Conversation: Ethan Hawke on Directing Shepard’s ‘A Lie of the Mind’

BY Tom LeGro  February 24, 2010 at 2:08 PM EDT

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— Marin Ireland, Laurie Metcalf and Frank Whaley are part of the cast in the New Group’s production of Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind,” directed by Ethan Hawke. Photo by Monique Carboni.

Actor Ethan Hawke is best known for his work in film, including early successes like “Reality Bites,” “Before Sunrise” and more recently, his Oscar-nominated turn in “Training Day” and the new vampire movie, “Daybreakers.” But Hawke, who’s also a writer and director, has developed a body of work well beyond the cinema, much of it in New York theater.

In recent years, he’s received praise for his roles in talented ensemble casts, including the acclaimed Tom Stoppard nine-hour trilogy, “The Coast of Utopia,” and a revival of David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly.” Hawke’s latest project is directing a major off-Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s 1985 play, “A Lie of the Mind,” produced by the New Group.

The story of two brothers, a pair of highly dysfunctional families in the American West and a husband who mistakenly thinks he’s beaten his wife to death, “A Lie of the Mind” goes deep into Sam Shepard Territory. Male violence, sibling rivalries, the burdens of memory, the baggage of family and questions of identity are a few of the themes Shepard explores. Along the way, the eight-member cast walks a fine line between drama and humor.

For this major revival, Hawke has assembled a top-flight cast, including Laurie Metcalf, Josh Hamilton, Keith Carradine, Alessandro Nivola, Karen Young, Marin Ireland, Maggie Siff and Frank Whaley. It’s an actor’s play, to be sure, with plenty of standout moments, but Hawke has made sure it works as an ensemble effort.

Indeed, the New York Times’ Ben Brantley writes that the production makes the case for “Lie” as Shepard’s richest and most penetrating play, providing a “blurred collective sense of self that anyone who has been part of a family is going to identify with.”

Ethan HawkeHawke took some time this week to talk to Art Beat about his interest in the play, his approach to direction and how a 1980s PBS broadcast of Shepard’s “True West” first piqued his interest:

A transcript is after the jump.

 

MURREY JACOBSON: Actor Ethan Hawke is the director of the Sam Shepard play, “A Lie of the Mind,” which is now playing at the Acorn Theater in New York. Ethan Hawke, thanks for joining us here on Art Beat. Help us understand what drew you to Sam Shepard and this particular play?

ETHAN HAWKE: You know, something about the play’s take on the nature of reality. Ever since Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan, acting has always been about naturalism. But there’s something about this play that is not naturalistic. There is something about naturalism that is lie. You know, our lives — there’s something more going on and I feel that this play dives at that. That reality is not everything that it seems. The play is not a dream, but the play kind of tells you that your life is a dream. And I thought if I could combine what I know about naturalistic acting with something really stylized, we could make something beautiful.

MURREY JACOBSON: You’ve said that you were a big fan of Sam Shepard from when you were very young. Explain how that influenced you and your decision to pursue this.

ETHAN HAWKE: Well, I think watching John Malkovich and Gary Sinese — I watched it on PBS, it aired one night — when they were doing “True West” over at the Cherry Lane. I stayed up late and watched it, and it’s a different kind of acting than I’d paid attention to previously. I just paid attention to it like cop movies or whatever, and I didn’t realize how moving acting could be and how exciting it could be. It wasn’t just Sam’s writing, it was a combination of his writing and their style of approach and even the fact there was Hank Williams’ music in it. It spoke to me in some different way and then I started reading more Sam Shepard and discovered that he was also an actor. He became kind of a guide for me in my professional life. You know, whenever people would tell me as an actor that I shouldn’t be able to write, I would think of Sam Shepard. You know, I had success as an actor at 18, and I just didn’t want it to be the only thing I ever did in my whole life. And people like Sam became a light.

MURREY JACOBSON: You know, so many of Sam Shepard’s themes are in this play: the question of violence, family dysfunction, sibling tensions, the role of men and women. Was it difficult to juggle so many themes in one play as a director?

ETHAN HAWKE: Yeah, I mean I think that’s why this play hasn’t been done in a big way in a long time. And you need eight great actors. There are eight very large parts and no one is the star. It’s not a star vehicle, it’s real ensemble acting. So you need people who can carry the weight of a star but not the ego of a star, so that makes it hard. Plus, just as you said, it balances the farce and high drama and naturalism and with I guess what you call magic realism, and it’s a very difficult play to get right tonally.

MURREY JACOBSON: You know, this was written or at least produced I think originally back in 1985, and of course there have been plenty of works about family dysfunction since this first came out. To your mind, does this still stand out on that level? Does it meet the test of time, or did you find you had to make any adjustment?

ETHAN HAWKE: I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it withstood the test of time. You know, one of the things it seems obvious to me now watching it with audiences, but it definitely does. You know, Sam is not just writing about family dysfunction. I mean, it’s deeper than that. I mean, there is something about the nature of identify and self in this play, and that’s why the family element of it is important and how we identify ourselves as men and women and fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. There is something really deep happening inside this play and I think it’s definitely still relevant.

MURREY JACOBSON: How is your experience as an actor influencing you as a director?

ETHAN HAWKE: Well, I come at everything as an actor. One of the things that you have to be careful of as an actor who directs is not wanting to play everybody else’s part in directing them to do it how you would do it. Because what good directors do is they help you be the best version of yourself. You know, they don’t have some agenda with you about how it’s supposed to be done, as if there was a right and wrong way to do it. The trick is how to believe in, you know, these eight different individuals and let them thrive as themselves.

MURREY JACOBSON: Let me ask you, obviously you’ve had great success in the movies. When you look at your career now, do you view what you do in the movies as a tool that enables you to develop more time in the theater or how do you see it?

ETHAN HAWKE: I like to be in the room with really talented people, and if I can do that in the movies, then fantastic. Movies are an amazing art form, it’s the denominate art form of our time, but if I can be in a room with Laurie Metcalf and Keith Carradine and Sam Shepard, that’s a pretty damn exciting room to be in. If I can be in a room with Jack O’Brien and Tom Stoppard, you know, that’s a pretty exciting room to be in. But that doesn’t mean it’s not exciting to be in a room with Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy. I don’t look at them as either or, or one servicing the other. I mean, certainly my success in the movies has enabled me real creative freedom. It is a very luxurious position to have a company like the New Group believe in me enough to let me direct a major revival of a Sam Shepard play. I mean, the play is expensive to run, it’s a risk for the theater company. The film stuff really gives me freedom, and so I love that. But if film was all I had, I think I would really burn out.

MURREY JACOBSON: What’s next for you now?

ETHAN HAWKE: There’s a polish filmmaker, Pawel Pawlikowski, he did this movie, “My Summer of Love” and “Last Resort.” He’s really kind of a brilliant guy, and he wants me to act in a film for him that I’m going to do in Europe this spring.

MURREY JACOBSON: Ethan Hawke, thank you so much for joining us here are Art Beat.

ETHAN HAWKE: Thanks for having me.