The multiple Oscar nominee talks about his latest feature release, the highly anticipated Before Midnight—which he also co-wrote.
Actor-writer-director Ethan Hawke
Tavis Smiley: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight a conversation with actor, writer, and director Ethan Hawke.
His new movie, “Before Midnight,” which co-stars Julie Delpy, reconnects audiences with the characters we first met back in the 1995 romantic drama, “Before Sunrise” and once again in the 2004 sequel, “Before Sunset.”
Before we get to that conversation, though, this is our 10th anniversary season on PBS, and believe it or not, tomorrow night – we believe it – is our 2,000th episode. So we’re continuing to introduce you to some of the folk who make this program possible every night.
So joining me – come on, Karen – my friend Karen Imendorf. She’s our production manager, has been with me since the beginning of this show a decade ago, and she essentially keeps everything around here running smoothly.
Long before guests like Ethan Hawke get a chance to see me, they see Karen first. I can’t tell you how important it is to have you as the right person people see when they first step out of that car to come on this show, so I am honored and delighted to have you as a part of our team, Karen.
Karen Imendorf: Mr. Smiley, thank you so much for the warm introduction, and I just want to say I’m so grateful for these past 10 years, our first 10 years together on PBS.
And I’m really looking forward to the next 10, when we get to celebrate your 4,000th show together.
Tavis: Yeah, from your mouth to God’s hears.
Imendorf: Thank you.
Tavis: But I’ll do it if you’ll do it. I’ll stay if you stay.
Imendorf: I’ll stay if you stay.
Tavis: All right, and tell Richard we love him too.
Imendorf: Aw, thank you.
Tavis: Karen’s got a wonderful husband named Richard, and Karen is the only person, by the way, who for 10 years has never called me anything but Mr. Smiley. I thought tonight she might break character, but no, not Karen. So Karen, take it away.
Imendorf: A conversation with Ethan Hawke, coming up right now.
Tavis: (Laughs) Ethan Hawke has starred in movies such as “Training Day,” for which he earned an Oscar nominating, and “Assault on Precinct 13,” but whatever else he accomplishes, including as a director and writer, he’ll probably be remembered in part for the character of Jesse, who along with Julie Delpy is part of a deeply romantic couple who moviegoers have followed now for almost two decades.
First in “Before Sunrise,” and then again in “Before Sunset,” and now in the new release, “Before Midnight.” Let’s take a look at a clip from the film.
Tavis: Oops. That’s, that’s not “Before Midnight.”
Ethan Hawke: That’s my work with my favorite seat partner of all time. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s not Julie Delpy. I think that’s Tavis Smiley.
Tavis: From the movie “Sinister.”
Hawke: You don’t really look like a French femme fatale. Yeah, you’ve got certain qualities, but not those.
Tavis: I guess they played that because they wanted me to just remind you that that movie, we’re told, was made for just a few million dollars and grossed almost 50.
Tavis: I didn’t get a call for “Before Midnight,” but –
Hawke: Oh, so this is what we’re here for.
Tavis: – I think my track record, I think my (laughter) –
Hawke: Yeah, yeah, that’s what we’re here for.
Tavis: I think my track record is pretty good –
Hawke: Yeah. I think you need to be in all my films now.
Tavis: – and I didn’t get a call for this.
Hawke: You’re the little piece of good luck.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s what I think, but anyway, enough of that nonsense. Let’s take a look at a clip from “Before Midnight.”
Tavis: Is that an Elvis line?
Hawke: That is – “You make me as horny as a Billy goat in a pepper patch.” (Laughter) Hey, it worked for Elvis, man, so –
Tavis: It worked –
Hawke: I think anything worked for Elvis.
Tavis: It works for you. And speaking of working, this film is working already. First of all, everywhere I look, so “Time” magazine, opened it up, bam. There you are.
Hawke: I look like a Latin lover there, don’t I? I feel like I look like I tango or something.
Tavis: All right, that “Time” comes across my desk, and then I’m opening up “New York” magazine, and –
Hawke: Oh, wow, check that out.
Tavis: – bam. There you are in “New York.”
And I’m reading entertainment, “Entertainment Weekly,” bam, there you are. Dude, this thing is everywhere. There’s always talk about – there’s already Oscar buzz on this thing, particularly for your role. What do you make of all this so soon? It ain’t even out yet.
Hawke: I think there’s something that really is strange and unique and people like about being able to follow characters over so much time, and I don’t – like, any time in my life I’ve ever done anything that people thought was good, 90 percent of it felt like it was by accident.
We never had a plan when we did “Before Sunrise.” Oh, let’s make an epic love story that goes over 20 years. We wouldn’t – I don’t know, somehow, that idea wouldn’t work. But it’s just fallen into our laps, and I love working with Julie. She’s one of the most alive and vibrant and funny and smart women I’ve ever worked with or come across in any capacity, and Richard Linklater is a great filmmaker.
So I don’t know, even when you asked me that question, I don’t know – what am I supposed to say? It makes me happy that people like it, it makes me nervous, like maybe they’ll stop liking me tomorrow. I loved playing this character and I love working on these movies, so the idea that people want to see it and like it makes me very happy.
Tavis: Yeah. Tell me about that story arc, because I’m not a filmmaker, but that’s like a long arc, like two decades, three films, that a serious – look into this relationship.
Hawke: I mean, think about it – and also don’t – Julie and I are also writing these movies.
Hawke: So we’re co-writing with our director, and so not only am I acting with her over these three films, but we’re also co-writers. That’s an intense thing to do. But the arc is what? The first time they’re just two people, strangers who meet on a train. Classic stranger on a train, they meet, they fall in love.
But ironically, if they’d made this movie now it wouldn’t happen. They had no way to communicate. They didn’t exchange phone numbers, so they leave and they never can see each other again. Now it would be ridiculous to think that you wouldn’t have digits, whatever, yeah.
Tavis: Oh, yeah. Cell phone, Facebook, Twitter.
Hawke: They’d be texting nude photos of each other back and forth. (Laughter) God knows what they’d be doing. But in that time period they lost each other.
Hawke: The second film is he was so deeply affected by her he ended up – when you first meet him he’s kind of an aspiring writer. Now he’s written a novel. It’s about this one night he shared with this woman. It’s the end of a long book tour, and she shows up at the book signing. They have this other very intense meeting about what could be.
In this third one, now it’s not about fantasy, it’s not about romantic projection. We find them in the midst of a for-real love affair. They have kids; they’re dealing with all the kind of nonsense of life. It’s a little bit – the movie’s about – it takes on what the other two movies ignored, which is daily life.
How do you keep romance alive when you’ve got to go grocery shopping, romance alive when one person wants to go to – just the dailyness of life?
Tavis: So how many times have you been asked whether or not any of this writing mirrors the development, the growth, the journey of your own relationships over these 20 years?
Hawke: These movies are made from the fabric of our own lives. Jesse is a lot me. Jesse’s a lot Richard Linklater, Jesse is some Julie Delpy. It’s certainly true that when I did “Before Sunset,” if you look at the movie I weigh, like, 15 pounds. I was really depressed, I was going through a divorce; so was Jesse.
You find Jesse’s in a happier place now in the third film. The way these films are constructed, we’re using our life. We’re trying to make something – it’s not some kind of navel-gazing weird. It’s trying to use our life to make something beautiful. That’s the goal.
Tavis: How do you know that – you have a great life, but how do you know that using your life will work on paper, much less on film?
Hawke: You don’t know, but the idea is it’s really not my life. It’s like if you tell, in detail, for real, the real story of Tavis, right, you’re going to end up, if you tell the truth –
Tavis: In jail.
Hawke: (Laughter) And that would be interesting to watch. (Laughter)
Tavis: Well, thank you.
Hawke: All right, okay, and that’s kind of the point, is that if you, anybody, all of us, our experiences are not that unique.
We fall in love, we don’t want to die, we don’t want bad things to happen to people we love, we don’t understand why we’re misunderstood. Aside from a few diabolical figures, most of us can relate to another if we tell the truth, and then we can recognize it.
That’s the goal. It’s not that my life is so interesting or Julie’s life is so interesting or that – it’s just that we’re just representatives of our generation and our development, where we are.
Tavis: First scene, like 14 – I put out my stopwatch –
Hawke: It’s about 14 minutes long, yeah.
Tavis: Fourteen minutes long.
Tavis: Just talk to me about the reason for doing that, why you think it works.
Hawke: Well –
Tavis: That’s a long opening scene, but it works, obviously.
Hawke: You’re diving into these people’s lives, and I think Richard Linklater has this idea that if you don’t manipulate people, they believe you. So we rehearsed this take, it was probably 21 pages of dialogue, we’re driving a car, it’s about 20 miles of road that has to be blocked off.
This whole crazy take – and you’re not – there’s two other people in the scene, so the kids are asleep in the car. It was an idea that Rick had had, that when you’re young, you’re always talking and you’re with a woman and she’s with you, and you’re philosophizing – well, what’s going to happen?
As you get older, those moments of just whimsy, of just chatting, are harder to find, and he was saying that the only time it really happens is when the kids are asleep in the back of the car and we’re on our way somewhere.
That was the germ that started this screenplay. It’s like, well, where are they driving? What are they talking about? What’s on their mind? So we thought this is the way to open the movie, just dive right in and be in the car with them. I think it works.
Tavis: It does work, but that’s a lot of dialogue –
Hawke: It is.
Tavis: – to remember.
Hawke: Julie and I always joke that when we work on these movies we feel like there’s about – all we seem to do is run lines. At dinner, we run lines on our way to set, we run – when you have 21 pages you’re supposed to try to get in one take, you run the lines a lot. Oh, that’s what I was going to say, about the two girls in the back. The end of the take is them waking up, so of course when the take’s going well, all I start to get scared is that the girls fall asleep.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Hawke: But yeah, the language of these movies is a big part of what makes the movies.
Tavis: Were the challenges in this relationship inevitable? Was it natural, was that written in to make it more interesting? Because this relationship is challenged in this film, for lack of a better word.
Hawke: Well, yeah, we wanted to create a scenario where two well-meaning people who actually love each other and actually want the best for each other, that it’s actually difficult.
We see tons of things in movies and television stuff where, oh, he’s an alcoholic, he’s bad. Oh, she cheated on him, she’s bad. It’s real easy to point your finger as to who’s wrong.
But yet when you’re in real life, nobody’s really the bad guy. Lots of real people love each other and want the best for each other and struggle to get along; they finger-point. But we wanted for the audience not to have a clear finger – that two people struggling to love each other is hard enough without any obvious bad guy, and we wanted to make a movie about that.
Tavis: Again, this is your lane, not mine, but I’m just –
Hawke: But you did some pretty great scene work up there, so don’t –
Tavis: Oh, stop. (Laughter)
Hawke: Don’t sell yourself short there.
Tavis: Stop, stop. I’m just –
Hawke: Come on, man. (Laughter) I saw –
Tavis: Oh, yeah, whatever.
Hawke: Okay, all right.
Tavis: I’m just a moviegoer here.
Tavis: But this doesn’t strike me as a sequel, it strikes me as the story of these two lives as they advance. What, in terms of filmography, what other movie, series of movies – you know what I’m trying to ask?
Hawke: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Is there something else that’s done that that I’m unaware of that I need to go check out and add to my library?
Hawke: It’s more obvious in literature. There’s a lot of books where each book stands along.
Tavis: Right, sure.
Hawke: The obvious example would be John Updike’s “Rabbit” series. He takes – you can read them in any order or whatever, but if you read them as a whole, they work. There’s lots of examples in literature.
In movies, there’s Truffaut did the “Antoine Doinel” series, and they’re, that’s in – there’s not that many. That’s the truth. They exist. I can’t think of any besides the Truffaut one.
Tavis: That was one of the ways of getting to why, then, you and Julie and –
Tavis: – Richard thought that this could work once, twice, three times.
Hawke: We never thought it could work.
Hawke: We never thought the first movie could work. The fun thing about working with a guy like Richard is he doesn’t care if it works. I remember Julie saying to Rick, “Nobody’s going to care. Nothing’s happening in this movie. We need more jokes. We should call up Woody Allen, somebody needs to write some jokes or this isn’t going to work.”
Rick just said to her, “I’m interested. I’m interested in you. I spent the whole summer with you; I’m still interested in you. And if somebody can’t sit and be with you and see a real human being and they find that unappealing, then this movie is not for them.”
That’s the truth of these movies. I don’t think – the only three people that wanted “Before Sunset” to get made were Rick, Julie, and I. (Laughter) We were, like, the only people interested in Jesse and Celine.
Hawke: Over time, because of the benefit of DVDs and stuff like that – we’re the lowest-grossing trilogy of all time.
Tavis: Right. (Laughter)
Hawke: That’s for sure.
Tavis: The only one and the lowest-grossing one.
Hawke: Yeah, yeah, and –
Tavis: That also makes you the highest-grossing movie.
Hawke: Yeah. (Laughter) Our joke is if everybody who loved “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” went to “Before Midnight,” it’ll be a fiscal failure. (Laughter) We do these things because we care about them, and over time we’ve found like-minded people. We’re all kind of amazed at the response.
Tavis: That’s why I started for that. For whatever reason, this thing has caught on, and there are obviously a lot of people beyond the three of you who are interested to see how this thing turns out in this third film, which raises a couple questions.
One, what’s that say to you? I want to get Ethan Hawke’s take on this. What’s that say to you about the moviegoer? Give me a profile, or give me some words about what it says about the moviegoer who’s interested in this trilogy.
Hawke: I think that there are a lot of people out there that don’t want to be talked down to. Most of the stuff we get force-fed, and we go see it, all of us do, because it’s something to talk about and something to do.
But so many, particularly of romances, like if you go see a romantic movie, a girl is dragging you, it’s some female dopey movie that you feel has no relationship to how you feel about romance, right? Or it’s a woman being dragged to some macho point of view about it all.
What I think is unique about these movies is that they are without a specific agenda. I mean a gender agenda. It’s not “Sleepless in Seattle,” where all the girls love it because it’s cute, and it’s not Eva Mendes crawling across a Trans Am and all the guys think it’s cute.
It’s men and women genuinely struggling, and there is no bad guy and nobody’s perfect. My character has a lot of problems. He doesn’t handle everything right. His behavior in the past hasn’t been perfect, and he’s still a human being who wants to try to have a good life.
Celine’s character’s the same way. She has lots of problems and lots of drama, but she’s still a woman worthy of being loved. I think that you don’t see clear, three-dimensional portraits of men and women trying to love each other very often.
Tavis: This notion of being able to use, to exercise your own artistic freedom, your own artistic agency, to do something that matters to you, even if it doesn’t matter to the audience – in this case, it’s caught on.
But tell me more about that freedom, because every one of us wants to be free, we all want to be liberated.
Tavis: That’s not always easy to do when it comes to making choices in life, much less artistic choices.
Hawke: It’s never – you must know that with your show. You’ve got a certain obligation to make an entertaining show, and you’ve got a certain obligation to your audience, to give them something viable, but also if all you did was talk about your specific political agenda, things that only – if you didn’t broaden your net, right, this show would suffer.
As an actor, I think that’s the thing. Sometimes you get creative freedom and you get to do something special, and you do it and you do it with a pure heart and all that, and nobody cares.
But you cared, and you learned something. I know, for example, people really responded to “Training Day.” I got a lot of accolades about that performance. But I knew that there was a movie I did with Richard Linklater right before it, “Tape,” that I somehow, my confidence went to a new level.
I knew that. Nobody saw that movie. I didn’t win any awards for that movie. But I knew that it took me somewhere, and that’s what I needed to do. That’s what gave me the confidence to be a part of that movie.
Each person inside themselves has to navigate their own, what works for them and when, if you’re a musician, sometimes you’ve got to play a weeding, man. Sometimes you’ve got to pay the piper, and it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with playing a wedding.
Tavis: Do I take that answer just now to mean that for you, this project has already been successful, or is there now a benchmark that you want to or think you have to reach, given this third film? Because the first one, the success for you was just getting it done.
Hawke: Getting it done, yeah.
Tavis: Is that what –
Hawke: And then the second one was a coup d’état to be with my friends again and get a chance to do this. Then the second one people noticed, and that felt good.
I’ve made a bunch of movie – this is now going to sound corny, probably, but a lot of the people reviewing the movie have been, have finally, I felt, really understood, are starting to understand Richard Linklater’s work, and I think he’s really special filmmaker. So in that way, it is already a success for me.
You have friends, you watch them struggle, you watch them do great work, and when a friend hits it, people notice. I’m happy.
Tavis: Speaking of accolades, before my time runs out, the last time I saw you was in New York. You were doing “Ivanov.” Great piece of work. You were happy with that run, I take it?
Hawke: I was. Doing theater, for me, that was a great moment in time. When you came it was a particularly great night, because it captured something that I really believe in.
“Sinister” was coming out all over the country. Here’s this kind of genre horror movie that’s playing everywhere, and I’m doing a Chekov play on 13th Street in New York. It was the high-low thing, and I really love that.
If I can keep mixing it up like that, doing some things that – just not being controlled by what other people think is high or low or whatever. Just keep –
Tavis: But why is that – I was going to say a turn-on, but I guess more than a turn-on. I get the sense that it’s necessary for you, it’s like part of your DNA to have this balance.
You don’t have to always do blockbusters; you want to do what you want to do. If you can do them both at the same time, that’s cool. But why is that mix so critical?
Hawke: I’ve just been allergic –
Tavis: You’re just ornery like that.
Hawke: Yeah, I’ve been – a lot of successful people get, like, a trademark, like Coca-Cola, I am this. This is what – I feel like it puts you in a little glass box and you can’t do anything else, and if you try to be too highbrow and elite and I do my Chekov plays and that’s the way it is, there’s something kind of dusty and stagey about that that I think is phony.
Because the idea of acting, I want to communicate. That character in “Sinister” was fantastic. (Unintelligible) he’s totally unlikeable, he ruins – his whole family gets killed. (Laughter) It’s terrible.
But it’s a hard character. If you try to play a character and make an audience care about such a person, where do I learn? You learn doing Chekov on 13th Street, because that’s really tough.
So for me, I feel like each thing makes me better in a different way, and I just don’t want to be in anybody else’s box, and I never have.
Tavis: I love that about you.
Hawke: Oh, thanks.
Tavis: I love that about you. The new project is called “Before Midnight.” It’s the third in this trilogy of films starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. You will want to check it out, trust me.
I should tell you that tomorrow night on this program, Mr. Ethan Hawke will appear again. Tomorrow night, Friday night –
Hawke: (Unintelligible) (Laughter)
Tavis: Friday night happens to be our 2,000th episode (applause) – 10 years –
Hawke: Congratulations. Come on, come on –
Tavis: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Hawke: That’s something, man.
Tavis: It’s nice, 10 years, 2,000 shows, and Ethan is one of the persons you’ll see featured in this wonderful clip reel of our anniversary tomorrow night, so check that out. Until then, Ethan, congratulations.
Hawke: Appreciate it.
Tavis: This is going to do very, very well.
Hawke: Oh, thanks.
Tavis: Thank you for watching, as always. Keep the faith.
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