Watching “The Woman In the Fifth,” I was struck by how at home you seem in that world, despite playing the foreign character. Your French isn’t up to the level of that of your co-star Kristin Scott Thomas, but it’s pretty good. Would you ever consider making the move to Europe, and sticking to artier, edgier Euro fare like Kristin has for most of her career?
It’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it until I met her. But I can’t think of anyone else who has had such success in two different countries, in two different languages. And then when you throw into the equation that she’s had tremendous success as a theater actress, it’s, wow. It makes her really unique. French movies, British movies, American movies…
It did make me wonder. It’s definitely easier to make smaller-budget independent movies. If you wanted to make “The Woman in the Fifth” as an American movie, you’d be relegated to shooting it on some DV format and making it for cheap. Part of the thing I love about “The Woman in the Fifth” is the photography. It’s gorgeous. I’ve never been on a set where people care so much about the composition of every frame, the depth of feel, the colors. The way they talked about it was the way you think they talk in cinema studies class. They really put a tremendous amount of thought into what each shot was saying. I was intrigued by Kristin. There are only a handful of people in my profession who really do keep getting better. It’s hard to do that. She’s just one of those people who keeps putting herself in unique situations and doing cool things.
The funny thing is that when I get to work with Sidney Lumet or Antoine Fuqua or Richard Linklater or Pawel -- people who have voice with the camera -- then I kind of lose my desire to direct movies. Those guys all make you feel like a filmmaker. They are so collaborative. I’ve enjoyed making my own films and embarking on my own projects. I really enjoy doing that. But when I work with a really great filmmaker, I feel that’s what I want to do most with my life. The way I’ve learned about writing and filmmaking is via acting.
One of the things I struggle with – and this is no disrespect to first-time filmmakers – but I’ve now been making movies for 25 years. It’s so much easier for Hollywood to give a first-time filmmaker a movie. It’s kind of the Orson Welles myth. They do it because they can control the person. If they get someone with experience, they’re going to want to put their stamp on it. It’s so hard to work with somebody who doesn’t have a handle on the material.
Getting to work with an 83-year-old Sidney Lumet and realizing, Wow, you really can’t fake experience, was so fun. Pawel, whatever you want to say about him, he’s a filmmaker. He just is.
Now you and Richard Linklater have something in the works right?
Linklater and I have been working on a film called “The 12-Year Project,” which will have a proper title someday. We make a short film once a year, and it follows the life of a little boy from first grade to twelfth grade. And so the movie is a series of vignettes. I play his father; just little moments of childhood and stuff. What the movie’s largely really about is time.
We’re also doing a follow-up to “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” so that will be fun. We’re going to shoot that this summer.
Where will this one take place?
I’ve gotten into trouble, so I’m sworn to secrecy. The biggest change between this one and the last one is the Internet. The first time we did it, we didn’t have any pressure; nobody gave a shit.
And you’re also set to reunite with Pawel?
Pawel and I have another movie that we want to make, which is a comedy. I highly recommend to anyone -- he has some Russian documentaries that are so funny. They are just drop-your-lunch funny. We want to do a romantic comedy, believe it or not.
Circling back to “The Woman in the Fifth,” that first sexual encounter between you and Kristin’s character, where she has the upper hand, has a comedic element. How did you negotiate how to play that scene?
We were trying to figure out who she was. Making this movie was a lot like being in a room with a painter. It was trying to figure out what she symbolized. Is she alive, is she dead? In many ways, we were really playing different aspects of the same character. So we realized that the first sexual action is probably a masturbatory one. We came up with that and were like, oh fuck. I think the scene is really funny. Doing those kinds of scenes are very strange. They’re very strange. [laughs] "Hi, my name’s Ethan, and this is how I orgasm." It’s tough.