Ethan Hawke on why it’s hard for film actors to suck
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Ethan Hawke emerged from a cast of promising young actors in 1989’s Dead Poets Society, playing an embryonic version of the sensitive intellectual he refined in later roles. He was immediately marked for Hollywood stardom. (That cast, which also featured Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles, was like a post-Brat Pack harvest of talent.) Though 1994’s Reality Bites threatened to typecast him permanently as the scruffily handsome face of Generation X, Hawke has proven to be a more adept and versatile actor, and more willing than most to work outside the system. His longtime collaboration with director Richard Linklater has brought him his greatest acclaim, as half (along with Julie Delpy) of an impetuous couple in 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, as well as roles in 1998’s The Newton Boys, 2001’s Tape, 2006’s Fast Food Nation, and a scene in 2001’s Waking Life. In recent years, he’s grown into a formidable character actor, going toe-to-toe with Denzel Washington in 2001’s Training Day; starring in Sidney Lumet’s last movie, 2007’s Before The Devil Know You’re Dead; and popping up in Hollywood movies like 2004’s Taking Lives and 2005’s Assault On Precinct 13. Hawke has also written two novels, 1996’s The Hottest State and 2002’s Ash Wednesday, the former of which he adapted for the screen in 2006.
In his new film, The Woman In The Fifth, Hawke brings some of his offscreen experience to bear on the character of Tom Ricks, an author who comes to Paris in an effort to reconnect with his estranged wife and their young daughter. Completely broke and lacking a work visa, Tom takes a room above a bar in exchange for a night security job for its owner, a sleazy local mob boss. In the meantime, he gets involved with two women: a sympathetic waitress (Joanna Kulig) at the bar and a mysterious, exotic widow (Kristin Scott Thomas) who lures him to her apartment at the same time twice a week, no questions asked. Written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, from Douglas Kennedy’s novel, the film is full of literary twists and turns that come from Tom’s skewed, unreliable perspective. Hawke recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the challenges of playing depression, the arc of his long career, and why he keeps coming back to the stage.
The A.V. Club: Pawel Pawlikowski wanted you specifically for this role, and the character of Tom Ricks certainly seems well within your experience. What did you draw upon to prepare for this role?
Ethan Hawke: Pawel has made a couple of films, Last Resort and My Summer Of Love, which I absolutely adored. And… I really didn’t have to prepare much, is what I’m getting at. When you work with really talented people, they’re kind of like your guide through the maze. In a lot of ways, I feel like this movie is a portrait of depression. And I think most of us know a lot about that in different ways. I don’t know, I try to make these things as personal as possible. That’s really my goal. You always try to find some ground where it’s partly the character and partly yourself.
AVC: Did he talk to you about why he wanted you, specifically, for this movie?
EH: [Laughs.] You know, it’s such a dubious compliment when a director thinks you’re perfect to play such a disastrous human being. [Laughs.] The truth is, I think he’s a huge Before Sunset fan. I think he really loved that movie, and I think he felt… I don’t know. You’d have to ask him about that. I have certain theories. And I’m glad he did [cast me]. But I can’t speak to it, really. Hopefully he thought I was a good actor, but I don’t know.
AVC: How did the process begin for you on this movie? What kind of conversations did you have before anything was even shot?
EH: What happened was, I was doing a play in London. And Pawel came to see it. He came backstage, and a bunch of the British actors all freaked out that he was there, because they were big fans of his movies, and I didn’t know who he was at the time. So I hung out with him a little bit, and then I went home and rented a bunch of his movies, and I really liked them. And then he wanted to meet with me to discuss something. He had this book. It was really simple. He said he wanted to make this book into a movie, and he wasn’t sure exactly why or how, but that if I would agree to it, he would write the script. So I said, “Sure.” Part of my theory is, if you’re an actor in movies, there’s only a handful of directors that really have a voice with the camera. I just think he’s so original and so interesting, and that’s what I’m looking for.
AVC: Did you have any ideas or contributions to make about who this character was that were off the page? And how did the film change as a result?
EH: What was fun about making this movie, what’s interesting about it, is it’s not a film that’s made to please an audience. It’s not a film that’s made to make a million bucks. It’s a film that is some kind of personal expression of Pawel’s, so it feels a little bit like going and helping somebody make a painting or something. It certainly changed because it was me. It certainly would have been a different movie with a different actor, because he so clearly wants to use his actors. That’s how he works. He feeds off you, and he encouraged me to write dialogue and come up with backstory and all this—and some of it he would use, and some of it he wouldn’t. [Laughs.] I knew the movie would be intensely stylized and surreal, but I tried to play it all as naturalistically as possible. I can’t stand it when people are in a kind of surreal movie, acting surreally. I find that cake-on-cake. And I wanted to get inside this guy, and understand the world from his point of view, and try not to care too much about what the audience knew and didn’t know, because I didn’t think it was valuable to me.
AVC: In this case, the audience’s experience is aligned with your character’s, in the sense that they’re both on unstable ground, and the world of the film is being revealed from your character’s fairly skewed perspective.
EH: Yeah. What I think is fun about the movie is that it takes you a little while before you realize how unreliable your narrator is. I enjoy that aspect.
AVC: When you’re in a movie like this and you’re in every scene, does that make you more invested in other aspects of the production than you would be otherwise?
EH: I think so, yeah. When you’re the lead of a movie, you become intimately involved in it in a way that you just don’t as a supporting actor in a piece. You know you’ve become a part of the camera work in a strange way, because you’re so intimately involved in the telling of the story. I really enjoy that, actually.
AVC: Is there a burden to having that kind of responsibility?
EH: It’s no burden at all. When you’re working with people you respect, it’s a privilege. Not to be corny, but it really is. Of course, when you’re in the opposite situation, it sucks. [Laughs.] It’s tough if—a lot of actors spend the bulk of their career selling crap. You know? Ninety percent of the stuff you see on television is just actors shucking and jiving, trying to make you not notice how bad the writing is. But in my situation, I’m working with a guy who has a lot to teach me. Working with [Pawlikowski] I felt like… I never met Milan Kundera or anybody like that, but I felt like that’s who Pawel reminds me of. He’s a really substantive person, and it was fun to be on his set. In the U.S., you spend so much time with people who want to be a big shot, and want to make big, important movies with a capital ‘I,’ and it was fun to work with somebody who was really interested in cinema as an artistic medium. It’s a medium that’s been almost entirely usurped by big business. I’m not the first person to say that.
AVC: This movie is so much about the life of the mind, and it has a very literary quality. Does that become a challenge to bring that across to the audience, material that is so internal?
EH: It is. That’s the hugest challenge. God knows. I’m sure for a lot of people, it’s not successful. It’s very difficult to do that. Like I said, if you’re trying to make a movie about depression, that’s a hard thing to do. Because it’s all about perspective and point of view, and there’s inherently something totally selfish about any kind of depression. A myopia. I have to get across my character’s inability to see outside himself, basically. And that’s very hard. We can’t fully empathize with a character like that, or understand where he’s coming from. You can relate to this guy who wants to love his daughter and be a better father, but in other ways, he’s a very difficult character to relate to.
AVC: One of the interesting things about the movie is that it explores a seamier side of Paris than people are used to seeing onscreen, one that feels almost Eastern European.
EH: Yeah. I’m repeating myself, so you’ll have to forgive me, but one of Pawel’s points was that when you’re in the throes of a very serious depression, it doesn’t matter where you are. You could be in the City Of Lights, the most beautiful city in the world, and completely miss it. You could be at the beach and just miss the ocean. I think that’s the kind of thing Tom is going through. He’s there in Paris, and all he can see is the dust on the wall, or whatever it is. He’s missing the larger picture. Does that make sense? There are a couple of moments where you notice that, like, the Eiffel Tower is actually in the shot, but it’s just cropped a little strangely, so you can’t even tell it’s really there. And that’s Pawel for you. He’s just trying to make you look at it from a different angle.
AVC: It’s a fascinating contrast with Before Sunset, which does open itself up to things that tourists do.
EH: Yeah. Exactly. You ride around in the Seine, and it’s like the equivalent of going up on top of the Empire State Building or something.
AVC: Do you feel like you’ve changed as an actor over the years? Do age and experience account for it, or has your process changed over time?
EH: I don’t know if it’s me or time or some version of both. I’ve definitely in the last 10 years turned into the character actor I always wanted to be. When I was younger, all anybody wanted me to do was, you know, look as pretty as possible and be as guileless as possible. [Laughs.] And it’s been really fun getting older and getting to play more complicated people. And it’s always what I dreamt of doing, so it doesn’t feel like I’ve changed that much, but my opportunities have changed.
AVC: Do you feel like you’re exerting more control now over what you do than in the past? Do you feel like you have more of a handle on your career?
EH: I don’t know. “Career” is a funny word, because the business is so strange, and changes so fast. What I have a handle on is what I want from acting. And one of the funny things about being young is, I didn’t really know what I wanted from acting. I knew I loved it, but my relationship to it has changed over the years. I don’t even know how to phrase it without sounding ridiculous. It’s just a very personal thing to me. Movies like Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead or Brooklyn’s Finest or this film are movies I would have dreamt that I would have gotten to do when I was in my early 20s. But I couldn’t get those opportunities to play those kind of complex people. So I don’t know if I’ve just become more complex, or whether time has done that. I’ve dedicated a large part of the last 10 years of my life to theater, and I have to admit, it’s not only brought me a lot of joy, it’s also taught me a lot about acting. And I’ve gotten to work with a lot of people who are really good at it.
AVC: Many actors profess a love for the theater, but claim to be scared off by the time commitment. That’s obviously not the case for you. Why is that, and what keeps you coming back?
EH: You know, when they say “time commitment,” what they really mean is “opportunities to make money.” If you spend nine months of the year doing a play, that’s leaving you a very short amount of your fiscal year to make your income. Because no matter how much a play pays you, it’s not competitive with the salary of film or television. I just try to use whatever success I’ve been fortunate enough to have to give me more freedom. And if I’ve got an opportunity to do a nine-hour Tom Stoppard play at Lincoln Center [The Coast Of Utopia], I want to do it. It’s always strange to me when these incredibly wealthy people talk about how they have to do that terrible movie because they need the money. I’m always like, “Well, what are you doing with the money?” [Laughs.]
I think because I started so young, I’ve made longevity my No. 1 priority. And when you get a lot of success out of the gate, like with Dead Poets Society and Reality Bites and stuff like that, it can be dangerous. I really love this profession, and I really wanted to be doing it 20 and 40 and 50 years later. And I have always been leery of the “first one now will later be last” philosophy—you don’t want to run too far ahead, because you get lost in the woods. The theater is much harder. It’s much more humbling. It forces you to learn a lot more. In general, you work with exponentially better writing. You just do. And so that pushes you. When you come to work with writing that isn’t as good, you have a set of tools to help make it better.
[Sighs.] I always get seduced into talking about this stuff because I love it, but the more you talk about it, the more pretentious you sound. It’s just my job, you know? It’s my job, and I try to do it as well as I can. And I try to believe in it in the same way I did when I was younger, and not let it turn into a profession.
AVC: With stage acting, there’s the appeal of having the continuity of the performance, of not having it broken up into days and nights.
EH: Exactly. It’s the difference between being a studio musician and a live performer. When you get to play your own song and you’re in charge of the rhythm and the timing and the pace and the energy, there’s just a lot more artistry involved. When you just kind of play your track and let somebody else lay it down, and they decide how you fit in the whole thing, and what sections to cut out and which sections to put in, there’s just less artistry involved. That’s all. It’s a funny thing. If you go watch a bunch of movies, it’s very rare that you see someone be terrible. But if you go see five or six plays, invariably, you’ll see like 20 terrible performances. It’s really hard to be good onstage. And it’s not that hard to be okay at a movie. It’s hard to be great in a movie, to be Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington, or Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s hard to be great in a film. Really hard. But it’s also hard to be terrible. It’s easy to be terrible onstage.
AVC: You can’t cut around that.
EH: You can’t. People can see you twitching your foot, they can see how awkwardly you stand, and how lousy your voice is, how you didn’t mean it. When you have the world’s best cinematographers lighting you and framing out the bad parts and then cutting to the best scene, and they play music underneath it, it’s pretty hard to suck shit.
AVC: You’ve been in more than 40 films. Is there one experience that you consider your favorite?
EH: [Pauses.] For me, my experience on Dead Poets Society… I’m not saying the movie is great, or this, that, or the other thing. I have no idea. But as an experience, it remains a high-water mark, just because I made a lot of friends. For a lot of people, your first experience can be your worst or your best. And that movie taught me what to expect from movies—that directors should be prepared, and have an idea of what to say, and what kind of film they want to make. And actors should do the same. It was a great, great first experience, and it’s helped me throughout my life.