ethan hawke is my hero
One of my routine podcasts, Little Gold Men, released this interview with Ethan Hawke, in town for his Broadway run of Sam Shepard’s True West, and still promoting his somehow overlooked First Reformed, the Paul Schrader film now streaming on Amazon Prime. Hawke is slowly, but clearly, becoming a hero of mine. His interview last year on Filmspotting highlighted his clarity of artistic thought and his frankness about the industry and his place in it was totally mind opening. This one is no less so.
Despite a dubious headline…
the interview is a refresher of Hawke’s brilliance when it comes to discussing his craft and his dismay with the business (and perhaps the culture at large that upholds it as well). Gathering some of my favorite sections for posterity.
On spirituality in the movies
…spiritual life is something that is incredibly hard to dramatize. It always has been. You can make movies about a lot of things, but an inner life—what are the inner machinations of my soul that lead me to a certain belief system?—is something very. . .it’s just not drama. It’s made for literature. . . but for movies, it’s very, very hard. Bergman has some great ones, you know, but as an actor, it has to live in the writing. . .
ON RECESSIVE PERFORMANCES
. . .the DNA of the project is such where I immerse you in my journals and an inner thought. And if you’re paying attention, you start to realize that he’s no longer making sense. He tells you things that start not being true, and you start to be inside his psyche. When I first met Paul, he asked me if I knew what a recessive performance was, and I did.
Hawke begins to detail what he means by that but gets distracted by one of his side tangents. The idea of the recessive is perhaps best described as the opposite of excessive (or in genetic language, the dominant). In simple terms, it is the understated performance that is prevalent now, writer and professor Shonni Enelow suggests, because of tenants of inner turmoil, anxious reserve and depressive seclusion reflected from a modern world of violating surveillance and a culture of performance. More on that to come.
On the meditation film
There’s a different kind of cinema that is inviting you and your creativity to join the movie—that’s Diary of a Country Priest, Winter Light, a lot of movies in the 50s where there was an intersection between literature and film, and film wasn’t such complete big business, and people feel like the job of a movie is to entertain you. Fanny and Alexander’s job isn’t to wow you. Its job is somewhere similar to what Anna Karenina’s job is: it’s inviting you, it is entertaining you, but it’s also asking you to join it. That’s what Paul wanted to do. A recessive performance doesn’t try to juggle and tell you jokes, and cry, and take out your sword and do swashbuckling tricks. It’s inviting you to participate in a dialogue with me. The challenge is more like a guided-meditation challenge.
People think acting is about memorizing lines and things like that, or they think it’s about a celebration of personality like, “Whoa, isn’t that person amazing?” Really, at it’s finest, it’s void of that. It’s the complete loss of personality in service of a larger story.
This stopped me in my tracks when I listened to it. He is completely right. One of the valuable things I learned from my time studying at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago was an obvious one: it’s not about you. Taking yourself out of it to serve the larger work. It’s a spiritual thing, really. Working with an ensemble, collaborating. That’s what it’s about. I feel too often that my peers, especially in New York, value the bells-and-whistle performances, and end up emulating that. I succumb to that instinct too. My inclination for showboating and hamming it up is something I still have to temper. Stopping myself from trying to please and be adored (hello, ego!) and really dig into who the person is, what the story is. It can be a real challenge, especially in a results-driven (aka money) theatrical environment, which New York can be.
Once you start realizing that the essence of you is quite fantastically malleable, it’s almost some kind of spiritual question, because what is the essence of you that is not malleable? That’s the next question. Then, you get into acting—and how you can wear these different clothes and how you could have a different past and still be you. If you had different heartbreaks, how would that inform the way you speak? You start realizing that acting isn’t about memorizing lines—it’s about the movement of energy.
Acting as A life’s work
My daughter is studying acting. She just left Juilliard, and she’s 20 years old and she’s really into it. She keeps asking me questions about this job versus this job and this job. The real jump is when you start not going job to job, meaning that there’s a connection between all the jobs, and that your life as a performer has a continuity to it.
The dream, isn’t it? Why do I have a steady job and still feel like I’m constantly hustling? To be in the place of access and privilege where you can start seeing roles and jobs as part of a larger body of work, that is where I want to start heading.
Acting as meditation, acting through relaxation
It’s a guided meditation—that’s where I’m going with this, where you relax, and focus on imagination, concentration, relaxation. You are entering, hopefully, some subconscious state where you’re, I, the actor, am also being played. We are being played together. I am the focal point, but that’s really it—in a meaningful performance, it’s a shared experience, because it’s not just about me dictating something. I don’t have an agenda with the audience. People say, “What do you want people to take away from this movie?” I've already lost by the question. What I really want is for you to have an experience that is your own.
Capitalism as a paradigm of culture
We live in a country that celebrates the accumulation of wealth. If a movie made a lot of money, it’s a good movie. Right? If a crack dealer makes a lot of money, he’s a good crack dealer. If you really prioritize, and the whole culture deifies and celebrates things that make a lot of money, you would be amazed if you do it for long enough who might get elected president. You see what I’m saying?
I have thought about this a lot. I have been lucky enough to gravitate towards friends and colleagues who aren’t afraid of challenging art, who still read books (real ones!), who watch plays and are as interested in the past as they are the future. This is my bubble, and it’s not limited to my immediate surroundings, but with the constant distraction and barrage of information and stimulation, I do worry that, if we don’t protect it, the interesting stuff will all dissolve away, for the public appetite is entirely for empty calorie movies and theater. Even looking at some of the Broadway line-up…it’s just depressing. That’s why I try and champion denser, richer works of film and theater. God, I sound like a pompous asshole, don’t I?
I grew up on comic books. I have four kids; I've seen all the comic-book movies. My problem is not with the movies. My problem is with the culture that now is hero-worshiping the money they’re making. That’s really what I’m talking about, because right now—look, if One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest came out today, it would not be a studio release. We are not celebrating and challenging young people to watch difficult, incendiary, participate in—whether it’s literature, art, music.
Another reminder to breathe, think, slow down and engage. Reminds me of Anne Bogart’s essay on “Arrest”…artistic experiences that really envelop us, change us, open our hearts and minds to new roads of empathy and radical thought. First, though, we have to listen and receive.
I think one of my heroes, Jack O’Brien, who’s a theater director . . . I was interviewing him for a bunch of young directors, young theater students—this is 10 years ago. The first question: some kid raises his hand and says, “Hey, Mr. O’Brien. What do you think is the most important thing about being a director?” He said, “Lack of sexual misconduct”. . . He said, “If you’re going to create a safe place for creativity, and people are going to understand why she gets chosen to be in the light and not her, and why this one gets the big part, and why this one doesn’t, and why this person gets to sing the final song, there needs to be some actual leadership.” Actual leadership means that you are prioritizing content of character, work ethic—things that we can root our self-esteem in, and not that you’re cuter or you kissed me backstage. Once you start that kind of behavior, the whole machine breaks down, and there’s a lack of leadership.
On acting for stage vs film
It’s a little bit like doing an album in a studio and doing a concert at Madison Square Garden. I mean, it’s the same muscles, but it’s just a much heightened, more disciplined exercise.