Ethan Hawke Reveals the ‘Shamanistic Process’ of His Performances

Article Image
Photo Source: Kareem Black

“My whole life, I’ve been really interested in this idea that the arts are not as different as people make them out to be—that communication and storytelling and expression are all fundamentally coming from the same well.”

So says Ethan Hawke within minutes of sitting down for lunch at Manhattan’s bustling Tanner Smith’s—and for the next 80 minutes, he covers everything from his theatrical roots with Sam Rockwell and Josh Hamilton to his emotional maturation while facing “a lot of rejection” over the years to now helping his daughter, Maya, follow in his and her mother Uma Thurman’s actorly footsteps. In person, Hawke exhibits a contagious enthusiasm for the task at hand (in this case, chatting about his craft and career over a pastrami sandwich and a side of fries). He meets each talking point with an equally engaging but off-the-beaten-path tangent—anecdotes of working with Denzel Washington in “Training Day” or Robert De Niro in “Great Expectations,” thoughtful metaphors of the craft (one borrowed from Hemingway and involving an iceberg), and favorite quotes from Shakespeare and Whitman to match. Even at age 47, salt and pepper speckling his trim beard, and after 30 years in the business, he’s kept a boyish kineticism about him.

The multihyphenate has lived up to his introductory notion of drawing from his creative well and using all the variants it has to offer. Along the way, he’s been nominated for four Academy Awards (two for acting, two for screenwriting); he’s directed three feature films, three Off-Broadway plays, and a documentary; and he’s written three feature films and three novels. In short, Hawke has rebuffed being labeled just an “actor” since his late-’80s breakout.

“That’s what I’ve been going for,” he continues. “Since ‘Dead Poets Society’ came out—I auditioned for this movie when I was 18, and I’d been struggling with [the idea] that this was all I was allowed to do the rest of my life. It didn’t ever seem fair. I can’t write? I can’t direct? Why couldn’t I?”

His most recent summer of theatrical releases demonstrates his longstanding ambitions. “First Reformed,” in which he plays a small-town priest struggling with an existential crisis of faith, clocks in some of the actor’s most affecting dramatic work in years; “Juliet, Naked,” meanwhile, is where he gets to dial his long-brewing movie star charisma to 11 as a rock musician of yesteryear fame. But it’s perhaps with “Blaze” that Hawke shines brightest as a perfect blend of actor, writer, and director.

A lyrical and introspective biopic of country music’s unsung Blaze Foley, Hawke and his film find stillness in the most chaotic of circumstances, and somber grandeur in moments most small. Sybil Rosen co-penned the screenplay, which is loosely adapted from her memoir, “Living in the Woods in a Tree.” The source material and much of the film recount her and the late Foley’s year living in a lovers’ utopia in the forest at a time when the posthumously admired singer-songwriter was finding his artistic voice. Alia Shawkat plays Rosen for the screen, and inhabiting Foley is Philadelphia-by-way-of-Arkansas musician Ben Dickey. He may be a first-timer, but Dickey took home top honors at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as best actor. Remember his name.

Today, Hawke sees working on the film and his experience getting Dickey, a longtime friend, leading man–ready as “a manifestation of everything that I believe about acting, about taking what is essentially a student and putting him in an environment to succeed.... Watching Ben win best actor at Sundance was [about] creating a path for someone else to do what I’ve been trying to do.”

“Blaze,” in which Hawke also appears onscreen as a music journalist, was his best opportunity yet to take his personal manifesto—“the arts are not as different as people make them out to be”—and see if another could take to it, too.

The question is, how did he do it?

The idea to write a Blaze Foley biopic with Dickey to star had been swirling in his head since a particularly late New Year’s Eve, when Dickey—at the time in a band he’d founded called Blood Feathers—played a 4 a.m. rendition of Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” on his guitar. But talk of the project didn’t turn serious until after Hawke came upon Rosen’s memoir and Dickey agreed, while visiting him in his Nova Scotia cabin, to sign on. “I was actually working on it up there, I had written a treatment,” Hawke says. “It was like a short story about Blaze Foley, and I gave it to Ben, and I said, ‘What do you think? Would you do this?’ And he said, ‘I’m all in!’ ”

From there, Hawke put up his friend and now collaborator in New York City, where he trained with actor-teachers Vincent D’Onofrio (the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute) and Austin Pendleton (HB Studio). It’s with them that Dickey, a 6-foot-4 rock musician, found the music within acting—and indeed proved Hawke’s thesis true.

“I honestly didn’t want him to think about it too much. I think that acting, when it really works, is kind of a shamanistic process—you give over to it, much like singing a song,” Hawke explains. “I used to talk to Ben about this: If you’re an entry-level student of acting, you usually get pitched against Shakespeare, and you learn very quickly that acting at its best is like music, and you’re a vocalist and a musician—that there’s a rhythm and a sound, and you have to get inside your character’s song.”

To hear Hawke tell it, the final result was nothing short of creative combustion. “Movies love an intersection,” he says. “It’s not just about an actor, it’s about an actor and a role. And when they hit each other, it blows up. When that happens and the camera catches it, it’s really exciting.”

Reflecting on his career, Hawke says it’s the potential for that combustion that excites him when searching for a new project of his own. Such was the case with “First Reformed”—“When I read Paul Schrader’s script, I felt it like a calling,” he says. “I wanted to do it so bad. I never questioned it.” The actor admits, however, “that can’t happen all the time. Sometimes, you have to hunt and try to find those aspects.” It’s just part of acting that doesn’t necessarily come in the job description.

“You’re an actor. You want to work. If you just sit and wait for everything to be perfect all the time, you never work,” Hawke posits. “You need to work for a living and make money. You’ve gotta be a craftsman and just do a damn good job and take some boring, dopey part and make it personal. You just have to do it! You have to find a way.”

But that also doesn’t mean Hawke or any other actor should submit to the will of fate and opportunity. If there’s one misconception for early-career actors—his “Blaze” star Dickey and Backstage readers alike—that Hawke would like to dispel, it’s the idea that “we’re only as good as our opportunity,” he says. “It’s limiting, because it can lead actors to feel like there’s nothing they can do to help themselves until they have an opportunity. And, you know, ‘all things are ready, if our mind be so’—the key thing is that you’ve lived your inner life in such a way that when Paul Schrader’s script arrives, you’re ready for it.”

And it’s when that opportunity arises, Hawke concludes, that you can use your instrument and training to be a storyteller.

“It’s what the arts are supposed to do: to give voice to the voiceless. To articulate what’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue the way a good song does.... I always feel like the base note of acting is the same feeling you have when you read something brilliant that you just love, it moves you so much and makes you laugh or makes you think in a way you haven’t thought of, and you say to your best friend, ‘Hey, you’ve gotta read this. Listen to this!’ When acting is great, it’s like an actor saying, ‘Listen to this. Imagine.’ ”

Learning From the Best

“The greatest teacher was—there were two that I can cite. The first one was on ‘Great Expectations’; Gwyneth [Paltrow] and I were friends and we were having an OK time. [Director] Alfonso [Cuarón] is a genius, but it felt like he was making his ‘Hollywood’ movie. We were a little depressed. Then Robert De Niro worked four or five days on the movie, and he came in and all of a sudden, the set became this amazing place to be. De Niro obsessed about what his tie was and how his hair was. He would ask Alfonso questions, and all of a sudden, Alfonso was thrilling to be around. That was the great teacher—he’s not waiting for someone to give him permission to do the kind of work he wants. He’s just coming in and doing that kind of work. And then a few years later, I had the same experience with Denzel [Washington in ‘Training Day’]. That was a big turning point. I stopped waiting and I started seeing that manifest in my work with [Richard] Linklater, that I could bring the best of myself and he was available to hear it and listen and care.”

Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!

Photographed by Kareem Black on June 21 in NYC; Styling by Michael Fisher for The Wall Group; Stylist Assistant: Amber Simiriglia; Groomed by Megan Lanoux for Exclusive Artists using Jack Black