Actor-writer-director Ethan Hawke

Originally aired on October 12, 2012

The Oscar-nominated actor-writer-director reflects on the making of his latest feature, Sinister.

Since his breakthrough role in the 1989 drama Dead Poets Society, Ethan Hawke has charted his own course. With a mix of theater and film work, his acting efforts have been recognized with nominations for a Tony (The Coast of Utopia) and an Academy Award (Training Day). He's also directed both indie films and off-Broadway productions. The Texas native's childhood ambition was writing, and he's pursued that dream by penning several screenplays—winning a best adapted screenplay Oscar nod (Before Sunset)­—and two novels. Hawke can next be seen in the feature, Sinister, and on the boards toplining the Chekhov classic, Ivanov.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Ethan Hawke back to this program. The talented actor, writer and two-time Oscar nominee is out this month with a new film called “Sinister.” I was flattered and floored, quite frankly, but I got call from Ethan about playing a small part in this film, thankfully not too much of an acting stretch, as I got to play myself. I think I can do that okay.

More on that in a moment. First, though, here now some – [laugh] Brian says “Eh.” Here now some scenes from “Sinister.”


Tavis: So I don’t even do scary movies. I don’t go see them [laugh]; I don’t watch them when they come on television at my house. I do not do scary, but I’m such a huge Ethan Hawke fan. When you and Scott Derrickson reached out – the director – I wasn’t gonna turn down the opportunity to play myself in a small part, but I don’t do horror.

Ethan Hawke: Well, listen, man, I have to say this is a first in my life. I’ve never been interviewed on a national talk show by one of my costars.

Tavis: Oh, yeah, whatever [laugh].

Hawke: I’ll tell you, it was a thrill. They really should show the clip of you and I doing our work together.

Tavis: You guys got the clip? You got the clip? You got it, Jonathan?

Jonathan: We got it.

Tavis: Let’s play it then. Let’s play the clip.

Hawke: I mean, we need to see it. It’s important.

Tavis: Let’s play the clip.

Hawke: “I knew when I started this particular case that I might stumble on a few things that maybe somebody had overlooked.”

Tavis: “Might stumble? No, you in fact did uncover some additional information that the cops had overlooked.”

Hawke: “Well, look, first off, let me say that there are a lot of good police officers out there and I don’t want to in any way disparage what they do, right? But to police work, getting something wrong means ruining peoples’ lives. Good crime writing can set things right.”

Tavis: “So, ultimately, what feels better? Seeing justice done or seeing your book, Kentucky Blood, number one on The New York Times best-seller list?”

Hawke: “The justice, without question. I’d rather cut my hands off than write a book for fame or money.”

Hawke: Now what do you think is better in that scene? My hair or your acting [laugh]? Really, it’s a competition.

Tavis: [Laugh] You’re funny, you’re funny. I’ll let you explain that scene. You were having like a flashback, your character was.

Hawke: Yeah. My character – one of the things that I like about the movie is it’s about a guy who’s going through this crisis where he kind of feels like his best days are behind him. You know, he’s kind of longing for one more second in the spotlight, you know, just to feel the heat. So he’s getting drunk late at night watching when he used to be a big shot and do interviews.

So I had to support some kind of different hairstyle to make it look like some time had gone by. It wasn’t a very effective choice, I don’t think [laugh].

Tavis: No, I think it worked fine.

Hawke: Okay, good.

Tavis: So this movie is really an interesting balance when I got a chance to read the script myself. It’s an interesting balance between a sort of true crime drama and horror. I mean, it falls into both of it. Does that make sense?

Hawke: Yeah, it’s a little bit of both. The movie is a little bit of a thriller about a murder mystery and also just a flat-out scary movie, you know. I mean, I’ve never made one of these movies. Like you, I find life scary enough. You know, I’m terrified to get out of bed in the morning.

But this director taught me that one of the great things about horror movies is, it gives you this feeling of just immense gratitude when they’re over because as bad as your day is, I mean, as annoying as your wife is, she ain’t Bagul, the child-eating monster from hell. Maybe she is, but I don’t know [laugh].

To be honest, people love these things and, if you make a comedy, you want it to be funny. If you make a scary movie, the damn thing better be scary, you know. But at least I wanted to make one that was more psychological. You know, I don’t like the ones that have everybody getting their heads chopped off.

Tavis: So why at this point in your career, though, roll the dice to even do something like this since it’s not your typical genre?

Hawke: Just to do something different. I mean, I started acting when I was 13 years old and I feel like I really admire actors who are these kind of amazing shape-changing people, that they almost can turn themselves into other people.

Even Vincent D’Onofrio is in this movie. They showed him in a little clip. He’s just a phenomenal actor who can do that. He’s almost unrecognizable film to film, and I can’t do that.

But one of the things I can do is to try to put myself in different kinds of movies and that kind of subtly changes my work. By the time my obituary is written, I want there to be a great western and a great comedy. I love movies, so there’s that.

Tavis: To your point, I was gonna get there, so I’m glad you went there first, you started when you were just a kid and there’s so many people who don’t survive that process. There are a lot of child actors who make it and a whole lot more who don’t. So why did you end up in the “I made it” category?

Hawke: I don’t know. You know, I ask myself that a lot. I did my first movie with River Phoenix, you know. For some reason, I got to thinking about River the other day. I’d never done this before, but this is the world we live in. I could Google him and see all these images of him come up.

Because we did a movie together, there were some pictures of me in there too. But the pictures of me that came up, I was 35 and 37 and 40 and all his never get past 23 or 24. It filled me with this amazing sadness about all the things he didn’t get to see.

I remember when he passed away thinking – this sounds awful, but there’s a certain – when you’re young, it’s better to burn out than fade away. Oh, man, wow, I had a lot of respect for him. I thought he was a great artist and there was this sense of, wow, man, that’s the stuff legends are made out of.

Now I just see all that as complete idiocy, you know, the fact that he didn’t get to have children or get to grow up with his family or all the work that he could be doing and the good he’d be doing in the world. Acting, celebrity, fame, all this stuff – you do this for a living. You have people sit in this chair that have channeled the zeitgeist, you know, and it makes a lot of people brilliant.

I mean, some people know how to channel all that energy and do something amazing with it and, other people, it can make you insane. If you’re young and you don’t know who you are, that’s the trouble with child acting.

The only thing I can point to of why I survived is I have a family that loves me and never wanted any money from me. I mean, it sounds like a simple little thing…

Tavis: It’s a huge thing, yeah.

Hawke: It’s a huge thing. I see these young people in sports, athletes and stuff, and the people around them – my family, you know, all their different things. There are a lot of good people and they always let me be me and left me alone and I see that a lot of peoples’ family don’t do that to them. That’s confusing.

If I could point to one thing, that and friendship. You know, if you have one – I have a daughter who’s 14 now and the thing I wish for her is not love, fame, money or anything like that. It’s just one great best friend. You know, if you have somebody that has your back, you’re gonna be all right.

Tavis: You’ve said so many things, I want to go back in path right now.

Hawke: I talk too much [laugh].

Tavis: No, no, I love it. It’s a great opportunity for a host to not have to work so hard ’cause you got a lot you want to say and that’s cool. First of all, speaking of best friends, as you recall, my best friend, Cornel West, was with us the day we shot that.

Hawke: How could I forget?

Tavis: I said, “Doc, I’m going to do something with Ethan Hawke. I’m scared out of my mind. Will you please come hang out with me to kind of calm me down?” I walk in and Ethan and Cornel West and Scott Derrickson jump into this conversation about Chekhov and you name it. I had more fun listening to you guys talk than actually doing the scene, which I enjoyed.

Hawke: Well, that guy is one of the major lions on the planet, I think. I think that is a ferocious intellect and I admire him a lot and I’m doing a Chekhov play right now and you have to promise that you guys are going to come see it.

Tavis: We’ll be there.

Hawke: I’m doing “Ivanov” in New York.

Tavis: We will be there November 3.

Hawke: Okay, well, you guys…

Tavis: Can I get tickets?

Hawke: I’ll hook you up.

Tavis: Can I get the hook-up?

Hawke: Yeah, yeah, I’m good for something. I may be lousy interview, but I’ll get you tickets to my play.

Tavis: I will be there November 3 with Dr. West, I promise you.

Hawke: Okay.

Tavis: What’s fascinating for me, though, about your story a moment ago, your story about your life and your expression of why you think you survived as a child actor is that you started in a very different place than some people. Both of your parents were teenagers. You were born to teenage parents.

We talked the last time you were here about the fact that your mom took you to Haiti because she wanted you to understand poverty and the other side of privilege when you were just a kid. I so love that about your mom that she exposed you to that deliberately and unapologetically when you were a child.

But you were born to two teenage parents. I mean, that happens nowadays and there’s no guarantee that you’re not going to make it, but both of your parents were teenagers. That’s a tough way to go.

Hawke: It is tough. Truthfully now, as a parent, I’m 41 years old and I feel that burden of that responsibility of being a parent. It’s a lot of weight. You know, it’s hard enough to get up in the morning for yourself, but to get up and really try to create a world where young people can thrive. Part of it is – you know, adversity builds character. You hate to hear it, but it’s true.

My mother works now with the Roma in Eastern Europe. She’s dedicated her life – my grandfather really worked hard for civil rights in Texas when she was growing up and he fought the Klan real hard out there.

So when my mother was traveling, she visited Eastern Europe and she saw the way the Gypsies were being treated and how people thought they didn’t deserve to get an education ’cause they’re never going to be anything. Why waste time teaching them?

She kind of re-altered the orientation of her life around that and that’s just who she is and that’s why she took me to Haiti and that’s why she believes very much in the flag of equality in all things. Cornel West is her great hero, you know.

Tavis: For a lot of us. So you mentioned your daughter, Maya, who’s now 14 who is an artist in her own right.

Hawke: Yeah.

Tavis: So it’s not just navigating being a parent. You are a show biz guy who has a daughter now who is already – not going to be – already is in show business. How you navigating that? And you’re performing with her. I saw that thing on YouTube.

Hawke: That was just a little thing. What do you do with the kid? She set that whole thing up. Kids, they’re not like little puppies that you can control and have them do everything. She writes songs and she sings songs and she believes in herself. What was I doing when I was 14? I was doing Explorers, so I’m not really in a position to tell her that she can’t be an artist.

I’m in a position to tell her that I do know a little something about how to have a meaningful life in the arts and, if you covet fame, if you covet all the superficial accolades, you’re gonna be miserable ’cause you’re never going to get enough praise. If you covet contributing something substantive to movies, music, literature, if you want to be a part of that dialog, then you won’t be unhappy. You’ll have a great life, you know.

That’s what I feel my job is to her is to teach her the world of why it’s great to be rich and famous even though we see them all as casualties on the highway, but yet we still want it for some reason.

Tavis: Right, yeah.

Hawke: But what it’s not full of is how can you be the 75-year-old woman that you want to be? You know, what’s the road to be in that 82-year-old? If it’s acting, what’s that road? How do you get to be Morgan Freeman if you want to be an actor? How do you get to be Vanessa Redgrave? How do you get to be Nina Simone? The great artists?

If you use them as a north star, you may fall a little short, but it’s better than just trying to get one over on your neighbor, you know.

Tavis: You mentioned some names now. Who have you used as your north stars in this career?

Hawke: God. Well, a lot of people. I mean, right now at the age I’m at, I keep looking at and thinking who keeps growing? You know, that’s the thing. You can’t keep wanting to be 20 years old. Everybody knows that, but what’s in the next room?

How can I actually – instead of trying to be like the character in the movie who’s still trying to chase his glory days of when he was hip and hot, how can I try to get into the next room where I actually have something to offer?

I know I can be a better actor. I know I can be a better artist. So who does that? If you look at acting, there’s some obvious examples, you know. Christopher Plummer won the Oscar last year and he’s great if you want to study a career. It’s more my line of thinking as theater and movies and he wrote a great book. I mean, he’s an interesting person. There’s too many to name.

Jeff Bridges is a great model. I like guys who started really young ’cause it’s a peculiar problem. Jeff Bridges had that movie, “The Last Picture Show,” when he like 19 and “Dead Poet’s Society” came out when I was 18. Hell, I was grateful to make it to 30 and then I’m 40 and I still get to be on your talk show. But the question is, how can I have something interesting to say at 50?

Tavis: But the trick to me is how you navigate past what many or some may see as the zenith of your work? It doesn’t get much better than “Dead Poet’s Society.”

Hawke: So what do you do if you’re 18 years old?

Tavis: Exactly.

Hawke: Nominated for Best Picture?

Tavis: Yeah, so how do you navigate past that?

Hawke: You know, it’s a real burden, early success, you know. I have friends, you know, who’ve won the Oscar, like I know people who’ve done that kind of thing. I mean, I know it’s tough for Denzel. What happens when you get something you’ve been working for?

How do you then – because then you have to ask yourself a much deeper question, which is why do I do what I do? I don’t do it to get that, right? Because you know that it’s made of tin, right? So what are you doing it for? The answer to that question might take you somewhere real, but I don’t know. I don’t know.

Tavis: Since you mentioned Denzel, how does it feel to see somebody who you’re practically in every scene with – I mean, I know you celebrate the fact that he won, but there’s no Denzel in that movie without Ethan Hawke. That’s not to take anything away from Denzel. He’s one of the greatest actors of our time. You know the point I’m making.

Hawke: He is.

Tavis: It’s a collaborative, man. You guys as partners in that film, he’s playing off of you, you’re playing off of him.

Hawke: You don’t win those things for one movie. I mean, that guy deserved to win the Oscar for “Malcolm X.” He deserved to win it for “Hurricane.”

Tavis: Absolutely.

Hawke: He deserved it, you know, several times over. That’s what you win it for, you know. It’s just like, I don’t know, somebody’s got to win MVP, you know. Eli Manning wins MVP and, look, if those guys don’t make that catch, he doesn’t win MVP.

Tavis: Exactly.

Hawke: You know what I mean? These prizes are a game and you just kind of got to roll with the good and roll with the bad. But that whole experience, it’s fun watching Denzel’s whole career. I remember watching him in “Cry Freedom” and then follow his whole career and work with him.

You know, he does it the way – he’s a great leader in that way. As soon as he won the Oscar, what’d he do? Went into Julius Caesar at Lincoln Center. He’s always challenging himself and putting himself in a position to make it hard. He could sit on his ass.

Tavis: What have you learned about choices? I raise that because, I mean, Denzel and I have talked a thousand times over the years and one of the things I celebrate about him, not just his great acting jobs, was that so much of success is about making the right choices, turning down the right stuff.

Hawke: That’s what they don’t teach you in theater school, yeah.

Tavis: That’s why I was asking. What’s your take on that, yeah?

Hawke: You know, all the answers to these questions are so cliché. I mean, it’s to thine own self be true. I mean, that’s the bottom line. Denzel succeeds ’cause he follows his heart and he goes where his heart interests him. I remember some guys from the NAACP giving him hell about thinking he shouldn’t play such a negative character.

Tavis: A rogue cop, yeah.

Hawke: I remember him saying and I was thinking the same thing, hey, wait, nobody’s sitting here telling Gene Hackman he can’t play a bad guy. Nobody’s sitting here telling Al Pacino. I want to be a great artist. You don’t become a leader by following.

In the same way, for me, I try to put myself in situations like doing “Ivanov” right now. These plays are so much more work than doing a movie. I mean, it’s just a massive workload and the reward is completely in the doing.

Nobody’s going to pay you a million dollars to do that, but I know it makes me better and I know that like when people want me to act in some movie the reason why I feel capable to do a good job, and I think the answer to how I could be on your show when I’m 50 or 60 years old is I got to keep putting myself in situations that are going to make life difficult.

Tavis: Or keep giving me parts in your movies [laugh].

Hawke: Yeah, all right. I could be on your show, but I don’t think I’m getting any other shows [laugh].

Tavis: We’ve talked a number of times about this, but why Anton Chekhov for you?

Hawke: You know what? It’s been a hundred years and he’s a great humanist. It’s kind of fascinating like everybody right now, if you’re a parent or people always ask me, “What do you think about your kids on the internet and they’re looking at all this other stuff?”

You know, the experience of being a human being is just the same as it always has been. The really like seriously important questions, why are we born, why are we gonna die, what are we gonna do with our time on this planet? It isn’t really affected whether you’re riding a horse and carriage or whether you’re popping your iPad or whatever you’re doing.

Chekhov just saw deep into the heart of people. What I love about him is, he writes about people from all classes. You read those plays, you wouldn’t know if a man or a woman wrote it. He sees so deeply into women in a way that makes other male writers ashamed. He doesn’t talk down to anyone whether it’s the servant in the house or the rich landowner. Whatever it is, he really has this amazing God’s POV of humanity that is really moving.

The trouble is, it’s incredibly difficult to do well. I mean, most Chekhov plays when you see them done are really a very expensive nap? You know what I mean [laugh]? I told my daughter it was so great, you got to come see it, and we both went like [snore]. It’s hard to do. Every time I do Shakespeare too, I feel like, man, if I could make it as fun for the audience as it is for me…

Tavis: But you keep challenging yourself to do it, though.

Hawke: Yeah, because I know if you can do that well, then doing some stupid movie where you got to talk about “the Russians will be here at noon” or “the building’s gonna blow” [laugh], it gets a lot easier.

Tavis: I could do this for hours. I so love talking to you. But I want to close with something you said earlier in this conversation that I didn’t miss, but I wanted to come back to it.

You said it and everybody kind of laughed and I laughed, but I think there was some seriousness at the epicenter of the comment, which is that – back to “Sinister” – the world is scary enough that you need to crave doing horror movies every week. We’re headed toward a major election.

Hawke: Yeah, we are.

Tavis: And there are a lot of people scared about where this country is headed. Your thoughts?

Hawke: God, my thoughts are, you know, my thoughts are pretty simplistic. One of the things, I think that our president is cut from an older fabric than most people, you know. I think that he’s a major league human being and I’m really proud of his presidency. One thing that drives me crazy is I grew up in a left wing household and I grew up with all that other stuff.

One thing that drives me crazy about the left wing is how hard we are on ourselves. My brother is very right wing and, man, he’s loyal [laugh]. Those lefties are like, “Eh, you know, I didn’t like the way you did that on Wednesday” and “It annoyed me the soup you had. I told you you’re supposed to be a vegetarian and I don’t like you.”

But I feel like an absolute clarity from my own totally nothing point of view is that this is a difficult time. We are living in thrilling and scary times and the world has been changing so much in the recent years with communication and everything. I get to travel the world making movies and I get to see the world.

I think that this guy is in a position as much as anybody to lead us where we want to go and I think it would be a really shame not to let him finish his journey and see if I’m right or wrong. So, for me, it’s really clear, but each person’s heart is their own and that’s the great thing about living in this country.

Tavis: It’d be a shame to not go see “Sinister,” the new movie starring Ethan Hawke.

Hawke: ‘Cause think about how grateful you’ll be when it’s over that your life isn’t, you know…

Tavis: Isn’t that bad [laugh].

Hawke: Yeah [laugh].

Tavis: You want to put things in perspective? Go see “Sinister.”

Hawke: You won’t care who’s president as long as, you know, a moth is not chasing you.

Tavis: That’s the best reason to go see it. You want to conceptualize your life, go see “Sinister” star, Ethan Hawke. Man, I love you and I will see you November 3 for Chekhov in New York City.

Hawke: You just got to tell me matinee or evening.

Tavis: I’ll be there.

Hawke: Okay.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: October 29, 2012 at 3:57 pm