Ethan Hawke opens up about stage fright, Robin Williams and a current career high

TELLURIDE – Actor Ethan Hawke is in the middle of a career high right now. In the space of a year he has been a part of two landmark films from director Richard Linklater, “Before Midnight” and “Boyhood,” each of them the result of years and years of work exploring characters as they change across a wide spectrum of time. He has two films set to play the Venice Film Festival next week in Andrew Niccol's “Good Kill” and Michael Almereyda's “Cymbeline” and he's here in Telluride with his own directorial effort, an emotional documentary that is ostensibly a portrait of pianist Seymour Bernstein, but on a deeper level is an exploration by Hawke of finding satisfaction in one's art.

It's a delicate piece of work that played like gangbusters to a Telluride premiere audience Saturday, rapt as the so wonderfully well-spoken Bernstein rattled off philosophical nuggets throughout a lively Q&A. And it holds an interesting place in Hawke's filmography right, as he is absolutely an artist who has been looking for something after all these years. And as of late, he seems to be finding it.

I sat down with Hawke to discuss all of this and much more. He remains, for me, one of my favorite people to talk to in this business, ever thoughtful, a really cerebral guy who is nevertheless unaffected and never elusive, even though you can tell there is just so much going on inside his head. Read through the back and forth below.

Sundance Selects picked up “Seymour: An Introduction” ahead of the festival. It's set for release in 2015. “Good Kill” and “Cymbeline” premiere next week and “Boyhood,” of course, is currently in theaters.


HitFix: You're really on a bit of a tear lately. I actually think you're an actor who keeps hustling admirably regardless, but the last couple of years in particular have felt really streaky. Does it feel that way to you?

Ethan Hawke: It feels like the best profession in my life to be in, only because I'm doing the kind of work I really want to be doing. A combination of the work with Rick [Linklater] really going over, “Before Midnight” and “Boyhood” – coming out basically within 12 months of each other. I mean, I know enough to know that the life of an actor is one of ups and downs. I find it fascinating being at this festival, hearing how brilliant Michael Keaton is in this new movie [“Birdman”], and God, actors have to suffer so much. The guy has always been brilliant. You have to kind of go out of fashion to come back in fashion. There's a scene in “Seymour” where it says “you have to have dissonance to have resolution.” But yeah, it is a weird moment. I feel like I'm going to get hit by a bus or something. You know that feeling? “Who's going to come down with cancer now?”

Let's dive in with the film you have here, “Seymour: An Introduction.” I was going to ask why you thought a film was a good idea but it kind of becomes obvious when you watch it. The way Seymour is so drunk on the art of music, it's rather seductive, to just hear him talk. I just want to hang out with that guy.

You know, that's why I made the documentary. It's an instinct you have. I was like, “How can I spend more time with this person?” I had this dinner with him and I had an amazing time. I came home and told my wife all about it: he was this Korean War vet, he seemed so interesting. The trouble with being an adult is if you don't work with people, it's hard to make new friends. It's hard enough to see the friends I have. And then all of a sudden this idea of this documentary came about and I thought it would probably be good. He's not wrong when he made that joke that he thinks that I just wanted to learn some things. You spend a couple years following this guy around – I mean off and on, I'd go do a project and think, “Let's go film that teaching. Let's go film that.” I've heard this about documentaries, though it's a little haunting: they're never really done. You just decide to walk away at some point.

They're not really “released,” they just kind of escape.


You talk in the film of how when you met Seymour, you confessed that you had been dealing with sometimes crippling stage fright as a performer in recent years. Not to pry under the hood too much, but did you figure out what was going on there? What the root of your sudden self-consciousness really was?

Well, I think it's a lot like – I started acting when I was 13. It's like I've been acting 30 years and my relation to it was changing. And I think that I didn't have a very childish relationship to it anymore. There's positive things that come from an adult relationship to your job and then there's some things you lose. There's a thing that happens: when you're young, it's so much about being promising and then comes this moment where you feel like you're supposed to deliver. And that pressure was feeling really hard on me. And it didn't matter whether it was movies or theater, I all of a sudden felt self-conscious in way I just never had, and I just felt like I was supposed to be, as I was getting older, less self-conscious. What's really nice about it was realizing that I wasn't alone. It doesn't matter what you're going through in life. Usually when you're hurting you feel like you're alone with it. And I realized that this is a pretty normal feeling for somebody that's been doing something a long time, to try to figure out what the fuck I want from it for the rest my life.

Was that the central pressure? To deliver for yourself as opposed to delivering for the audience?

Yeah. I like what Seymour said up there tonight about the notion that if you really start thinking about it as being in the service of other people, it gets easier not to be nervous, because you're in service of the art form rather than in service of yourself. But I just wanted to be better than I was. It's like a baseball player who chokes at the plate. You don't choke, you choke as you're thinking too much, and what you have to start doing is enjoying it again. And what he was saying up there is that pianists have it the worst, believe it or not. Their thing is so – I've just learned this from studying stage fright – they have it more than anybody, a violinist, concert classical musicians. The margin for error is so tiny. And they have these things that will go one night only at Carnegie Hall. I mean, I've played at Lincoln Center for 82 performances. It's so much easier. But they'll judge their whole life on one night.

You have “Good Kill” set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival next week. I'm happy to see that you still work with Andrew Niccol. We've spoken about this before but I adore “Gattaca” so much and I'm always pulling for him to hit another one out of the park. And I feel like you've developed interesting on-going relationships with a few directors, Niccol, Linklater, and you've worked with Michael Almereyda again for “Cymbeline”…

…Antoine Fuqua, the Spierig brothers…

Right. And with Niccol, I always admire his work as this kind of socio-moralistic canon, and that's certainly what's going on with this new movie.

I feel like Andrew is one of those people – as his friend I read a lot of his scripts that haven't gotten made and it's like, I wish we had a national endowment for the arts. I just feel like somebody should give him a little bit of money because a lot of his movies maybe aren't commercially entertaining right away. But when I think back on “Lord of War” and “Gattaca,” they're so socio-political and they're so interesting and they're so kind of prescient. I'm proud of them. And when you see the drones movie, it's a really vital topic for right now. And he's got a nose for – I mean, what's so great about the Air Force Now is that it feels so space-age and futuristic but it's been going on for five years.

What's that progression been like working with him across these three movies?

You know, a lot of the best directors I've worked with, Rick included and Andrew, what makes them special is they came out of the gate with a voice. And I think what's hard is maintaining it. I think what's hard for all these guys is getting their movies financed. And it's one thing when you're young, to feel like you've got to struggle to do this, but as you get older, you want to have earned the right to get to make your next movie, and it's still a struggle. I think that's really hard for those guys. But my relationship to them – I feel that an actor's job in this world is to celebrate writing. So I always try to orbit around people who have a voice as a writer. And Andrew has it in spades. I mean even if you don't like “In Time” or something like that, it's just so brilliant conceptually.

Were you in the mix for that at all? Or was “Good Kill” just the first chance you had to work together again since “Lord of War?”

No, but we have another movie that we've been trying to make that we're probably going to make this year that is like, I think, his best script ever. It's a science-fiction movie called “The Cross,” about border police. It speaks to the crisis in Israel/Palestine, the crisis in Mexico, the general arbitrary nature of borders, but it's like a futuristic, you know – my favorite kind of socio-political movies are ones that if you set them in the past or the future, people can't tell if they're left or right, they can just try to look at the ideas.

And then you and Michael Almereyda have worked together on another modern Shakespeare take, “Cymbeline.” I really adored the “Hamlet” you did together.

Oh, thanks. I feel really proud of that movie.

I haven't seen it since film school, probably. I need to go back and look at it again. Have you seen it recently?

Yeah. I saw it right before we did “Cymbeline.” One of the schools in Brooklyn, these inner city schools, was teaching “Hamlet” and so they showed it and I went to go talk to them. Michael is one of these guys that, he should be making more movies. I have a small part in “Cymbeline” but it's a great double feature with “Hamlet.” I mean it really is. And he has such a unique vision.

How did your involvement in that one manifest?

For years he's been trying to get that movie made and we just kind of prioritized it this year. I tried to help him raise some money for it. I love him and believe in him. For some reason he got all this heat off “Hamlet” but it just didn't translate into making another movie, like, right away. And then he made that beautiful – I don't know if you saw it – but the William Eggleston documentary? It was the inspiration for “Seymour,” actually. I like documentaries that are portraits where you just get to meet somebody that you might not get to meet, get to know them well.

Let's circle back here on “Boyhood,” which I imagine you've talked to death at this point, but how about the reaction to the film in the marketplace? $17 million and counting is outstanding.

It's totally far-fetched to me. I've done a lot of things with Rick that I really believe in, but I mean “Boyhood” has already made more money than the whole “Before” trilogy combined. And I knew that I loved the movie. I knew that I would be proud of it. But I never thought that it would have a place in the commercial marketplace. I thought it would be more like “Waking Life” or something. Certain die-hards would think it was amazing, but how much it seems to speak to young people, I mean to that generation, is really exciting. And obviously older people like it from the thinking about parenting.

And I think a lot of people are lured in by the, for lack of a better term, “gimmick” of the film.

It has a cool gimmick and then it pays off. I mean I think that if Ellar hadn't turned out to be such a special person and such a special actor that it would have just been a gimmick.

It's weird when watching the movie, though. I didn't feel the gimmick happening. It just felt like it was flowing naturally.

That's because it's beautifully directed. You couldn't even tell sometimes when the years differentiated. Haircuts and stuff would give it away but it was shot so simply and so consistently.

Did you kind of compartmentalize that film over the last 12 years or is it something where you feel like you've been in labor for so and you're so relieved it's finally living its life?

It's so unique to any other process I've ever been involved with. It was so much fun to think about and work on and imagine. Because the script was never written at one time; it was made kind of like a quilt. The way the world changed, what elections happened, different things that happened in all our lives that affect the movie. And I would always have, like, a year to kind of daydream about my next scene. It was so fun. I remember around year eight or something I was desperate for it to come out, but by the time we were finishing it I didn't want to finish. You know that feeling?

Well, it certainly feels that way as a viewer. You feel like you could keep watching this life unfold. Like I could watch this kid go to college.

“All right. What's next?”

Rick said something in some interview, that maybe Mason goes off to Vienna and meets a girl on a train.

Well, some day they'll show those movies in sequence like that. I mean you could totally skip college. Right after college Jesse and Mason are similar characters. I mean they're Rick's autobiography.

I'd like to ask something separate from all your work lately, but rather about the film that set your career sailing: “Dead Poets Society.” I'm sure you reacted to Robin Williams' death the same as we all did, but I wonder if there's anything profound that you might recall about working with him on that film and making that piece of iconography together.

I remember the first time I ever felt like I had actually had the experience of acting. Seymour said this thing during the Q&A earlier that when you're playing well – he's talking about playing piano – you don't feel like you're playing; you feel like you're being played. Somehow it's like you're not breathing; you're being breathed. And the first time I ever had that feeling was with Robin Williams. We had this scene, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.” And it's etched in my brain as him standing in front of me writing “yawp” on the chalkboard and he said, “Todd doesn't think he has anything of value inside him.” That scene is pretty much shot in one take. It's cut a little bit but Peter [Weir] shot it on a steadicam spinning around us. I remember Robin hugging me after that scene was over. It's a high I've been chasing the rest of my life. I mean the last 25 years since then or whatever.

It's also something that's absolutely heartbreaking and tragic about the person who taught you the expression “carpe diem,” taking his own life. You know, there's something really terrible about that. But he was always – for every great high there is a low. And he was a person who experienced tremendous personal highs. I mean being around him you felt the epic swings in his state of mind. Even at 18 I was with it enough to sense those. So I feel for him and I feel for his family.

I remember after the news hit, a friend of mine mentioned how hard she was taking it and she was like, “Why do I feel so bad about losing this person I never knew?” I think with him, it was because there was something so paternal about him. Stuff like “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Hook,” “Dead Poets Society”: for a generation, he was kind of our dad growing up.

And also “Good Will Hunting.” He was such a dad in that. He was such a mentor. There's that great moment when he says, “You think you know what it's like to be an adult because you think you can intellectually understand, but you didn't live any of these things. You don't really know anything about what…” – and it always stayed with me. Like we all think we're smarter than our parents. And “Fisher King,” he was amazing. I'll never forget seeing “Fisher King” and walking home and just being blown away. But he's been a part of my psyche obviously. I've had a picture from “Dead Poets” over my desk my whole life. It's a present Peter Weir gave us of Robin and the seven poets and a poem, I think it's a Randall Gerald poem. But it's terrible. Phil [Hoffman] and Robin in one year.

To close things out by bringing it back to “Seymour,” you were just talking about how you're trying to chase that high. There's this great line you say to Seymour in the film, “The whole system of life is geared to make you think about success. Often doing my art the best and a acquitting that with any financial success, they're just at odds with each other.” In many ways that is such an obvious truth, but no one really says it sort of sincerely, particularly people in your position.

Yeah. You know, a couple of people asked me to cut that line out of the movie for just that reason. But I feel like it really is the truth. Whenever you're doing press for given movies, you never want the movie that you're doing press for to think that. I like the expression “we all have to play a wedding sometimes.” Musicians always have to do that. It doesn't mean you don't like the people who are getting married, but the truth is it's not your labor of love, it's their label labor of love. For me it's part of what's so shocking about “Boyhood” making money. It's very rare in my life that – you know, “Before the Devil Knows You're Dead” was totally ignored. It's one of the best movies I've ever made. “Gattaca” was a totally ignored. Every now and then it's clicked. “Reality Bites,” “Training Day,” “Dead Poets Society,” these are movies that are pretty good films, or at least with serious intention even if you don't like them. And they kind of hit the zeitgeist a little bit. But ultimately I just found that it's really rare. You kill yourself on things and the things that in my experience people want to pay me for so I can pay my child support and I can pay for my kids education, stuff like that, it's generally the more you want to do something, the less you get paid. That's the equation.

That's really a great way to put it. But for now, have you gotten past that bout of self-consciousness or are you still dealing with it?

I think it's an ongoing thing for anybody in life. As soon as you think you're over something – it was at a particularly acute moment for me when I met Seymour.

When was that specifically?

Gosh, when was it? There was a whole period where I took a year basically and rededicated myself to the theater. And I did Chekhov's “Ivanov” and I did Brecht's “Baal” and Shakespeare's “Macbeth,” and I just kind of totally rededicated myself to acting. I think maybe when I turn my focus towards trying to improve, I got tight.

And how serendipitous. They're showing Volker Schlöndorff's “Baal” here at the festival.

I really want to talk to Volker Schlöndorff about it. I spent the whole time researching that project dying to see it and you couldn't get it. I mean I called the head of Criterion and I called Dieter [Kosslick], who runs the Berlin Film Festival. I couldn't get a copy of that fucking thing! It didn't exist. And now it's coming out, damn it.

Hopefully you'll be able to catch it while you're here. But thanks as always for your time. And enjoy your first Telluride.

Thanks, man.