Over the past few years, Ethan Hawke has seamlessly assumed the role of the “cool dad,” the progressive, foul-mouthed, nomadic, chain-smoking father who introduces young people to The White Album after they profess their love for Abbey Road. To be clear, Hawke is brilliant at playing this character—one who, deep down, is a good guy still trying to get his act together at 40. Offscreen, Hawke doesn’t seem nearly so rudderless. Aside from his prolific work as an actor (the Before Sunrise series, Boyhood, Sinister, The Purge), the Austin, Texas native has written two novels, and adapted one into the 2006 film The Hottest State; he’s also directed the 2001 anthology Chelsea Walls, and collaborated on the scripts for Richard Linklater’s Before movies. His latest directorial project is Seymour: An Introduction, an insightful, stirring documentary about renowned pianist Seymour Bernstein. In a brisk 80 minutes, the movie becomes something more than a portrait of an artist. With Bernstein, Hawke has found a mentor, and their dialogue, this ongoing conversation about art, life, and everything in between, fuels the movie with poignancy and warmth.
The Dissolve: This project came out of the deceptively simple question, “Why do I do what I do?” Now that the film is done, have you found an answer?
Ethan Hawke: Well, you know, in the context of the movie, it’s another way of saying simply the dumbest and oldest question in the world, which is, “Who am I?” One of the things I was hypnotized by with Seymour is that he actually has an answer for that question, which is this notion that our identity is revealed to us through our gifts, and that whatever gifts we might possess, wherever our talent might lie in this life, in expanding it, we get closer to ourselves, and we get closer to the best part of ourselves. I’d never really heard it articulated that simply before, in that good things do generally happen to us when we work closely doing things we love—when we work with discipline and hard work. It was kind of wonderful to have such a succinct answer, and not some kind of elaborate algebra scheme of what you’re supposed to do.
The Dissolve: When it came to the intersection of life and art, Seymour also said, “Music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment.” Have you found that to be your experience in writing, acting, directing?
Hawke: I was so moved by this older man. So often, you meet people who are successful in life, and they just seem miserable, or they seem concerned with things that are smaller than you would want them to be concerned with. And I sat down at the dinner party with Seymour, and I felt this huge sense of relief to meet an octogenarian who had dedicated the whole of his life to the arts, and was bubbling and bristling with so much joy. I’ve always, my whole life, tried to chase the attitude or stance of an amateur. Often in the arts, when people start being professional, creativity just dies. And of course it’s a dance—how to be a creative person and pay your bills. There’s always a balance. And one of the things I’ve found incredibly difficult about middle age is the difference between meeting your responsibilities, and idealism, and where they intersect, and where creativity fits into that whole scheme. And some part of it is why I felt so compelled to photograph Seymour Bernstein.
The Dissolve: It seems like you’ve done this dance pretty well throughout your career, even in the films that don’t seem to work.
Hawke: They can’t all work, especially when you have four kids. [Laughs.] Some things in life work out the way we want, and some things just don’t. Sometimes the winds blow in your favor, and sometimes they don’t. It’s an interesting time period we live in, and so much is changing, and the way the arts are expanding so much, and the way the film industry has been completely eaten alive by big business. I was kind of in shock this last year when a movie like Boyhood could actually penetrate the popular culture, when it wasn’t supported by major corporate funding. And it wasn’t made that way. It made me believe again that, “Well, you know what? There are a lot of people out there who are interested, and you can do it.”
The Dissolve: It seems like you and Seymour initially bonded over your stage fright.
Hawke: One of the things that initially drew me to this was that I knew so little about the world of concert pianists. I didn’t know what a huge part of their lives anxiety is. You get one performance at Carnegie Hall, and it’ll be written about for years. Whereas if I go play Macbeth, I’m going to get to do it 67 times. I don’t get to do it once. There’s so much physical control and mental discipline that goes into doing that, playing those pieces well, that I didn’t understand this stress they’re under. It was fascinating to me. It makes perfect sense, of course, but I’d never thought of it like that.
It had been something that was very mysterious to me. I thought the more experience you would have, the more confidence you would have. And in some cases, it’s just not the truth. It’s almost like the more hubris you have, the more confidence you have. It’s easy to be confident in ignorance. But as you start to gain respect for the tradition you’re in, and respect for the audience, respect for people’s time, respect for your art, it becomes daunting. And a young person’s mind is so full of themselves, proving themselves. I remember making my Broadway debut and having not a shred of nerves. I was just so excited and confident. And there I was later on at 40 [Laughs.] and it was just an act of work to get out of my dressing room. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. And when I told Seymour, it made perfect sense to him. This followed a clear logic, and I was not alone. As one feels more and more responsible to their art, it becomes more difficult.
The Dissolve: Seymour talks candidly about inadequacy, even as he received more respect and continued honing his craft. Have you felt similar pangs throughout your career?
Hawke: I think a certain feeling of inadequacy is an incredibly intelligent response to life. I think when we’re young, there are so many of us that have these feelings that we’re going to grow up to be Johnny Appleseed or Martin Luther King or somebody of moral fortitude, wisdom, and strength.
The Dissolve: Do you have no moral fortitude?
Hawke: [Laughs.] I hope I do. But you know what I mean? Life is a slog. It’s more difficult than you think. And it’s more subtle than I thought when I was a kid. And also, there aren’t these lines you cross and all of a sudden, you’re done. Life keeps presenting new challenges. No sooner do you figure one out than you get hit with another.
The Dissolve: Do you feel there’s a connection between being talented and being an awful human being?
Hawke: One of the things I like about Seymour is that he really believes this is a myth we like to sell our kids, and people like to believe talent is this thing bestowed by God to certain individuals. Hard work, love, discipline, craft—nobody ever wants to hear about that. They want to hear about divine inspiration. We want our artists to suffer a little. It makes it kind of thrilling to see the painting when you know it was finished two hours before he committed suicide, all that kind of drama. But when you really look at all the great work that we as a culture—as humanity—have been able to create, it just doesn’t have to be that way.
I really believe that, and I work with two wonderful and gifted people who do strike that balance in their lives. It is true that they don’t have to go hand-in-hand. A person can reach incredible heights of grace in art and have no relationship to that in their daily life. But what Seymour talks about is something I’ve personally found very inspiring—the idea that they could play off each other, and that you can use the things you learn not only in life in your art, but the things you learn in your art in your life. That’s something I’ve never heard people talk about. There’s a beautiful moment where one of Seymour’s students, that young man who’s playing that Rachmaninoff piece, talks about trying to listen to his friends with the same patience, understanding, and alertness he uses when he listens to himself playing the piano. You can hear so much in his playing; why couldn’t he hear the same thing in his friend’s voice? And of course he can. And all of us know we can. It’s just, are we listening? I found all that really exciting.
The Dissolve: How have your art and your life played off each other?
Hawke: In much the same way that young man did. This is the age-old thing about stage acting that’s so interesting: if you put a dog onstage, the dog doesn’t know it’s acting. To create that level of spontaneity of actually living onstage, you have to have a real awareness and presence of being in the moment. Being present. And if you take that into your daily life, then you’re talking about some kind of classic Buddhist teachings about being present all the time.
I’ll give you an example of when working onstage can carry out into your life. I went to a Willie Nelson concert where I had special seats—I was backstage, and I could watch Willie go from backstage talking to his friends to walking onstage and playing for 20,000 people or something. And he exits the stage back to the privacy of his own friends, and there was no difference to him. It was breathtaking to me. His relaxation is so intense and powerful that when he played to 20,000 people, it was like he was playing for 20,000 friends.
There was an amazing spontaneity and a complete lack of pretense. And of course he can do that because he’s practiced, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. He doesn’t need all that anxiety. It’s really tremendous to watch, and you can see a certain kind of enlightenment happening with him onstage and offstage. It’s a real presence, for lack of a better word. If you know anyone who’s seen Mark Rylance act onstage, it’s really exciting. It’s like watching Jimi Hendrix play the guitar or something.
The Dissolve: Do you find your work predictable, whether it’s screenwriting, acting, or writing novels, or is there spontaneity captured on the page or onscreen?
Hawke: It’s a fascinating dichotomy that is true of everything deeply interesting. There’re two sides to every coin. I really believe that it’s both. The rules that make up what it takes to play Beethoven well, or what it takes to deliver an incredible performance of Richard III, are actually quite predictable. There really is an iambic pentameter, and the words really are like incantations; they’re perfect if you get them right. And if you play by those rules, what will happen is your own personal originality, your own personal spontaneity, will erupt naturally in a completely predictable and completely unexpected way. It’s like the age-old joke about how it’s absolutely easy to be original; you’ve just got to be yourself. The riddle there is that it’s impossible to be yourself—to not be imitating other people, and not be trying to posture or pose or achieve a result.
The Dissolve: After all these years, has it become easier for you to become yourself?
Hawke: Yeah, definitely. It’s challenging for young people. When I first started acting when I was 18, 19, you’re trying on personalities like hats, like a rock star putting on different outfits. But I think a lot of young people do that, as if the outfit will make you in some way, when of course it can’t. But it takes a while to figure that out.