"The Woman in the Fifth"
ATO Pictures "The Woman in the Fifth"

In “The Woman in the Fifth,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s first film since 2004’s “My Summer of Love,” Ethan Hawke plays Tom Ricks, a divorced American writer who hides out in a hotel room to pen his latest work. Sound familiar? After building a huge fan base with generation-defining turns in “Reality Bites” and “Before Sunrise,” Hawke became better known for his tabloid appearances after divorcing his “Gattaca” co-star Uma Thurman amid rumors of infidelity on his part. Seeking retreat from the public eye, Hawke sequestered himself to the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan for a couple of years and opted for theater over film work (as well as some novel writing).

Since emerging from that difficult period, Hawke’s been busy. He reunited with Richard Linklater for “Before Sunset,” worked for the late Sidney Lumet in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and reteamed with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua for “Brooklyn’s Finest,” along with a slew of other projects.

His latest, “The Woman in the Fifth" (out in select theaters Friday and available on VOD), is set in a gloomy Paris and co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas as a mysterious, sexually charged woman who enters Tom’s life and serves as his muse.

Indiewire caught up with Hawke in Manhattan to find out why he played a part so close to home and what he really thinks of the American film scene.

"In a way the character was, I imagined, Todd Anderson from 'Dead Poet’s Society' turning forty, and having a long history of depression."
Fans of yours going into “The Woman in the Fifth” will no doubt draw parallels between you and the character you play in the film -- both writers, both divorced, both fathers. Did the similarities play a big role in you taking on the part?

I think there’s something kind of fun when you can blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction, where you can bring yourself to the character and then bring the character to you, and make it kind of almost – if you switch the lines, you’re not even sure where one begins. I had this kind of very bizarre theory. In a way the character was, I imagined, Todd Anderson from “Dead Poet’s Society” turning forty and having a long history of depression [laughs] -- a writer, a decent guy, who had run into some real problems in his life.

As far as the personal thing goes, I like to make everything personal. Performances where I fail to make it personal, to me, that’s when I feel I do the work I enjoy the least. I enjoy that aspect. It wasn’t why I picked it. In many ways, the movie is a meditation on depression. This character is kind of an estranged artist type person who wants to fit in, wants to feel normal, but kind of isn’t. I certainly enjoyed being able to bring aspects I could relate to.

With that said, what kind of a toll do your performances take on you, given that you invest so much of yourself in the roles -- well, the ones you “enjoyed?"

It’s almost a better question for my wife to answer. I know with “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” for some reason that was the hardest for me. It’s not something you do on purpose. It happens to you. If you spend your whole day playing with your emotional life, it affects you.

"The Woman in the Fifth"
ATO Pictures "The Woman in the Fifth"

I remember when I was a senior in high school, one of my buddies and I wanted to play a prank on the rest of school. We pretended to have a fight and start a rumor. We just wanted to see how fast the gossip line would start. But by the end of the day we were both angry at each other. By pretending we were in a fight, we opened a door of deceit about what we didn’t like about the other person.

I don’t know what it is. I just know that when I play these characters, they dive into your subconscious. The funny thing about this movie is I made some movies that are influenced by European filmmaking, like “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” But I’d never really worked with a full-blown European artist who comes from that school and didn’t grow up watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” They literally called me The American Populist on the set. They really see cinema as an art form. In this country, it’s kind of pretentious to say that. People want it to be big business. These Polish guys, they laugh at that – the idea of how big businesses have usurped a whole artistic medium. If they did it to literature, what would happen?

Most independent movies are aspiring to be a commercial success. They’re Hollywood movies in terms of storytelling, done with a smaller budget. Very rarely do you see something where you’re like, “Wow.” But hey, “The Tree of Life” was a full-blown art film.

Yeah, but we’re talking Terrence Malick here…

He has the Get Out of Jail Free card -- one person in a generation. He’s the J.D. Salinger of movies.