Ethan Hawke was in a contemplative mood when Indiewire caught up with the actor-filmmaker-author a week following the 87th Academy Awards. The awards show marked the end of his almost year-long campaign for Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” which ended up going on to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for his co-star in the film, Patricia Arquette. Now Hawke is back at it, this time on the promotional trail for his latest project, the documentary “Seymour: An Introduction.” The film marks Hawke’s first-ever documentary feature. The Sundance Selects release, which first premiered last fall at the Telluride Film Festival and opens in select theaters this Friday, is a touching love letter to Seymour Bernstein, an 86-year-old pianist whom Hawke first met at a dinner party and soon after chose to follow. Hawke’s portrait tracks Bernstein’s early rise to fame to his eventual career as a teacher.
Are you exhausted? You just capped off your awards run for “Boyhood” and now you’re back at it, promoting your first documentary just a week later.
I’m exhausted but really in a good way. Last night, Vincent D’Onofrio and Dayna Lynn released this punk-rock spoken word album and so I was out too late last night — so I’m literally exhausted. [laughs] But, no matter how late I stay out, school always starts at the same time and I have to take these kids to school. But whenever you care about what you’re doing, it’s not exhausting. I think I’m just realizing now how sort of a unique, blessed experience that was. It’s always about the next thing and how is this gonna go — and now it’s done and I can look back on it.
And this doc has been my little pet project for years. I’m as surprised as anyone else, I never meant to make a documentary, I really wanted someone else to make this documentary, but it fell in my lap and I did it. I love doing press about something new. I’ve been talking about acting forever. I’ve never been a documentarian. I did a profile years ago for Rolling Stone about Kris Kristofferson. That was the first bit of journalism I did, and that’s what documentaries are: cinema journalism, the meeting of the two. And I loved working on that piece on Kris. I realized that they have a similarity. They’re older men who have survived a lifetime dedication to the arts and came out smiling, you know? I’m interested in that mystery. In that end goal.
You met Seymour, what, three years ago?
Seymour, probably four now. He says three but it really was four.
You tracked Seymour for a couple of years with a camera without the end goal of making a movie about him. When did it first click that you wanted to do something with the footage?
I think it clicked in the editing. But I didn’t know if it was gonna be something for the New School. He teaches at NYU so it could have been something for his students. But I started feeling like the idea of it was much larger. I don’t know anything about playing the piano, and when he spoke about the piano I found it so moving and relevant to my life that I thought other people must feel the same way. I felt so lucky to have met him and I wanted other people to be able to meet him. It just felt like a natural thing.
There was a moment I convinced him to play again for the first time in 38 years or whatever. He was playing the most difficult piece at the most emotional time and as I was filming him, a horse and carriage rode by in the background of the shot. It was in that moment I thought, somebody’s watching over us here.
You get this weird feeling like, this is where I’m supposed to be right now. I don’t mean to sound all superstitious like that, but when you’re in the right place good things happen and when you’re in the wrong place, everything goes wrong. I thought he deserved a good movie. It’s so difficult to edit together a good documentary because it’s so easy to lose the thread, especially something this fragile.
How did you work to keep that thread intact?
Well, the whole thing was a giant improvisation. You slowly figure it out. It’s like writing. At times I’ll just start writing a ton of stuff and then later you go, “Okay, this is the beginning.” If you had to boil the thing down, the message of the thing is you play as you practice. It makes perfect sense to start with him practicing and to end with him playing, and to see that they’re interconnected.
In his review for Indiewire out of the Telluride Film Festival, where “Seymour” first premiered, Eric Kohn wrote that your film is “a sweetly affecting portrait of creative genius existing outside of marketplace concerns that may as well serve as the actor’s mission statement.” What do you make of that? Do you feel that you try to exist outside of those marketplace concerns?
It’s much more difficult than I thought it was going to be, to carry on a healthy artistic life inside what has turned into the biggest export in America. Cinema has just been usurped by big business. For me, what’s been interesting is I love movies.
If you and I knew that we had to make lunch for five people, we could have a lot of fun with that. We could serve something pretty interesting, we could shop and it’s pretty manageable. If we decide to serve 5,000 people, we’re gonna quickly decide to serve hotdogs and hamburgers. And that’s what happens inside most mainstream movies. So you start just homogenizing everything, one of the reasons I love the genre movies I’ve done —
That are, it’s important to note, largely independent.
They’ve been totally independent. And that’s what’s so fun about it, with something like “Sinister,” we could do whatever the hell we wanted. It’s still extremely difficult to make a good scary movie. But it’s really hard when you have 15 people telling you, “Oh, you know, Hispanic people won’t like that part,” or, “We’ll lose the 13-year-olds if we do that.”
The joy of being on a set with Richard Linklater or the joy of being in a rehearsal room with Tom Stoppard is they don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. They are trying to articulate something to you and it’s really hard, but that at least is fun to do.
You have to make people money in this job and that’s where the river meets the road. You have to keep what Seymour calls “the attitude of an amateur.” You are doing it for love and that love is not some dying ember, but it’s a catching flame. A couple people a generation can do it really well without effort — Bob Dylan, you know. They’re speaking so from their heart and it’s commercial. Some people are very lucky. As an actor that’s hard to do. You’re only as good as your opportunity and you have to create opportunity.
There have been many dark days. There are lots of times when I’m worried that I’m going to go broke making this documentary, it’s not going to come out, “Boyhood”‘s not going to get released. There are all these variables out in the world and the temperature isn’t always warm.
Over the course of the film, Seymour explains why he shunned the commercial side of classical music in favor of teaching and doing what he truly loves. Did you see yourself in him when he opened up about that aspect of his life?
I just want to feel that way about acting that he feels about the piano at 86 or 87. He still loves it, he still loves talking to people about it. He still believes in the healing, transformative power of music. It’s a non-verbal language that really can express feelings and sentiments that are compromised with words.
When I first met Richard Linklater we were doing a press conference. We were shooting and here was Julie Delpy, she’d worked with some amazing French filmmakers; Rick was the voice of the slacker generation and I was the poster boy of the slacker generation. We did this press conference with like 10 journalists or something and Rick talked with so much love. They expected him to talk about being hip or something and all he wanted to talk about was film history. They wanted him to talk about Generation X and the ’90s and he was like, “I don’t give a shit about Generation X, I want people to be interested in this movie 50 years from now. I want people who are 85 to be interested in it. I want it to speak about something true and human, not something of the moment.”
Seymour has that passion and I’ve seen that passion destroyed in extremely successful people and in people who haven’t been able to achieve their goals. So what’s the answer? Obviously achieving your goals doesn’t do it. Why are there so many fabulous big shots who are miserable? What the hell are we doing it for?
Did you come to an answer? You ask this question at the outset of your documentary during one of your rare appearances in the film.
Well, the answer has something to do with the development of self. If you really want to take care of others, you have to take care and nurture yourself and there’s a way to integrate your development in your professional life with your development as a person. The obvious example is if you practice hard and you have a good day, you feel good about yourself. If you write a really good article, you feel really good about yourself. You feel like you have a point in being here with something nobody else might have done the same way.
The reason to not be an alcohol and drug addict is not because alcohol and drugs are so bad, it’s because you’re miserable. You think you’re doing it to make yourself feel good, but the irony is it makes you miserable. What really makes you feel good is meeting your responsibilities. I think the reason Seymour is so happy is because he’s lived his life in service of something that he believes in and is proud of. It’s fun to be near that.