With the most productive year of his life under his belt (including a Golden Globe nod for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Boyhood), actor Ethan Hawke finds meaning in every moment.
When I met Ethan Hawke 20 years ago, he was a freewheeling young guy with a love of life, writing (The Hottest State, his first novel, was already in the works), muscle cars, Sam Shepard plays and Bob Dylan records he’d play in his West Village walk-up. But, of course, Hawke, who was by then already an established and successful performer, was also passionate about acting, particularly onstage—he was running the now defunct Malaparte Theater Company he’d founded with friend and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman.
Today, at 44, Hawke continues to prove his creative instincts are as strong as ever. And it’s been an especially high-praise year for the Austin-born, Brooklyn-based actor, director, writer and father of four. Last summer’s Boyhood, the coming-of-age drama that filmed Hawke and his fellow castmates over the course of 12 years, has been hailed as a cinematic triumph, earning a Golden Globe best motion picture nomination and garnering Hawke a nod for best supporting actor. Since Boyhood’s release, he’s wrapped a biopic about jazz great Chet Baker, Born to Be Blue; starred in a baseball film and a drone drama; and finished a documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. Oh, and then there’s that starring role in the sci-fi thriller Predestination, out Jan. 9.
On the morning of Boyhood’s Gotham Independent Film audience award win in December, we’re photographing Hawke in Brooklyn—where he lives with his wife, Ryan; and their two daughters, Clementine Jane and Indiana—and talking about this impressive run of films. “In case you haven’t noticed, I have ADD,” he says, referring to his penchant for movies and roles that are wide-ranging in genre.
What is consistent is Hawke’s determination and passion for the characters he plays, particularly when he gets the chance to portray a musician, which has been a recurring role in his repertoire. He first played one in Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites; then in Sam Mendes’ stage production of The Winter’s Tale; and, later, as the title character in Sherman’s play Clive (an update on playwright Bertolt Brecht’s Baal), where, “I had my hair all David Bowie’d-out,” Hawke says. (Bowie produced an LP based on Brecht’s play in 1982.)
Today, instead of brooding over the forthcoming awards show, Hawke is charged up about the fact that he has just returned from shooting a film that reimagines a period of drug-addicted trumpeter Baker’s life. “It was fun to play a musician again,” he says.
In 1968, when Baker was about Hawke’s age now, he was attacked by drug dealers in San Francisco after a deal went bad. “They beat him so badly that he lost all of his teeth. He couldn’t play anymore, and he really thought his life was over,” Hawke explains. Born to Be Blue focuses on how Baker slowly taught himself to play again. And as with all of Hawke’s parts, he brings a discerning, critical eye to an extremely complicated character. “It’s fascinating to look back at Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and see what serious musicians they were,” Hawke says. “They talked about music at a much higher level than virtually everybody on the radio today. The depth of their musical knowledge begs the question: What is progress? You know you’re getting old when you start talking about how it used to be so much better.”
Hawke’s interest in music doesn’t stop with acting. Besides writing songs and playing the guitar in real life, his recent documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, tells the life story of 85-year-old pianist Seymour Bernstein and explores how, according to Hawke, single musicians are underappreciated today.
The story began when the actor met Bernstein for the first time in 2011, an experience Hawke says was “infinitely mysterious” and life changing. “At the time I was doing a play and struggling a lot,” he says. “It was a combination of turning 40 and, well, I don’t know what. I was having my first real crisis with stage fright and full-blown panic attacks, and I didn’t understand that at all because I’d been acting since I was 12 years old.”
One night, Hawke attended a dinner and ended up seated next to Bernstein, a Korean War veteran and former concert pianist, a profession known to produce artists who suffer from acute stage fright. “He said to me, ‘It seems like something is bothering you.’ It felt safe to talk to him, so I just poured out something that had been this really shameful secret,” recalls Hawke. “He helped me more over that dinner than anybody had been able to help me in a couple of years. I went home and was like: Who the hell was that? I felt like I’d met Gandalf.”
Bernstein’s philosophy on life would become the main crux of the film. “Seymour has something to say that I had never heard before in the culture that we live in. He wasn’t sure that succeeding at a very high level was good for anybody. He basically quit performing publicly and dedicated the second half of his life to teaching and to composing,” Hawke further dissects. “Virtually everybody I meet is always trying to hustle... feeling like their self-esteem needs to be rooted in this perception of success, and here’s somebody who’s like, ‘You know what—that whole thing is a joke. Your self-esteem doesn’t even come from there.’”
Hawke’s dream for the movie was to capture a lifetime of one man’s wisdom and present it in such a way that it could be understood universally. One of his inspirations was German professor Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which brought the concept of Zen to Europe after World War II by demonstrating how understanding a craft intimately relates to understanding everything else in life. “People who understand engines will understand how to build a building in the same way that that relates to how to play a Beethoven piece,” Hawke says. “The principles of life are universal, and our experiences aren’t nearly as unique as we think they are, and so the same principles apply. What’s fun about talking to Seymour is you start realizing—in learning how to play the piano well, you learn how to be a better friend.”
Hawke’s early cinematic teachings also came into play with the documentary. Director Joe Dante, whom he worked with on his first film at 13, taught Hawke about genre filmmaking—“the concept that you give the people exactly what they want but you sneak a message into it,” which is exactly what Hawke does with Seymour.
When it came to actually making the film, Hawke shopped the passion project around to other pals to take on, but it soon became clear he was meant to direct it, which would give him the immense creative freedom he loves. “Some part of me has to believe that [a film like] this can change somebody’s life,” he says. He enlisted his wife, whom he married in 2008, to produce the biopic. “Sometimes when your only mutual project is the kids and the house, it’s all you end up talking about,” he says. “It was fun to talk about some sonata.”
Hawke was also inspired by another of his close relationships, that with director Richard Linklater, who encouraged him to direct Seymour himself. “I had seen Linklater’s documentary called Inning by Inning on ESPN, and it was a very beautiful story about this older baseball coach whose philosophy about how to play baseball relates to other things in life. And I thought I could do the same thing with the piano.”
Boyhood, the movie that’s garnered Hawke the most acclaim this year, was directed by Linklater and is quasi-autobiographical, tracing 12 years in one family’s life. “I wanted the film to feel like a memory,” says Linklater, “to feel like a period film.” The movie also marks Hawke’s eighth collaboration with the director, and the actor relates the success of his life’s work to their 20-year working friendship. “The work that Rick and I have been able to do both with the Sunrise trilogy and with Boyhood didn’t happen overnight,” says Hawke. “Jesse [from the Sunrise series] and [Boyhood’s] Mason Sr. are two of the greatest parts I’ve ever played, and Rick let me create these roles for myself. For me, the greatest thing about getting older is getting to walk into the deeper part of the pool. It’s more complicated, and it’s certainly full of more trappings, but it’s fun.”
Boyhood has the same universal profundity seen in Seymour. The everyday struggles and flaws of Hawke’s Boyhood character Mason Sr., and those of his counterpart, played by Patricia Arquette (she also received a Golden Glode nod), seem simple in the moment but collectively resonate on an epic level, an achievement Hawke credits to Linklater. “He’s so unique—he’s just so unflashy,” he says. “His work doesn’t draw attention to itself, and he has the kind of ethos where he doesn’t feel the need to hyperbolize life. He likes to make movies that show life is magical and amazing just as it is.”
Hawke also drew from his life experiences for the part of Boyhood’s Mason Sr., having himself been the product of divorce—his parents, James and Leslie, were students at the University of Texas when they married, and they divorced when he was just 5 years old. Hawke eventually ended up in Princeton Junction, N.J., with his mother and stepfather. “My parents’ divorce was an incredibly defining experience of my young life,” he says. “It’s how I came to see things and sort through my own feelings.”
In a prime example of art imitating life, Hawke’s son in Boyhood is also 5 when his parents divorce, and Hawke went through his own painful separation from actress Uma Thurman (with whom he has two teen children, Maya and Levon) during the early years of filming.
In typical Hawke style, he’ll flip the script again this month with his latest project, the grand-scale epic Predestination, based on a Robert Heinlein short story written in the 1950s. It’s a thrilling, fast-paced sci-fi directed by brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, whom Hawke worked with on Daybreakers. Hawke plays an agent who hunts terrorists and travels through a temporal wake in time that spans 53 years. His co-star, Sarah Snook, is a breakout star. Says Hawke, “Sarah gives one of the best performances I’ve ever been a part of. She’s incredible, and it’s the kind of thing where, if it wasn’t a time-travel action movie, she’d win an Oscar.”
Hawke’s character begins to get confused about his own identity and who he’s chasing, which brings up a complex, philosophical idea about the interconnectedness of time and space. “We’re all traveling through time and space, and we’re all each other’s reincarnation, like we are our parents,” he says. “It’s really about identity and what our identity means as individualists.” This according to a man whose own search for understanding is the secret to his success.
So what keeps a method actor who has played everyone from a disgruntled Gen-Xer to a troubled divorced man to a futuristic time traveler grounded?
“My wife,” says Hawke. “It’s the most intense friendship I’ve ever known, and it’s been fantastic for me. Everything in my life works when that’s working.”
Whoever said a rolling stone gathers no moss didn’t know how deep Hawke’s roots would be planted in New York. When Hawke’s not off filming movies, he’s raising his kids at his brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, where he moved three years ago after having lived in Manhattan since he was 18. And just like his friends, his favorite places haven’t changed. “Do you know that little greasy spoon, La Bonbonniere, over by the Corner Bistro in the Village?” he asks. “It’s still the best place to have breakfast in New York.” And according to the stage veteran, “The New Group is still my favorite theater.” (It’s the place his first theater company often performed in the early ’90s.) “What they’ve done over at Signature Theatre is incredible—the new little space they built over on 42nd Street—it’s unbelievable. The whole city’s changing, while Brooklyn feels to me the way New York was a while ago. Brooklyn is about the barometric pressure of New York turned down about 20 points.”
Just his speed.