ILLUSTRATION BY HANOCH PIVEN
Ethan Hawke has never been one to stick to what he knows. After his second film, 1989’s Dead Poets Society, grossed $235 million and turned him into the poster child for young Hollywood, he easily could have skated from one blockbuster to the next. Instead, he created a theater company, wrote a novel, tackled Chekhov on Broadway, started directing, co-wrote a couple of screenplays, penned another novel and a parenting how-to (plus a graphic novel about the Apache wars, of all things)—all while also racking up Oscar nominations for films like Training Day and Boyhood. Last year he gave the best performance of his career, as a small-town pastor suffering a crisis of faith in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, and he directed the biopic Blaze, a “country-and-western opera” about the singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. Hawke learned this do-everything approach from the writer and actor Sam Shepard, who proved to be a mentor of sorts. “He made it cool to be curious,” Hawke says, calling from a film set in Paris the day after his 48th birthday. Hawke worked with Shepard a lot over the years—he got to call him dad in Hamlet and sought his advice when directing Shepard’s play A Lie of the Mind off-Broadway—and was always awed by his capacity to keep learning, to keep trying new things. And when Hawke felt ready to try new things himself, “I always gained permission from him,” he says.
This month, Hawke returns to Broadway to take on Shepard’s True West, a heavyweight boxing match of a play about sibling rivalry that’s as funny as it is disturbing. This will be his first time working on something of Shepard’s without being able to talk to him about it; the playwright died in 2017 after a long battle with ALS. But Hawke knows it will be good no matter what. “Even a bad production of True West is fun as hell to watch,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve seen high school productions of it that are dynamite.”
You first saw True West when you were 14, right? The taped version of the 1982 Steppenwolf Theatre production with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise?
Exactly. Not to be corny, but it was truly a revelatory moment in my life. My mother let me stay up late, and I watched it on PBS. I felt a little bit the way I imagine the generation before me felt about seeing Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire—to discover a great actor with a great new play at the same time. It’s pretty astounding to see Malkovich in that part. I remember I just couldn’t sleep all night. I said, “That’swhat I want to do with my life.” I didn’t know if I wanted to act or direct or write or be a stage manager or what, but I was like, “Whatever those guys are up to, I want to be up to that.”
Had you not seen much theater before that moment?
Embarrassingly, I think I’d only seen a traveling production of Annie!
I’m assuming you’ve wanted to perform True Westyourself ever since?
No, to be totally honest with you, I never wanted to touch it. I thought that Malkovich and Sinise were so brilliant in the production, and then years later I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman do it with John C. Reilly, and it was completely revelatory in a totally different way. I had found ways to do Sam’s work without ever touching this play. I’ve done Buried Child, I’ve done The Late Henry Moss, I’ve done A Lie of the Mind. I had a long relationship to his work, but I was always avoiding the one that everybody loves [laughs].
What changed your mind and made you want to do it now?
About a week before Sam died, I got the offer to do this, and I remember thinking, “God, could I? Enough time has gone by that I’m at a different point in my life, and I could.” And I was thinking about it, and a few days later he died. So then I felt really called to do it.
Did Sam choose you to star in this production?
I was told that, but that doesn’t mean it’s true [laughs].
You’re starring opposite Paul Dano. I actually saw him off-Broadway in Things We Want, your directorial debut, in 2007.
You did? Wasn’t it good? When he came into the audition room, I just fell in love with him. I’ll never forget after one of the previews, Phil Hoffman came up to me, and he was like, “This kid, what’s his name? Paul Dano? Well, he’s one to watch.” And then There Will Be Blood came out. Anyway, I think it will be exciting because I have a long history with Shepard, and Paul’s coming into it with a totally new mind, with no history and no baggage. I mean, he’s never even seen the play! I’ve seen it 10,000 times! Literally, Steve Zahn and Sam Rockwell and I used to get drunk in my apartment in the East Village in, like, 1990, and our idea of a good time was to get a case of beer and watch the old VHS of Sinise and Malkovich doing True West. We would watch it over and overagain and laugh and laugh.
That’s hilarious! So with these two brothers in True West, Lee and Austin, Shepard is exploring how we’re all double-natured. What do you feel are your two divergent sides?
There’s a part of us that wants to be feared and respected, and there’s a part of us that wants to nurture and care for others. And we’re often worried that if we present our nurturing side, we’ll be perceived as weak. My whole life I’ve been into poetry and music and painting—all the things that when you’re a little boy you’re told are female. I’ve always loved them, and that’s always created conflict in me. It’s a war inside you. Before Sam died, I had wanted to direct it with women to expose how the female psychology is just as vulnerable to this war. I started working on it with Marin Ireland and Martha Plimpton, and it was amazing! I wish we could do that production, but Sam didn’t want to. Sam’s cut from another cloth. He’s from a different tree in the forest—an older part of the forest! He was utterly baffled by the suggestion!
I read you first met him in a funny place.
What, did I say I met him in the bathroom?
Yeah. You said you met him at a urinal during intermission of a play in Chicago.
It’s not really true [laughs]. I mean, that’s the first time I was alone with him. We were rehearsing Buried Child, and I think it was the intermission of our read-through. I remember I called [Richard] Linklater that night and said, “You’re not going to believe who I talked to at the urinal today!” And he said, “Who?” and I said, “Sam Shepard!” And he said, “Woooo! Look who’s pissing in the tall grass with the big dogs!”
On many levels, audiences have watched you grow up—with the Before trilogy and Boyhood, we literally did.
And I think because of this, critics—especially Gen Xers—felt as if they owned you on some level and could pick on you more for trying new things: writing a novel, starting a theater company, directing. Did you feel that way?
Mm-hmm. There’s a certain kind of people who become famous and create an aura around that fame that kind of supports an otherness and a specialness, and I spent a lot of years trying to break that and not play into that idea. I believe if you’re really serious about a life in the arts, you have to take your punches. You have to take them, and you have to get up. Otherwise, you’re not there for the right reasons.
This past year has been a big one for you. You starred in First Reformed, and you directed Blaze, which gave you the opportunity to tell a story that you care deeply about. That must have been so rewarding.
Yeah, it is so rewarding. There are obvious downsides [to getting older] because you want to be young and beautiful and able to have a big future ahead of you, but then to get to do First Reformed and Blaze in one year, to get to do True West on Broadway? I’ve worked hard to get here, and I’m ready for it—it feels like a date that was a long time coming.
Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed First Reformed, said he looked at you—specifically the creases in your forehead—and could see you were ready to play this role at this moment in your life. It must be nice to have a part like that come available at exactly the right time.
Yeah. When I first read that script, I actually couldn’t believe that I had come across it. You know that strange experience where you feel like, Oh, I’ve been waiting for this. I’ve been preparing myself for something, and it’s this. Sometimes, as an actor, you can go through a few years on the bench where you can’t quite find a role for yourself to contribute. It’s hard, because we’re all only as good as our opportunities, and that’s one of the great things about being older: When opportunities present themselves, you go. When you’re younger you’re like, Oh, is this a good opportunity or isn’t it? I don’t know. … And then you get to the point where you go, No, this kind of part does not come around very often. Let’s go.
The scene between your character, Reverend Toller, and Michael, the radical environmentalist he’s trying to counsel, is absolutely brilliant.
Isn’t it amazing? I couldn’t believe it when I read it. I got sick playing it. Ugggh. I woke up with the flu the next day. But it’s a beautiful piece of writing, and I love that actor, Philip Ettinger.
The dialogue in First Reformed includes all these horrifying environmental facts. How do you feel about parenthood after saying those lines?
Well, it’s better than not talking about it. We’re so afraid of that truth. There was just a big election, and I’m always astounded that politicians in every walk still have a very difficult time bringing up [climate change], because it’s not a winning issue. The thing that’s so heartbreaking is my kids are the ones telling me not to use a plastic straw. And they are the ones saying, “Do we have to drive? Shouldn’t we use a bike?” And I look at them and I think, Oh, right, you’re not afraid to talk about this. So I get courage from them, and I’m proud of the movie, and I think that for as many people who are scared of it, there are also as many people who are grateful to have an adult conversation about an extremely adult issue.
You started acting in your teens, and now your eldest daughter, Maya, is following suit. How does that make you feel?
I love it. When your child is falling in love with the profession that you fell in love with, it’s very meaningful, powerful, and strange.
Do you give her advice, or are you careful to let her find her own path?
The good news is that she’s extremely passionate and strong-willed, and she’s also really interested in learning. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I realized nobody learns anything until they want to. There’s no point in even offering advice until people ask for advice. When they ask for it, they’re generally in the right place to receive it. But she’s asking me things, and as you start teaching, you start thinking about your profession from the ground up again. I didn’t know that in mentoring, you learn. It’s not just with my daughter—as you get older, you work with a lot of younger people. And I’m having directors who are younger than me now. It’s wild! I always used to be the youngest person on set, and now I wish that were true [laughs]. If I’m the youngest person on set, it means we’re filming in a retirement home or doing Beckett or something.
I noticed that Maya has more Instagram followers than you. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel super good! If you start mistaking Instagram followers for self-worth… I think it’s absurd. But it’s awesome for her.
So at the end of the day, what makes you want to keep creating art?
All of us are, in some ways, in search of being of use. And I’m not very good at many things, but I believe in the power of the creative arts—the power to change and the power to bring people together. I feel that we’re all born with these tiny little keyholes that we look at life through, and the arts kind of operates like a collective conscience. It expands our view. And the more intimate we can be with others, the more we realize that our experiences aren’t as unique as we imagine them to be, and that we have much more in common with each other. Politics often fails, and religion often fails, but the arts comes in under the radar. You can make a movie like Get Out and people can go just wanting to see a fun, scary movie, and they come out thinking. You go see Do the Right Thingand your eyes are opened. It’s the church of my choice.