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If anyone in Hollywood has a career that has followed the road less traveled, it’s Ethan Hawke. Branded an icon of Generation X for his role in Reality Bites, Hawke has worked in independent films, blockbusters, theater, and publishing and volunteered with the Human Rights Campaign and The Doe Fund, more than proving his well runs deep. Case in point is his current off-Broadway role as a down-and-out songwriter in Clive, a production he also directed for The New Group. Another project far from Hawke’s mainstream roles is the third installment in the Before Sunrise and Before Sunset film series, Before Midnight, which reunites the actor with Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater.
Here, Hawke and Clive costar Zoe Kazan sit down for a conversation that covers the changing nature of Hollywood, the creative freedom offered by the stage, and what can be accomplished when there’s no fear of failure.
Zoe Kazan: Artistically you do so many different things—what do plays give you that you don’t get out of the other parts of your life?
Ethan Hawke: It’s the closest you can get to real freedom. The problem with movies is everybody wants to make money, and if they don’t see an avenue for making a lot of money, they don’t want to bother. Doing a crazy expressionistic play like Clive [brings out] the part of me that wishes I were more radical. When I first came to New York, you’d see Patti Smith rocking it out downtown and Eric Bogosian doing his crazy monologues…. There was all this exciting experimentation going on, and I always longed to be a part of that.
ZK: When you were younger, did you dream about being on stage or in movies? And, what did you see that made you want to be an actor?
EH: I dreamed of being in the movies because it seemed more glamorous. When I was really young, I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I didn’t understand it then, but I loved it to the point where my go-to method to pull myself out of depression would be to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The play thing came later because my mom loved the theater; she thought that theater actors were the real deal and that movie acting was not such a noble profession.
ZK: How did your collaboration with Before Sunrise writer-director Richard Linklater start?
EH: The first play of Jonathan [Marc Sherman]’s I did was a play called Sophistry. Linklater comes to see [Sophistry] and he, Jonathan, and I and a couple other people go out and talk until the sun comes up. Rick tells me he’s written a movie about a guy who meets this girl on a train and he wants me to audition. I auditioned, I got the part, and then I told him that the script needed a lot of work. And he had the most beautiful response. He said, “I really like the script, but what really interests me is trying to make a movie about the most important thing that ever happened to me in my life. And the most important thing that ever happened to me is not a gunfight or a helicopter race or aliens landing, it’s when I really connect with another human being and feel that feeling that I’m not alone in the world, there’s a reason I was born, and it has to do with that person. If you want to make a movie about that, I’ll listen to your notes about the script.”
ZK: When you met Julie and Rick, did you have that feeling that this is going to be a lifelong collaboration?
EH: I had a feeling when we wrapped the movie; I remember thinking we’re not done with this. Both Julie and I have done a bunch of writing and directing, and we hadn’t when Rick found us. Now, did we start doing that because of the empowering experience we had with Rick? Or did Rick choose us because we were the type of people who could do that? But that’s how the friendship started. Julie is an extremely intense, compassionate human being who at that time was much further along on her path as a fully developed artist than I was. She did her first film with [Jean-Luc] Godard, she had just finished a movie with Volker Schlöndorff, she had been the lead in a film with [Krzysztof] Kieslowski, she worked with the best people that cinema had to offer at the age of 24. And so to her, I was kind of a moron. I think when she finished the movie, she hadn’t planned on ever working with me again.
ZK: So how did the second film, Before Sunset, come about?
EH: The third [film, Before Midnight] was inevitable once we’d made it, but the second one was the big jump. Everybody had forgotten about Before Sunrise; it was a movie that grossed about $2.5 million, so people weren’t begging for a sequel. [Before Sunrise] ends and [our characters Jesse and Celine] promise to meet each other six months later. We had this idea we were going to make this short film—they meet and it was going to be this kind of erotic film because Before Sunrise is so chaste and very sweet. But we didn’t get around to doing it in time. One person is busy, and before you knew it, five years had gone by and we looked significantly different.
ZK: When you look back at Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, what do you feel has changed that you can now bring to Before Midnight?
EH: The thing that makes me the most happy when I saw the third movie? [Seeing that] something is still alive in me. People like to think about how much you change and grow, and you do, but mostly you learn things. You learn at a young age not to put your hand in the fire; you learn more subtle equivalents as you go on. I see a lot of people as they grow up, they get tired, or they get bored.... The joke is that you become a Republican, but what that really means is you become safe, you become more worried about your financial security than your idealism because ultimately you’ve got kids to put through school. Life beats people up; everybody thinks they’re going to be a big shot; everybody thinks it’s all going to work out just like they want; and some things do, and a lot of things don’t. My theory is if you make your priority your own personal growth, you’re going to be fine because that will happen and perceived success and perceived failure will have much less meaning and weight in your life because you know you’re on a journey.
ZK: You’ve been in all kinds of movies, in theater, directed, you’ve written prose. Those are things that I want to do, but I now have a role model. You really didn’t. How did you become somebody who has two novels published and a third on the way?
EH: A lot of people start writing, and they think this is too self serious, this isn’t funny enough, this isn’t lyrical enough.... I want it to be more like Thomas Wolfe, Alice Munro, James Baldwin. I remember the day before [my first novel] The Hottest State was published, I thought I would be killed. I read a couple bad reviews of it, and I was like, Oh, I’m really putting this out there. I just thought everybody would love it. I know it’s asinine, but I generally really like people, so I project the same in return. Then I realize the world is a really scary place, everybody’s not rooting for you, and everybody doesn’t see your artistic growth as their number-one priority. You cannot be afraid. If you are sincere in your attempt, time is like this general with an army of thousands to prove you right. And you just have to give up superficial things in the moment.
ZK: This is sort of a strange question to ask—but given the strangeness of the fact that I’m not really a reporter interviewing you [it’s probably okay]—we have to do so much press to get a movie seen these days, so how do you protect the parts of yourself....
EH: I don’t know, and that’s why I really empathize with you and everybody younger than you. They—agents and publicists—want me to take this fall off so I can do nothing but publicize Before Midnight, and I’ve never done that. A job is always more important than doing press. Press is this ancillary thing you do, but it’s getting taken so seriously.
ZK: I mean [how do you] protect yourself? We’re not salespeople, otherwise we would be making a killing on Wall Street instead of doing a play off-Broadway.
EH: People want to turn everything in this country into a competition. It’s why they love the Super Bowl: it’s clear who the winner is and who the loser is. It’s why they like to announce the grosses of movies because it’s a way of saying this one is number one. It’s so asinine even if you look at how many forgettable, stupid movies have won the Oscars and how many mediocre performers have Oscars above their fireplace. Making a priority of your life chasing these fake carrots of money and dubious accolades, I think it’s really destructive. I think it’s why I found your grandfather’s book [Elia Kazan: A Life] so important given that the book really graphs out a life of massive success and massive falls from grace and massive recovery. I don’t really know the answer to that question, but I know you can’t let publicists dictate your life. And if you do, you won’t have any need for a publicist anymore because there won’t be any work to publicize.
Clive is playing at the Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., 212-239-6200; visit thenewgroup.org for tickets.
photography by Robert Ascroft; Styling by Danielle Nachmani; Grooming by Jordan Long for Exclusive Artists Management
August 1, 2016