-year-olds on where they want to be when they’re 80! What is the goal? There are basically no 80-year-old movie stars. No 80-year-old can open a movie, so that’s probably not a worthwhile goal. It’s hard to deepen your goals and to have them become more substantial as you change as an individual; I believe it’s about how to make more substantive art; how to let go more of the superficial accoutrements of success.
What’s your single most important daily habit that keeps you artistically vibrant?
I think it’s gratitude…I learned that from Richard Linklater who directed me in Before Sunrise and we’ve done a slew of things together since. I’ve learned that if I can’t be on the set with this kind of pervasive sense of gratitude -- as in, knowing that it’s not my birthright to be there. And I feel that way whether I’m alone at my typewriter or on a set. It’s probably the biggest thing that’s changed in me over the years.
Sometimes in life you get thrown opportunities, and I've found that you can really be your best if you work from a place of gratitude. It actually positions your mindset to see things more clearly. Not to hear what you're afraid to hear or see what you're scared to see. It's not about seeing what you want to see - it's about seeing what truly is.
How have you managed to maintain a sense of perspective throughout the evolution of your creative life?
Independent cinema and theatre both have a humility to them that is good for the--well, for lack of a better word--for the soul. My grandfather used to say that the richer people get, the less they laugh and the more scared they become that they are going to die.
I think the whole of society, generally speaking, tends to program people to believe that if they make money they’ll be happy and yet the facts don’t always show that to be true. Of course, it’s nice to have enough money to pay your doctors bills. But sometimes, when I look at the actors I’ve met that have been outrageously successful, it seems really like a Faustian path. And every once in a while you meet someone that has skinned the cat.
Theatre is so humble. Theatre companies can do great outreach, great stuff with kids. You can do incredible art. If you see a great theatre production it can be really moving and powerful on so many levels. And simultaneously, you can run acting studios and music studios and workshops for kids and things for guys getting out of jail, always connecting with people and the planet as opposed to isolating you into becoming some kind of crazy Betty Davis-like figure, smoking cigarettes at your penthouse at the Ritz as your bank account drains and your children write articles about what an idiot you are - which is, lets face it, what happens to a lot of movie stars.
When I think about musicians, for example, I’ve always been impressed with Philip Glass. I don’t know him well, and I always see him from a distance (and that’s sometimes not a very accurate picture) - but to me, it seems that he has always maintained a high level of creativity over a long period of time. Did you know the musicians that did the music for Lie of the Mind got nominated for a Drama Desk Award? They were very happy about it but the reason they were so happy was that they were nominees alongside Philip Glass. So they thought, “F*** man…I’ve really arrived if worst case scenario we lose a prize to Philip Glass, no shame in that!”
How do you organize yourself creatively? The greatest artists often seem to cultivate more than one form of expression.
Since I had kids I don’t organize my time nearly as well as I used to - it’s like a nuclear bomb went off in my life! When I was younger I used to have a great time. I could act in a play and still have a couple hours in the day to write. I don’t have that kind of time any more so I have to break it up more. Maybe this is good advice to other artists who ask themselves the same question about organizing themselves creatively, but I would say it is good to cultivate a good sense of protection and organization, because kids wreak havoc on the whole thing!
Personally I try to devote time to the theatre…For me, not working in the theatre feels much like I imagine it would feel to be an athlete who doesn’t go to the gym. Also, there’s no real cash in theatre. Bus drivers don’t go to the theatre anymore. It gets harder and harder. It often seems that the dominant art-form of our time is cinema.
Also, I learn a lot from others who have continually evolved in a creative sense. I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti the other day who is ninety-something, and it was so inspiring. He has these crazy grey eyes of a saint, and looked worn down by life in the best way. He was watercoloring and drawing constantly and he talked about how he learned about watercoloring from Henry Miller.
There's also Peter Weir, one of the first directors I ever worked with, who was a stone mason. That’s what he did when he was trying to figure out what movies to do next since film directors often go a year or two without working.
And I do a lot of writing. Ultimately, “All art aspires to be music” - great quote by Mark Twain. Good writing at its best finds a rhythm and nothing conjures a mood and can move people like music. Nothing can. It is weird to be an actor and know the powerful medium that movies are, and yet at the same time see that so many movies are so bad…
You mean “bad” in an artistic sense?
YEAH! They're just so bad.
I think it’s all about finding a good compromise. If all I did was make movies that I personally wanted to make, I think I would stop working pretty quickly. For example, without the success of a movie like Training Day, we never would have gotten Before Sunset made.
Now I really like Training Day, I’m not saying that I didn’t. But to a certain extent, if you are not in mainstream films that are playing at the mall, at some point it will get harder and harder. I know one renowned actor who is doing a huge blockbuster and, I mean…Jesus-H-Christ….I love him. I’ve seen him be great in very versatile roles, but I guess he wants to have a nice summer house, too. So he’s going to do a really mediocre mainstream movie. I’m sure he’d rather do other things…
I just made a movie in Paris with this Polish film director, Paweł Pawlikowski and he’s brilliant and amazing…but I don’t know whether the film will come out here. I know it’s going to be really good, but there seems to be less and less of a market these days for movies which are geared towards people over the age of 17.
We're curious how you avoid feeling overwhelmed all the time because you must get a lot of requests to do various things. How do you keep a fresh energy with everything?
I really enjoy spending time with students if I go talk at Juilliard, or there are a lot of theatre companies I work at that have interns. It helps me cultivate and maintain the attitude of a student, because they are so idealistic and I believe that idealism helps you keep a fresh attitude. I think that’s really important.
It’s very easy to lose perspective. For example, I just worked with this actress who, in all seriousness, was complaining about having to fly to Venice to accept an award she had won. I thought to myself that I don’t ever want to get to the point, you know, where I completely lose sight of the fact that no one at the table I’m sitting at feels sorry for me for having to go to Venice to accept an award for a brilliant movie I got to do! Going to Venice to accept an award is really, really cool!
I think she just kind of lost perspective. She felt irritated with the return flight, the volcano…I mean, it makes sense, because I think it’s very easy for people to get caught up in the details in everyday life. I believe it is so important to try and find the right way to balance your ego with your endeavors, when you expect the most of yourself and push yourself to be the best you can be. It’s good to strive to tap your ambition but at the same time not be ruled by it.
What are some of the things you came to realize as your career began evolving?
Well, I had this idea a few years ago that I wanted to throw myself into supporting acting. It was part of the reason I wanted to do The Bridge Project at BAM in Brooklyn.
I continue to be so impressed with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and we’ve worked together before. We are about the same age, and when we were first in New York, you know, I experienced more success than he did--earlier than he did.
But then later on, all of a sudden, he was lapping me and there I was, thinking “This guy’s f***ing great! How did he get to be so good??” I felt he was the first individual of my generation to be really great. WOW, he’s really in charge of his instrument. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s got his head on right about it, too. It’s not some fluke.
I eventually realized that part of it was from years and years of playing supporting parts. He would have two scenes in a movie, and he would work hard to figure out how to make those two scenes great: what was in his character’s pocket; what was his background. And every time he popped up on that screen, he was such a full being, even in smaller movies. I remember seeing him in Nobody’s Fool. He had a tiny part and it’s a crazily memorable character. And also in Boogie Nights and all these different projects where he would have supporting roles, he was just amazing in all of them.
One of the problems with supporting acting is that it’s really hard on the ego. It’s tough to sit backstage or go out to dinner with friends afterwards and hear them talk about how GREAT so-and-so was and you’re like “Wait a second!”
Your career was rather different in that you were playing leads from the time you were very young--
I had been playing leads since I was 18 and kind of took my time with it. I took a lot for granted and trusted what I call “personality acting”: riding on your innate qualities as a human being. And transitioning from that stage was one thing that was really challenging. I came out of the gate so hard. For about 5 or 6 years I was one of the best actors of my generation because everyone else was still in college! [laughter] I didn’t know that this huge crop of f****n' people were going to come blowing into their 30s and they were really going to have experience and knowledge and be better read than me. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I really experienced jealousy. I was like “What the hell?” My career was taking its first big dip while others were blowing up and all of a sudden, I couldn’t get a job for the first time.
It’s a good thing to go through I think because you have to wrestle with it. And you don’t want to kid yourself that the universe is fair. When my kids cry that something isn’t fair, I tell them, “Well it’s not fair that you get to go to a private school and other kids don’t” Any problem we have, we also have the tools to deal with it.
What other creative professions inspire you to have such a solid perspective?
I find in general I learn a lot from sports. This Celtics Lakers series going on now [NBA Finals, 2010] , Ray Allen was on fire. He could do no wrong. He’s 7 of 9 from 3-point land. He broke Jordan’s record. His next game, I think he had the worst shooting performance in NBA finals history. The best followed by the worst. I think he was 0-15 or something. It goes to show you that after every peak there’s a valley.
I always wondered about certain things in the collaborative arts. It poses a good question of whether you would rather be on a championship team coming off the bench or on a 500 team but start? Everyone likes to say “I’m with the team” but it’s hard to sit on the bench, man.
In a similar vein, almost every actor I’ve seen, whatever they do after they’ve just won some award is absolute sh*t.
I am always so moved by Kris Kristofferson’s life and approach - his whole take on it after some 70 odd years of living, playing music, acting and doing all different things.
If you can channel the best part of you that is bigger than yourself where it’s not about your ego and not about getting ahead, then you can have fun and you aren’t jealous of others. You see other people’s talent as another branch of your own. You can keep it rooted in joy.
So what do you see yourself doing in the next 10 years, if not 40?
I’m really asking myself these questions these days. I would love to have a really succinct answer. I spent a lot of time while in Paris, when I wasn’t working, seeing the city and viewing it really differently. I thought, “Wow, maybe the gods are trying to tell me, maybe there’s a reason I’m back here." The first time I went to Paris I was so full of youthful idealism.
Do I want to just continue acting? I had a really great time directing Sam Shepherd's play A Lie of the Mind this year. That took me by surprise. There was a time when I thought I’d be a film director, and I did a little of that, and I enjoyed it, but I haven’t shown to be as good at it as I thought I was going to be. It was an interesting process, though, and my respect for directing as a craft went up tremendously--as well as for acting.
The theatre has turned out to really be my first love, and I may end up spending more and more time there. If I had one dream for myself as an 80-year-old it would be to start the first national theatre. But I’d settle for running a theatre company. [smiles]
I’ve definitely realized how much directors rely on actors, which I didn’t know. I kind of thought they were just in charge. I didn’t realize how much they rely on performers to come up with something special. I really dug directing theatre. It brought together all my tastes: acting, my love of music, my interest in directing. Really great film directors have to have a gift for photography. It’s very different than having a respect for it. You have to have something special to say with it. Jean-Luc Godard, Scorsese and Cassavetes -- great film directors, all of them were saying something new with it. It may be hubris but I always felt as an actor I had something to offer. I really wanted to get up there.
Who are some of your role models? Kris Kristofferson?
He put his money where is mouth is. Like you said he did more than one thing well and for him his heart was always in songwriting. He has no ego in being an actor but he enjoys it. He enjoys performing, being around actors. He thinks it’s a great day job. He said you can only write a song so many hours of the day.
More and more I admire Max von Sydow, a great Swedish actor. He did all the Bergman films. I went to see Robin Hood the other day and Max von Sidow is in it. He didn’t look like he was just cashing a check being up there. He looked like he was dying to be there and play this part and he was having so much fun. So I went online and started reading all about his career and all the Machiavellian turns it has taken. 10 years he spent in LA as a Hollywood baddie; for a while he just played Nazis - who cares if he’s Swedish - he sounds German! He is a great actor and he struck me as somebody who played the long ball.
This guy who directed me in The Coast of Utopia and Henry IV. He directed me at Lincoln Center in these two giant productions. I would recommend anyone do a play with him to just be a part of his rehearsal process. You learn so much about life.
I like Celtics coach Doc Rivers so much…every time I see him give an interview after the game he always seems to have to some kind of life lesson that he’s taking and ways to give guys things to think about things that are larger. That’s one of the reasons I’d like to see the Celtics win - 'cause they have such a team mentality.
We all know these kinds of people in our lives, whom we don’t necessarily want to be, but who represent heroes, in a way.
The complexity of your life in the public eye must be overwhelming at times. How do you deal with it all?
Well, in general I deal with less and less of that these days, although it certainly is one of the complexities of celebrity or a public profession. I think one of the toughest things about being in the public eye is meeting new people, because it becomes a strange experience. You are robbed in a way of making a first impression on people, because they already have a pre-existing impression in their minds. That can lead you to become very wary of meeting new people, and thus it’s easy to become isolated, which is really terrible for anyone’s psychological health.
I’ve really tried not to give into that. I’ve tried to make new friends and trust in a sense of innate normalcy in the world, even if there are some real lunatics out there.