As a younger actor, Ethan Hawke wanted to become a leading man, like a Paul Newman or Cary Grant.
Starting in his teens, he earned role after role, breaking out in the 1989 film “Dead Poets Society,” in which he played a shy high-schooler, then portraying a disaffected Gen-X heartthrob in “Reality Bites” years later. He starred alongside Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, starting with “Before Sunrise” in 1995, and played a rookie cop alongside Denzel Washington in the 2001 film “Training Day.” In these roles and the others that followed, he thought about how he could bring each character into himself — perhaps it was partly ego — instead of allowing himself to turn into the characters.
But his perspective has shifted, Hawke says, and these days his approach is very different. He says he now practices “third person acting,” or what some might call “method acting,” to truly become the characters he’s playing. In the upcoming Showtime limited series “The Good Lord Bird,” he portrays the abolitionist John Brown, the historical firebrand at the center of the action. But in this case, Hawke is a supporting actor in a larger ensemble.
The role “is about as interesting a challenge as an American actor can have,” he said. The series puts “its finger in the great wound of America” — slavery and the Civil War — and Hawke sees value in using shame in art. “Freedom of expression of ideas is how we shine art in dark places,” he said.
The PBS NewsHour caught up with the actor, writer and director at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about telling the truth as an artist, how art can challenge viewpoints, and whether he’ll reunite with his “Before” collaborators for one more sequel. The conversation was held after a screening at the festival of the 2007 crime drama, “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” a lesser-known film by storied director Sidney Lumet, which Hawke starred in alongside the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Okay, there’s so much to talk about with this film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” Maybe we could start by talking about why you wanted to do this film, what it meant to you.
It’s a very bleak film, as you might gather (laughter). I was interested in A., working with Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and B., because I grew up on [Sidney Lumet’s] “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico” and “Network” and “12 Angry Men.” Sidney is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
It’s interesting how it happens in life, though, because the industry was trying to put him out to pasture. Sidney loved to joke about how it was easier for him to get a Lifetime Achievement Award than to get a film made. And that was very, very difficult for him. It was really hard for him to feel vital and have something to offer and have the industry kind of push you aside. I think there’s a young man’s anger in this film and a young man’s disappointment in what the nature of reality is.
Sidney is also an old-fashioned storyteller. There’s this idea going around — people love this idea of the “auteur.” But Sidney hated signatures, he hated anything that was about the ego and about himself. He really believed in serving the story.
If you think about it, this movie is so incredibly simple but also complex, the way it goes through time. What he’s trying to do is a contemporary Greek tragedy, but told through strip malls.
What was it like working with Phil [Seymour Hoffman] on this film?
It’s a little painful to watch now. When we were rehearsing this, Phil would speak very openly in privacy about addiction and his struggles with being sober. Phil had a huge appetite for life. Whatever he did, he did it all the way. It was very hard for him, that struggle. He went to meetings all the time. He spoke very openly that this wasn’t a finished thing with him. So we were exploring these characters, and Phil spoke about this. And Sidney thanked him, he said, “This is a real education,” the things he was sharing about drug abuse and depression, what they meant to Phil.
And Phil said, “you know, you can lie all the time in your life, you lie to your mom and you lie to your dad, end up lying to your kids about little things, you lie to the cops and you lie to your boss, and you lie here, you lie there, and these little lies, they spread everywhere,” he said “but there’s one place, this thing called art,” and he drew this circle. “And in this thing called art you have to tell the truth. You just have to tell the truth.”
He said, “As a person, I might be a flawed person, but as an actor I will tell the truth all the time.” And there’s lots of little secrets, [filmmaker Elia] Kazan used to say that a good performance has a little secret blood dripped into the mercury. Little secrets that you’re letting go. Phil dropped a lot of secrets in this film, that are very present and very painful.
Do you feel that way about art? That you have to be honest when you’re doing it?
You guys pay money, you’ve got your whole life, you’ve got children and parents and things to do and places to be, you don’t need to be lied to. You want to come in you want to be entertained … Well, the way I look at cheap art is like a cheap meal, it leaves you sick afterward. You eat a bad cheeseburger, and it feels good yeah, and then you just feel like crap afterwards. After a really good movie, it’s like a really great meal … it satisfies you, it satisfies the desire of escaping or getting outside your own — we all live in such tiny perspectives that we can see our lives from. And good art whether it’s a novel or dance or rock and roll or a movie, that openness expands our vision, and that feels good. That’s what I think Phil was talking about, not wasting your time.
In this film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” I think the line that makes the audience understand what is being explored comes from the diamond merchant, who says: “The world is an evil place. Some of us make money off of it, others get destroyed.” What do you think about that line and that message? Is that really the message that Sidney was trying to explore?
You know, I love that question because if you look at my character you don’t even see him at the end, it’s so creepy because he just takes the money [and runs]. And Sidney just saw him as a rat. He’s just a rat running away from a ship. There’s a value in looking at these rats, which is that you don’t want to be them.
My wife and I were talking today on the ride over here about the great pull to good in the universe. You know “the Devil works hard but God works harder?” There is a malevolent force at work, sometimes in our lives, we see it in our politics, and the way that we are manipulated and lied to, we see it in the way our planet is treated, the way we’re not the stewards that we want to be, with the animals and earth we have been given, right? So many ways we are disappointing and disappoint ourselves and we disappoint our family. But so many ways we are beautiful. Nonstop there are children being born the sun comes up, there is love everywhere and there’s healing everywhere and the Earth turns and it wants to heal things. And so both statements are true. So I think that is a bleak outlook, and this film is a bleak — it’s meant to kind of punch you in the gut. Like wow, uh, blackness.
It’s funny because in the movies you have coming out now you are not at all this. You have an upcoming movie “Adopt a Highway,” in which you are a person who is really struggling and you find a baby and that baby gives you some sense of something. And the other project you have coming out is “The Good Lord Bird,” which really grappling with difficult issues, and in which you play a true hero, John Brown. Could you talk about one of those projects?
Gosh, I’d love to. In recent years, I’ve become more interested in the brass tacks of acting. When I was younger, it is a dream I was chasing, “Oh, maybe I could be an actor, what would that be like, that would be fun.” When I got older I got more interested in third-person acting. You know like Paul Newman is the classic first-person actor. Paul Newman is Hud. Call him Harper or Hud or whomever, but it’s Paul. And you love him, and he’s the classic leading man. Then there are actors like Daniel Day-Lewis where he is Abraham Lincoln or this guy or that guy but he is a third-person actor. When I was younger, I was a lot more interested in that first-person actor idea, bringing every character to myself. And as I’ve gotten older, I have gotten a lot more interested in what you’d call character acting. Building a character.
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On this date 160 years ago, John Brown launched his attack on Harpers Ferry, in the hopes to take over the country's largest armory, carry guns into the nearby mountains and lead a revolution that would end slavery. Check out this article from The Washington Post, clickable link in bio. http://bit.ly/10161859 This photo was taken by our Prop Master, John Bert, on the set of The Good Lord Bird, which will air on @Showtime in 2020. We have been shooting our limited series, based on the National Book Award winning novel by James McBride, down here in Virginia for months. John Bert and the whole prop department make John Brown's maps, load his guns, help me keep his prayer journal and help create our whole world. It's hard to take people back 160 years. This story is at the heart of America's pain and McBride tells it with wit, laughter, silliness, love, anger and all things human. It's the best role I've ever had, bar none.
Being John Brown is about as interesting a challenge as an American actor can have. There is a great line in the film “First Reformed,” [which I did in 2017], that I’d forgotten, about wisdom is about holding two opposing truths in your hand at the same time. Boy John Brown did that. One of the lines in the show, “The Good Lord Bird,” it’s a real line of his, where he says: “People would say that I’m insane and I’m a criminal. But human bondage is a crime, and a society that supports it is insane. I’m the sanest person you ever met. Because I’m going to do something about it.”
It’s very interesting. John Brown killed people to free people, and that’s a very complicated notion. I was reading about his trial, and they said he had started an insurrection and he said: “It’s not an insurrection. I’m trying to create freedom. You’re a criminal, I’m stopping you, so is it a crime if I stop you from committing a crime?”
Can you tell us more about what this project, “The Good Lord Bird,” what it will look like?
It’s been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It’s the biggest canvas, it’s a limited series, eight hours of James McBride’s National Book Award winning-novel “The Good Lord Bird.” And it follows John Brown as told through the eyes of a 14-year-old African American boy who also happens to be cross-dressing. It’s just totally fascinating, it puts its finger into the great wound of America, it does it with so much love and silliness and wit, it knocks you sideways, and lets you think about some really painful things, that to me feels really beautiful, so we’re trying to capture that spirit of that novel in a film. We’ve been filming since June [in Virginia]. I’m so deep in that when I find out people don’t know who John Brown is I’m in utter shock.
The Washington Post published a story the other day about how John Brown has been mythologized and the five black men who were with him have been forgotten. What’s interesting about this novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” is that it doesn’t just put John Brown in the center.
John Brown is not in the center. I’m a supporting actor in a larger ensemble. The main character is a fictional character called Onion. That was a really interesting article about those guys that are really forgotten, and you know the teaching of Harpers Ferry, [when John Brown tried to start an armed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859], is really a problem. My father lived in Texas and my mother lived in Vermont when I was learning about this. I remember one school telling me about the “War of Northern Aggression” — and you guys [in Charlottesville] know this better than anybody (laughter) — and then another school was talking about him as one of the greatest Americans of all time.
And then they just kind of uniformly decided not to talk about him. Because they didn’t know how to talk about him. Is he a lunatic? Is he a freedom fighter? You say he started the Civil War, but if you say he started the Civil War, then you have to acknowledge it was about slavery, and there’s a big part of this country that is in absolute denial about that. That is very threatened by that. (applause)
How much do you think that films like this have the ability to actually shift perspectives, upend assumptions? To change people’s minds?
I believe in the power of art, of what we talk about at dinner tables, of what is in our consciousnesses. We are so elaborately connected, I view art as kind of like the mental health of our populaces.
And freedom of expression of ideas is how we shine art in dark places. I’ll give you an example. A woman who runs the Civil War Museum came to speak to us and teach us actors about John Brown. And she said, “Did you know one of the major reasons why Jefferson Davis didn’t win the Civil War like he thought he was going to? It’s because he wasn’t able to get money from Europe… Because spreading like wildfire through the aristocrats of Europe at that time was a book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It challenged everybody’s viewpoint, and it changed the alignment. And these shifts can happen. Even a small shift of consciousness of what is acceptable. You know, there’s a positive role of shame, and art is a part of that.
You can see it if you have two people doing a scene and one character lies, the audience hates that character instantaneously. We all have an allergy to it, we don’t like to be lied to, we don’t even like to lie. When you see that in a movie or on stage, that has huge collective power, I think.
Another movie that you did that tackled a big issue in an interesting way was “First Reformed,” and although it was about a priest it was also about climate change. Could you talk about that film and the way that was woven in?
Well, there’s a connection to John Brown there. For those who don’t know, it’s a movie I did with [director] Paul Schrader last year, and it’s really a remarkable piece of writing. There’s a priest who is going through a crisis of faith on why his church is not doing more to stop big industry and to stop the accumulation of wealth while we destroy our planet. He’s counseling a young person, and at first he’s taking on the other side of the argument, and telling this young person he’s a radical. And he slowly gets radicalized. Not dissimilar to John Brown, it’s looking at: What is the role of the radical in our community? And how history sometimes smiles on them. You know the people who worked in the Underground Railroad were criminals. Part of what forced John Brown down to Kansas was the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it illegal for him to help slaves like he was doing in upstate New York. It was basically a declaration of war. He was a nonviolent abolitionist until over the age of 50, until it made it impossible to be one. And so both were about radicalization, and what it takes. It’s such an interesting dialogue.
Just to shift to talk about a different kind of art that you’ve done — films that track something over a long period of time. You did the film “Boyhood,” which was shot over 12 years, and the “Before” trilogy, which follows you and Julie Delpy over a first film, second film and a third film much later. What do you think is the value of looking at those kinds of stories and lives over a period of time?
Well, in the “Before” trilogy and “Boyhood,” main character in both of them is really time. Time … how to talk about it? How to talk about children growing up, how to talk about love over a lifetime? Movies often try to take one moment and make it extremely important and represent other moments. A lot of movies about coming-of-age will take one moment and try to say: This is the moment this young woman came of age, or this young man came of age. But time doesn’t actually work like that. Time is working on us, and we are part of time, and time is us.
[The director Richard] Linklater is a very interesting brain. His brain is always obsessed with what the nature of reality is. And what society is dictating to us that we are knowing and unknowing. The great herd mentality that we have. We’re not even aware we’re being herded most of the time.
So “Boyhood” uses one graph, which is that no matter what walk of life you’re in in America, most of us do first through 12th grade, and if we don’t, our life is defined by the fact that we’re not doing it, because we’re expected to do it. So it’s a very easy graph. And what Rick does is he replaces plot with time. You hear about the ticking clock [in films]. Well, he realized pretty young that if you make people aware of time then you didn’t have to do this annoying thing called plot. He always said, plot is this lie you tell the audience. As if anything in your life has a beginning, middle, and end. It just doesn’t. Everything is related and it’s all past, present, future. It’s all bouncing around and doesn’t have an end.
Nor is it neat —
Right. His brain just resists. He can’t even watch TV shows because he sees the plot. Like, okay in 15 minutes this will wrap up. He’s just allergic to it. But he realized if it’s about time we don’t have to do this annoying thing which is to create false narratives.
I’ll give you one more example, I was doing “Before Sunrise,” the first film of the trilogy, and I was 24. I was doing a scene with Julie Deply and looking like romantically into her [eyes], imbuing it with all these feelings, and Rick said “Cut … What are you doing?” I said, “I just thought I’d look at her meaningfully.” He said. “It looks like you’re acting … And here’s the deal if you start acting, then we gotta have a plot. But if you don’t act at all they don’t really notice there’s no plot.” I don’t know why, but that’s just how it is.
Do you think you and Julie will reunite for another time? For another “Before” movie? (clapping) To see you both in older age? Death?
Old age, death! She’s selling me so short, like I’m on death’s door here (laughter). No, I’m definitely deep in middle age, but death is not the next chapter. I’ll get run over tomorrow, they’ll replay this tomorrow all over the internet, and it’ll be really depressing. (laughter)
But do I think so? Yeah. I imagine that we would, only because it’s been such a part of my life’s work working with the two of them. No joking aside, I feel that the three of them work together very well as a finished work, but that if we do another one I think it should be somehow different in some substantial way. All three of them are dealing with real time, and they’re happening every nine years, so I think the next would have to be different in some radical way, and I don’t know what that would be. But some ideas have started to float around, some emails have been exchanged.
Emails have been exchanged. (clapping) So, music is such a big part of your life in a way. You played Chet Baker in the film “Born to Blue,” and you recently made one my favorite films that I’ve seen in a long time about Blaze Foley, a country musician who was lesser known in his life than he should have been. And I know you supported Ben Dickey, the musician in that film. Why did you want to do a movie about Blaze Foley? What attracted you to that person?
For some reason music is the one form that just geeks me out wildly I love it so much, it goes places… For example, I love this story about Willie Nelson. I went to this Willie Nelson concert during the bombing of Baghdad, and Bill Clinton came out to announce Willie and half the audience booed and was throwing stuff and half the audience was cheering, so much so that three fist fights broke out. It was right at those first days of the bombing of Baghdad. And Bill Clinton said, “Please, please, please, just let me say one thing, half of you hate me and half of you support me and all of you love Willie.” (laughter) And everybody cheered. And I’ve always felt that music can go places and connect us and [make us] see our connectivity in ways that things are overly intellectual can’t. It’s a body thing, it’s a rhythm thing, its real. And I love that about it.
With the film “Blaze” — well, every music biopic is about a famous musician, so inadvertently, every music biopic becomes about the trials of celebrity, which I find really boring. And I thought I know so many musicians and so many artists and most of us are met with complete and total indifference. That’s what most of my musician friends, their experience with their art is, is that nobody cares. So I thought I wish there was a biopic about nobody giving a shit what you do, because that’s what it’s really like.
If you get a chance to see the movie “Blaze,” do, because the central performance is really significant. It’s funny how it happened. There’s an amazing musician, Ben Dickey, whom I got to know through my wife. He was performing in Philadelphia, and I was blown away from him. He would hypnotize the audience from 9pm – 3:30 a.m. in the morning playing these dive bars. I just knew I was so lucky, [like] seeing Neil Young at 25. I just knew he was going to be a big star.
I watched his career just struggle and struggle until finally one day he was at our house, and it was New Years’ Eve, and his band had broken up, and he was really, really blue. And I said to him, “Don’t give up, remember Blaze Foley.” He had taught me about Blaze Foley. Blaze Foley, I call him the “snuffaluffagus of the outlaw country music scene,” because people have heard of Willie, and people who are big Willie Nelson fans have heard of Townes Van Zandt, and then people who are big Townes Van Zandt fans have maybe heard a rumor about Blaze Foley. And he’s kind of the guy we are all pretending to be in a way.
So Ben Dickey starts playing this Blaze Foley song on my couch. And this lightning shot went through me, like, “you should play Blaze Foley in a movie.” And so we set about making that happen. The idea was about looking at how many Blaze Foleys there are in the world, not about deifying that person. The movie tries to be a movie about creativity and the wells from which its born from and how it intersects with popular culture and when it doesn’t intersect.
I think it also intersects with what you’re saying about authenticity. In the movie, there is this line where this girl asks him, “So Blaze do you want to be a country music star?” And he said, “I don’t want to be star”—
I want to be a legend. (laughter)
And then he said “a star burns out because it burns for itself, but a legend stands for something real”–
It stands for something that goes beyond the individual.
And so is that a notion you keep in mind when you do the work you do? Because ego can be such a part of acting –
It really can. You have to have a big ego to do it, to withstand the criticism at every level, not just from viewers but from studio heads and publishers and directors. Trying to get a job is hard. You know my daughter is just going into acting.
I wanted to ask you about that, because she’s kicking ass right now. [Maya Hawke stars in the TV show “Stranger Things 3,” and recently debuted two music singles].
She’s doing great, and what’s amazing is if you told Maya that, “Okay, you’re 78 and you spent all of your life teaching acting in a small town outside of Seattle, how do you feel?” She’d be like, ‘Oh my god really?’” She just wants to be a part of it. For a lot of people they would say, “But I didn’t I get one red carpet experience?”
I always think if you’re looking for the arts to give back to you, you’re going to be miserable, because it’s one of those weird things that, no matter how much you get, you want more. But if you think, how can I give to this, then it gives back to you tenfold all of the time. And it’s so fun, it’s so rewarding… If you love it, it all becomes easy.