Screen Acting and the New Hollywood: Part 2 of an Interview with Ethan Hawke
by Gary Bettinson

Ethan Hawke in Sinister

Cineaste: You don’t seem to be an actor overly concerned with peddling your own charisma or protecting your vanity. In films like Tape and Brooklyn’s Finest, you don’t flinch from allowing yourself to look unglamorous, even ravaged. You’ve described Tape as being a turning point for you, marking a transition from an adolescent actor to an adult actor. Did part of this transition have to do with relinquishing your vanity about how you look? 

Ethan Hawke: I’m one of those lucky people that, as I age, I get more comfortable. I remember looking back on a photo shoot I did when I was younger with Bruce Weber and feeling completely humiliated by the pictures, because they were pretty. I look back on them now and think, “I wish I still looked like that.” But I didn’t realize that, really, all of my heroes weren’t lauded for being pretty. I truly think that, as a culture, instead of releasing women from the trap of the beauty myth, young men are succumbing to that trap, too. I see it with young men I’m working with in acting: there’s an obsession with aesthetic. You know, Phil [Seymour Hoffman] was one of my heroes, and it’s amazing that he reached the heights he did in this culture without giving a shit about that game. Look at the opening of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, look at him in Boogie Nights, look at him in…

Cineaste: Happiness.

Hawke: Happiness, of course. He was always willing to do that. It’s really inspiring because what Phil was never confused about was the point of making movies. If the point of making a movie is to make a million bucks and have it play at the mall, then you may as well be selling insurance. He really believed in the Seventies ethos, that the point of making movies was to tell stories, to be a part of the consciousness of a culture alleviating its shame and living in honesty. To be Philip Seymour Hoffman, you have to be incredibly talented to puncture that balloon. I—by many accounts—looked exactly like what corporate America wants a young American male to look like, and they were still hard on me. They were hard on me with my teeth, everything. They would wear on you. 

There is one actor we’re not talking about who really does embody the same ethos. Two or three years ago, I was sitting at home watching the Oscars, and I just got kind of despondent about how fake everybody looked. Star after star after star, and they all looked like they just walked out of Banana Republic or the Gap or Old Navy or something. And then out came Sean Penn, and I was like “Oh, a human being.” It was such a relief.

Cineaste: The New Hollywood antiheroes were not one-dimensional figures either, and they refused straightforward Manichaeism. It seems to me that, working in a very different climate, you’ve consistently managed to find or create morally complex characters, whether it’s in Gattaca or Tape or even Boyhood.

Hawke: Very much so. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is another example. Brooklyn’s Finest. Absolutely—all of my favorite movies that I’ve worked on. Even Training Day, you know, is a total sibling of The French Connection. Jake is willing to be corrupted, he just didn’t want to go that far.

Cineaste: You get the impression that he would go even further if the Denzel Washington character would just—

Hawke: Would stand by his side. If he hadn’t been betrayed by him, he would have kept going. He’s not that opposed to smoking a little crack: “Okay.”

Cineaste: Do you have a philosophy about how best to work with directors?

Hawke: There’s a great Brando quote that I’ve always taken into my work, which is that you have to always try to spiritually marry your director. I always try to do that with a director, to make the same movie they’re trying to make. Not to try to force them to make a Richard Linklater film, but to bring what I value and my personal thoughts to help them make their movie.

Cineaste: At what point in production do you establish that shared vision? There isn’t rehearsal or much rehearsal on a movie.

Hawke: Sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t. Well, for example, if a director doesn’t ask for rehearsal, then you know he doesn’t care about rehearsal. You’re not going to have time to teach a director the value of rehearsal. You can suggest it to a certain extent. I usually like to tell them the Marlon Brando quote and say, “I need to be making the same movie as you. If I think this scene is supposed to be a screamfest and you tell me it’s all supposed to be underplayed, I won’t have time to adjust on the day. I need time so that our imaginations are working together.” When they realize that’s all I want from a rehearsal, sometimes I can get rehearsal out of them. 

Sidney Lumet wanted more rehearsal than Phil and I were ever asked for on any other film. It was four weeks and we did a full-blown run-through of the movie. All the cast was present and we ran through the movie in a warehouse in the East Village for the AD and the DP, with little chairs and with tape on the floor like it was a play. I’ll never forget this, because Sidney stopped at one point and he said to Phil, “I think [Hoffman’s character] Andy is supposed to cry in this scene.” And Phil said, “Yeah, he will.” “What do you mean he will?” “On the day, he will.” Sidney said: “This is the day. We’re making the movie today. Just because it’s rehearsal doesn’t mean we’re not making the movie.” And Phil was like, “Are you fucking serious?” Sidney said, “Yeah.” And Phil leaned over to me and said, “Do you think Pacino had to do this?” (Laughs)

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Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3