To say that Ethan Hawke is a prolific actor might undercut the depths to which he is unafraid to go in his work. His characters do not break, not even for a moment, and spend no time conceding that they know you know the man you are watching is really Ethan Hawke. The actor prefers it that way. In First Reformed, he plays Toller, a pastor experiencing what most people would call a crisis of faith. This is, however, a Paul Schrader film, so the experience is far more complex than that. And though Hawke is ready and willing to dive into the nuances of filmmaking, as he does here for W‘s annual Best Performances issue, don’t ask him to take that articulation into a political arena. As he sees it, there are more people he can affect via his art, which he approaches with a mix of dark reality and joyful lightness.
Has your name always been Ethan Hawke?
Since the day I was born.
You always had a cool name.
My mother was apparently a big fan of a Herman Wouk novel called Youngblood Hawke. She met a guy named Jim Hawke and she thought, “Oh, if I had a kid with that man, he would have the last name Hawke.” So I think that was part of why she fell in love.
Before you made First Reformed, what was your favorite Paul Schrader movie?
One cannot underestimate the impact of Taxi Driver on American culture. So that’s my favorite script. I saw Taxi Driver and Raging Bull simultaneously at a theater on St. Mark’s, and I went into a little bit of a funk because I realized everything I wanted to do with my life had already been done. I walked around and I was like, “Wha-wha-what’s left to do?” They already made sense out of the universe.
But one of my favorite Paul Schrader films is actually Light Sleeper, which stars Willem Dafoe in a unbelievable performance. Willem was everything that a New York actor was supposed to be to me. Platoon had devastated me as a film and he was in The Wooster Group which was just the coolest of the cool. Even if you didn’t get their performances you had to pretend that you did.
Did Paul send First Reformed to you?
We knew each other socially a little bit, but Paul was very moved by this film called Ida, and it opened him up to the possibility of making a spiritual film again. He said, “I’m writing this movie and I’m going to be finished with it soon. I’m going to send it to you.” I read it the day he sent it and I wrote him back immediately and said, “We’re going to do whatever. I’ll make this movie on a telephone if we have to.”
The inner torture in First Reformed is palpable. Was it hard to do that?
It’s a very difficult skin to climb into, but Paul writes these pieces because he understands the way these people feel. So I had him as kind of a spiritual guide. Life hurts for a lot of people in this world, and the movie in a lot of ways is a cry. Or a scream. It’s the scream of a very, very refined and fully mature artist saying, “Is there anybody out there?”
Paul is extremely educated and he shows you the value of that education. He knows what the power of movies is, what the rules of filmmaking are, and he has something to say. And he’s worked really, really hard to refine it. I did a play with Tom Stoppard once and you feel the level of excellence that Stoppard is striving for, and it’s actually inspiring. You’re grateful that there’s somebody out there in the world that cares whether or not you’ve used the exact perfect word.
You also never do the movie star thing a lot of people do where they wink at you through the camera and go, OK, but I’m kind of charming, you’re going to like me anyway.
All the performances I grew up loving don’t involve any winking.
Certainly not DeNiro in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull.
Or Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. Denzel never winks. He’s in it for the long haul. Right around the time I was turning 30, I got to do Training Day and I got to see what it looks like for a fully developed artist to give a performance at that level. It’s valuable. I don’t know how he does it but it’s interesting to be near it and see what it looks like and smells like and feels like and what his day is like and it shows you what’s possible.
That winking feels pervasive in movies now.
A lot of movies seem like SNL skits to me, in a bad way. I like SNL skits, but I don’t like where everyone’s letting you know that they’re not really serious, or that you can get them at their Instagram account.
In both First Reformed and in Maudie, the guy is so dark and so recessive, that he can’t have that redemptive moment in the way that movies have told you he will lately.
And that has value because we learn about life and humanity and it’s actually more recognizable. There are movies that are unnecessarily dark and they lie because there’s so much light to the universe. And there are a lot of movies that are unnecessary light, and those lie too because by withholding the dark current of the universe you make you feel like you can’t believe the light. And what Schrader is really trying to get at is there’s a possibility for beauty and healing simultaneously.
Where was your first kiss?
The Hamilton Roller Rink, in New Jersey. Her name was Cindy, and she was wearing a Black Sabbath T-shirt. It was a slow skate, and she was smoking hot. We skated around, and she said to me, “Do you like Jack Daniel’s?” And I said, “Yeah. Too bad he’s dead.” She said, “Is he dead?” I thought she meant Jimi Hendrix. Then she said, “Have you ever French kissed?” And I said, “Yeah, man.” But I actually hadn’t. So we snuck off behind the Coke machines and kissed.
And how was it?
Well, I’m still talking about it and that was a long time ago.
Best Performances: Featuring Nicole Kidman, Claire Foy, Rami Malek, and 29 of Hollywood’s Biggest Stars
Claire Foy wears a Burberry top, corset dress, socks, and shoes; Charvet scarf. Emily Blunt wears a Burberry dress, shirt, socks, and shoes; stylist’s own top.
Kiki Layne wears a Prada top and headband; Tiffany & Co. earrings. Jonah Hill wears The Row jacket, shirt, and tie.
Margot Robbie wears a Chanel cardigan and skirt; stylist’s own top. Michael B. Jordan wears a Calvin Klein 205W39NYC cardigan and vest; Brioni trousers.
Nicole Kidman wears an Armani Privé dress; Cartier earrings; Cornelia James gloves; stylist’s own veil.
Mahershala Ali wears a Prada suit; his own top and bracelet. Amy Adams wears a Givenchy dress and belt.
Eddie Redmayne wears a Givenchy shirt and pants. Rami Malek wears a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shirt.
Saoirse Ronan wears a Celine by Hedi Slimane dress.
Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased and Destroyer
“In Destroyer, I play a cop who’s been through a lot—she’s very American, very angry, distressed, and disturbed. I wasn’t the first choice for that role—it went to somebody else and she didn’t want to do it. I read the script and put my hand up and said, ‘What about me?’ ” Did the wardrobe contribute to the character? We took so long to find the leather jacket that I wear in pretty much every frame of the film. I became so obsessed with that jacket, I would wear it at home. I put it on first thing in the morning. My kids visited the set and were shocked at the way I looked. You know, I’ve been working as an actor since I was 14 years old. It’s a choice, but it’s also a calling. Sometimes, I kind of try to move away, but it always pulls me back.
Comme des Garçons coat, T-shirt, skirt, tights, and boots; headpiece by hairstylist Malcolm Edwards. Inflatable latex costumes by artist Sasha Frolova (throughout).
Amy Adams in Vice
“My role in Vice is Lynne Cheney, Dick Cheney’s wife. It’s a huge responsibility to play a living person. I didn’t meet Lynne, and that’s interesting too—playing somebody who’s alive but whom you’ve never met. Plus, I age from 20 to 70 in the film, so that was another challenge.” Did her conservative politics affect your performance? I really just absorbed her point of view. Whether I agree with it or not doesn’t really matter. To get into character, I would have long debates about policy and politics as Lynne Cheney with our director, Adam McKay. I called him many names. I teased him about wearing shorts on set and how that was disrespectful. But I didn’t swear, because Lynne wouldn’t swear.
Valentino gown; Valentino Garavani earrings; Marc Jacobs boots.
Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots and On Chesil Beach
“This is the first time I’ve played any queen or monarch. Mary had to hold herself in a certain way when she was presenting herself at court, but when she was on her own, in her intimate quarters, she was quite different. I began to feel like a bit of a boss. A boss queen!” Did you learn any royal skills? Yes, I learned to ride. My horse in the film was also Wonder Woman’s horse—his name is Prince, and he is the biggest diva I’ve ever met. Prince doesn’t do anything for anyone, especially me, and had a nervous cough that you’d hear right before we’d do a take. Everything I did was for that horse, just to get his approval.
Balenciaga dress and shoes.
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You
“The director of the film, Boots Riley, had been following me for quite a while before I finally met him. He handed me the script for Sorry to Bother You literally put it in my hands. I was like, Who is this strange person? When I read the script, I realized I had no idea how deeply strange he is. But his strangeness revealed itself to be another form of beauty.” Growing up, who was your cinematic crush? Jennifer Love Hewitt. I loved her. I couldn’t comprehend anything, except that she was beautiful. What’s your favorite Halloween costume? I’m always the Joker. Every year. Soon there will be a black Joker movie, and it will be me.
Maison Margiela Artisanal Men’s Designed by John Galliano suit; Tiffany & Co. earrings; John Hardy cross necklace; Chrome Hearts thick chain; Hoorsenbuhs long chain; Stanfield’s own rings.
Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots
What was your first red-carpet outfit? I was 18. The Australian equivalent of the Emmys is called the Logies, and I was nominated. It was my big moment, the biggest thing that had happened to me. So I went all out on the dress: It was very short at the front, long at the back, lots of layers, bright colors, and shiny fabric. It was, like, orange, black, orange, black—with a big bow at the back. I had stipple-looking hair, and I was very tan. It was…a look. I don’t regret it, because I was 18 and having fun. I can dress boring for the rest of my life.
Staud coat; Giu Giu turtleneck; Vex Clothing tights; Urstadt Swan gloves; Manolo Blahnik shoes; stylist’s own veil.
Timothée Chalamet in Beautiful Boy
“Beautiful Boy [which is about a father and his son, who is addicted to drugs] was a script they’d been trying to get made for 10 years. Every guy actor my age had gone up for it. I’ve been lucky, but a lot of the bigger Hollywood movies like Spider-Man, things like that, I didn’t get. So, for Beautiful Boy, I did a lot of research and read about drugs, and I brought the books to my first meeting with the director. I could see in his eyes that he was thinking, This kid is nuts. But I felt this movie—the subject of drug addiction—was so important. I wanted to make an anti-glorification-of-drugs movie. And I think we did.” Did you meet Nic Sheff, whom you play in the film? Yes. I met him a week before we started shooting. And there was nothing about Nic that fit my stereotype of an addict. That was the learning grace of this movie: Nic is alive and well, but the reality is, it’s a day at a time. You never really beat it. You lost so much weight. Was your mom worried about you? My mom was worried! I lost 18 pounds. First, I’m in a movie where I was having sex with a peach, and then it was like, “I got another movie!” She said, “Great!” And then I had to tell her what it was about.
Claire Foy in First Man
Growing up, what was your favorite toy? I had a disgusting pillow until I was about 21. Shamefully, I took it to university. Do you get nervous before filming? Oh, yes, I get nervous. It’s a gradual process of trying to work yourself up to being brave enough to be on set. You always worry that everyone’s going to say, “Ooh, we’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.” What was the name of your first pet? Thumper. And the first street that you lived on? I don’t know. So you’re a one-name sensation: Thumper is your porno name. Thumper it is.
Burberry cape; Falconiere bonnet.
Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
What was the first record you bought? Bon Jovi. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is such a good song. I love a good emotional ballad. The greatest YouTube hole to go down is Leona Lewis when she was on The X Factor. Every week, she just came and delivered. Occasionally she’d take her shoes off. Do you watch other reality shows? I’m quite excited because The Hills, which is my original reality-TV guilty pleasure, is coming back. I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Heidi Montag. Do you have a secret skill? Yes. I’m incredibly good at being early. I’m always the person who gets to the airport four hours early. I drive everyone crazy.
Dior Men jacket and pants; Urstadt Swan gloves; Givenchy boots.
Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther
Do you have a favorite movie villain? For me, it’s a tie between Heath Ledger as the Joker and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Villains, like Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, are the most interesting characters. They are the ones you can empathize with—they want you to not like them, but you can still understand their motivation.Even though you’re the villain in Black Panther, do people on the street still say “Wakanda forever” to you? They don’t immediately realize that my character is not exactly pro-Wakanda. Midway through saying something, it registers: Oh, he wasn’t really with Wakanda. But by then they’ve already committed.
Is it difficult to act when you’re basically naked? I’m always naked. So, no.
Joanna Kulig in Cold War
“The director, Pawel Pawlikowski, wrote the part of Zula for me. I knew that the inspiration for the character came from his mother. Zula is her real name, and, like me, she was blonde. I saw her photo.” Was that the hardest part about portraying the character? No. The hardest part was the dancing. In general, I have a problem with coordination. I spent six months in a Polish folk ensemble learning how to dance. We partied together, we drank together, and we’d dance for six hours during a concert. It was like a family, and I started to build the character of Zula. Soon, I had her thoughts and personality. And I finally learned how to dance!
Chloé dress; Louis Vuitton hat.
Elizabeth Debicki in Widows
“I was a dancer for many, many years, and I thought I was going to be a ballerina. When I was about 12, I went to a summer school for the Australian ballet and I was already taller than my teacher. So I remember saying to myself, I’m going to have to rethink this plan.” Did you audition for Widows? Yes, I put myself on tape in my friend’s garage. How glamorous! I remember wearing a lot of eyeliner. I picked out some hoop earrings. And, funnily enough, in the finished film, she ended up looking a lot like she did in my test.
Marc Jacobs coat; Noel Stewart headpiece; Cornelia James gloves; Falke tights; Vivienne Westwood shoes.
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk
“I took a break from making films. My son, Ian, was getting to the age, around sixth grade, when kids are starting to spread their wings, and everything that was being offered to me was outside of Los Angeles, except for TV. I didn’t want to travel to make films. So I like to say I was one of the first movie actors who made the leap into television.” Do they call Beale Street your comeback film? I like to use the LL Cool J song: “Don’t call it comeback. I been here for years.”
Givenchy dress; Graham Tyler hat; Linda Farrow sunglasses.
Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate
“I painted in a movie called To Live and Die in L.A., but it wasn’t about painting—it was more about counterfeiting and killing people. In playing Vincent van Gogh, painting was the key to the character. I had to know what I was doing. The director, Julian Schnabel, would say, ‘Hold the brush like a sword’ and ‘There’s no such thing as a bad mark.’ I began to think that painting is about making an accumulation of marks. Acting is the same: You create a character scene by scene. It’s a series of marks that start a rhythm, and that rhythm sends you where you need to go.” Who is your cinematic crush? Warren Oates. When I saw him perform, I thought, That’s not an actor, that’s a man. It kind of broke my heart to find out he was actually a trained actor.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace
“I play a girl who is with her father in the wild, far away from civilization. Since I live in New Zealand and couldn’t fly to America, I auditioned on tape. We had a lot of props: a bucket, a toothbrush, a sleeping bag, and a rabbit named Coco. I also ran through the New Zealand bush with a GoPro in my mouth and sent that off as well. I didn’t meet the director in person. Six months later, on Christmas, I found out that I had gotten the part.”
Moschino Couture dress; Capezio tights; Sergio Rossi shoes.
Steven Yeun in Burning
“I like filming death scenes. When I was on The Walking Dead, I had known for some time about my character’s death. I was really excited for that day—I was looking forward to getting my skull bashed in. In Burning, my death scene was really fun. That was the only time it snowed, which was unexpected, and it added some magic to the moment. Everybody fantasizes about what it would be like to die. If I could make a career out of being killed, it would be okay.” Do you have a secret skill? Yes. I’m really good at getting parking spots. I’m so confident that the spot is going to be there, that it’s always there. Right in front.
Gucci jacket, shirt, pants, hat, and shoes; Charvet tie.
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
“I have been acting since I was 5. My first job was doing the voice of Agnes, the youngest daughter, with the big ponytail on top of her head, in Despicable Me. I was in the sequel, but I was too old for Despicable Me 3, because I can’t do my 5-year-old voice anymore.” In Eighth Grade, there is a pool-party scene that is nerve-wracking. You wear a very awkward green bathing suit. Yes, it is anxiety inducing. I did not pick the bathing suit. They wanted a lime green one so my character would stick out. I still have it. I mean, I don’t go to the pool that much, but that’s my bathing suit now. I love it.
Gucci dress; Eugenia Kim hat; Sophie Buhai necklace.
Jonah Hill in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
In the film, your character, Donny, has a fantastic fashion sense. One of the things that inspired me was a photograph of Yves Saint Laurent in Morocco in the ’70s. I looked at it and was like, Oh, level-10 Marrakech! So Donny wears a lot of caftans and Moroccan stuff in the movie—kind of our Tom Petty and Yves Saint Laurent level-10 Marrakech. He also has a very calm, Zen outlook on life. Donny had conquered a lot of the things that were dark and demonic about himself, and he was able to be peaceful and calm. That was a joy to play. I miss being Donny— even his long blond hair. What was your most memorable birthday? My mom once sent a mariachi band to play my favorite song, “Feliz Navidad.” It was winter in New York and eight mariachis played my song. I was like, “Am I hallucinating right now?”
Raf Simons coat; the Row T-shirt and jeans; Paul Smith boots.
Kiki Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk
How did you find out you had the part in Beale Street? It was nine in the morning and Barry Jenkins, the director, called and woke me up. He just got to talking and didn’t introduce himself. Finally, he said, “Girl, do you even know who you’re talking to?” He went on to tell me that they were giving me the role! I was trying to rush him off the phone so I could really go crazy and cry and call my mama. What is your go-to karaoke song? “Drunk in Love,” by Beyoncé. Especially if you’ve got somebody that’ll hold down Jay Z’s part. That’s definitely the move. I feel like you have mood hair: Sometimes it’s long, sometimes it’s short—up, down. Oh, yeah, we gotta switch it up. You never really know how it’s gonna be: Will it be curly? Straight? And watch out when those colors start coming in!
Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello dress and boots; Prada headband; Tiffany & Co. earrings.
Carey Mulligan in Wildlife
“Paul Dano, who cowrote and directed Wildlife, called me and said he was going to send me the script. I was kind of flattered that he thought I could play Jeanette.” She’s a tormented character. Did you have trouble shaking her off at the end of the day? No. When you’ve got kids, they expect you to come home and be Mom, not some weird drunk woman. At the end of the day, I take off that hat, leave that person at work, and come home and watch the Food Network. I love Chopped. They make disgusting things, but I do like Bobby Flay. Chopped and Bobby Flay are the perfect antidote to films like Wildlife.
Michael Kors Collection dress; vintage hat from New York Vintage, New York; Tiffany & Co. earrings; Carolina Amato gloves; Capezio tights; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Yalitza Aparicio (far left) in Roma
“The shoot for Roma lasted six months. We shot in chronological order. It was a very long process for me. I had not seen any of Alfonso Cuarón’s films. I actually didn’t know who he was. Alfonso asked me not to watch any of his films until we were done with the filming. He didn’t want me poisoning my mind with any images or ideas.”
Marina de Tavira in Roma
“I was the only actor in Roma with any previous experience. It was really challenging. First-time actors—and many of them were children—have a completely different way of working. Alfonso Cuarón would play tricks on us—make things happen that we were not expecting. That way, he made real life appear on set.”
From left: Valentino gown. The Row gown; Tiffany & Co. earrings.
Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns
“The hardest thing about playing Mary Poppins was learning how to dance. One day, you’re handed a hat and a cane, and I was like, Oh, my God. And, also, the initial idea of taking on a character that iconic was daunting. But once I got over my fears, it was deliciously fun.” What was your first red-carpet outfit? It was for My Summer of Love, and I was far too tanned. I was wearing a very bright yellow dress. I always laugh at how sweaty I looked. Horrible. Who is your girl crush? Rihanna. I mean, come on. She’s smoking.
Louis Vuitton coat; Eugenia Kim hat; Manokhi gloves.
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody
“The first thing I auditioned for I almost wasn’t allowed to audition for. I got a call from a casting director, and she asked to speak to the agent representing Rami Malek. I said, ‘Uh, speaking.’ She kind of laughed and said, ‘Call me when you have an agent.’ I go, ‘You’re already laughing—give me a shot.’ It was three lines in Gilmore Girls. I convinced her to let me read, and I got the part.” Besides in the film, have you ever sung any Queen songs in public? In Japan, with our version of the band, we dressed up in animal onesies and did “Bohemian Rhapsody,” like the original video. It was filmed, and I’m sure someone will get drunk and throw it out there into the ether.
Officine Générale pants; Atsuko Kudo Couture Latex Design gloves.
When you were that age, what was your favorite film?
That was right around the time where I was really discovering movies. My mom didn’t get home from work until 6:30, so I could go to the Rite-Aid and rent movies. It’s hard to say if I had a favorite. People used to make fun of me because I would say after every movie I saw that that was my favorite film I’ve ever seen. So Apocalypse Now… I remember being blow away by Das Boot. I remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got to me.
What was the first album you ever bought?
Willie Nelson’s The Red Headed Stranger.
Do you have a karaoke song now?
I can’t stand karaoke. I get invited and I think my inner secret desire to be a rock star is too great to like pretend. It hurts too much. Last time I went to do karaoke, I was actually with Peter Dinklage and Bobby Cannavale, who actually can blow you away so I have no karaoke song. If I did I think it would be “November Rain.”
Are you going to play a rock star any time soon?
I have this secret movie in development for where I do get to play a country star, but in the days when country stars were rock stars. So, I think that I’ve got it coming.
Do you have a secret skill?
When I was about 16, I hated going to church, so my mother said, if once a week I would dedicate at least four hours to somebody besides myself, I didn’t have to go. So I started working on Sundays at the ASPCA, and I learned a lot about training dogs. So for example, if I was to teach acting, it would involve bringing in dogs.
What do you learn from the dogs?
To be in the present moment.
And to be kind. They’re so kind. Maybe not White Fang [laughs]
Those half-wolves that we were working with could be dangerous. And that was pretty interesting, too.
You were what? Like, 20?
I was 19, in Haines, Alaska. And that’s back in the days when going on location meant going on location. I mean there was no internet, we got the mail once a week on Mondays. And if it was snowy or rainy or bad weather on, if the boat didn’t come in, then you just had to wait the next week. That’s when I realized that I had to make my own decisions, because agents and stuff don’t have to go away for six months, and you have to.
You had to make a lot of decisions because you got super famous super fast. It’s a great thing, but it’s an intense thing when that happens.
The funny thing about all our lives is that, we don’t really fundamentally know what it’s like to be anybody else. So I don’t really know what it’s like to not have celebrity hit your life. I was grateful that I got it in small doses. When Dead Poets Society came out, people just thought of me as one of the poets so I had about five years to slowly get used to it. Reality Bites is when things changed for me in that way.
And Gattaca, which has had an incredible half life.
Gattaca‘s the movie that fans most often want to talk to me about. I’m proud of it. Andrew Niccol is a major, major writer. I did another film with him a couple of years ago, called Good Kill; in a lot of ways it’s a spiritual sibling to First Reformed for me. But it shows how the times have changed. See a political movie, five, six years ago, was not interesting to anybody.
The thing about drones is, they’re very upsetting. It’s a new weapon on the battlefield that’s gonna change the landscape of war for the coming centuries, and it’s not a subject anyone wants to talk about. The left wing hates Good Kill because it’s so critical of Obama, and the right wing hates it ’cause it’s critical of the military. So nobody wants to watch that movie. If it were to come out now, I think audiences would be more open to it because we’re all so much more politically engaged than we were.
Why don’t you run for office, Ethan?
Because I’m an artist, and I actually believe that art can go where religion and politics can’t. That it can seep into the cracks of the human heart. You penetrate hearts and you realize how much we have in common and how the flames of our differences have been fanned.