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.
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.