In his new film “First Reformed,” Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Toller, an ailing former military chaplain, who counsels an expectant father so disturbed by climate change that he wants his wife to get an abortion. As the narrative — from writer/director Paul Schrader — progresses, Toller learns that one of the nation’s biggest polluters paid for the upgrades to his church, yet nonetheless assumes the young man’s environmentalist mantle.
A clergyman is “not a role that you often see fully explored in movies,” Hawke told IndieWire during a recent interview. “You see people dressed up as priests and they’re robbing a bank, or they’re in ‘Cannonball Run,’ or you see evil priests in horror movies, and things like that…I really was grateful for not the opportunity to play a [pastor], but this one.”
Meanwhile, Hawke concedes, “There’s about 80 million cop movies,” including his own “Brooklyn’s Finest” (2009) and “Training Day” (2001), for which he receives the first of his four Oscar nominations.
“You could [chart] a relationship with the movies I’ve done, and what I got paid, with whether or not I had a gun,” Hawke said. He estimates that 90 percent of the time, his film checks were significantly larger if his character toted a firearm, as he did in his last film, December’s “24 Hours to Live.” “It is fascinating — I started doing it in my head and thinking about literally if I just took the salaries of [my] movies with guns over 30 years, and the salaries of the movies without guns, and it is absurd,” he said.
Hawke’s breakout roles — Todd in “Dead Poet’s Society,” Troy in “Reality Bites,” Jesse in “Before Sunrise” — were all artistic intellectuals. Around 2000, he recalls attending a Cannes Film Festival party where “out of nowhere,” the late film critic Roger Ebert “shocked me, just gave me a toast as the only successful actor in America who hadn’t killed anybody onscreen.” The proclamation was somewhat sobering, as Hawke had recently wrapped “Training Day” and “Hamlet,” where, as the namesake character, he commits five murders.
“I remember thinking at that moment, ‘Wow, he’s really right. It’s virtually impossible to have an extremely ‘successful’ career in mainstream movies and not kill people,'” said Hawke. “I’ve never been interested in gratuitous violence…But I think that to pretend that violence stems from the movies and it’s not all completely interconnected [is wrong]. Movies are about people, and people are about violence.” “First Reformed” has a few brutal shots, too — Schrader remains the man who penned “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.”
To illustrate his point, Hawke said, “I started smoking because I saw James Dean smoke a cigarette,” adding, “My girlfriend also saw James Dean smoke that cigarette, and she thought it looked really hot…It does have an impact, and if you think it doesn’t, you’re lying to yourself.”
The reason why Hawke became an active movie-goer, he said, is that “I really like learning about people and what makes us connected, and what makes us different.” Its a grounded kinship he shares with his eight-time director Richard Linklater, who has cast Hawke as everything from a bank robber (“The Newton Boys”) to a drug-dealing firefighter (“Tape”) and an absentee father (“Boyhood,” another Oscar-nominated part).
“One of the things that I love about Linklater’s career,” Hawke said, is that the fellow Texan’s projects feature “no dead women, no nude people being hurt” despite our culture’s “overwhelming push towards violence.” He continued, “You can do it as a director, because you choose your material so carefully.”
Hawke knows something about directing too, and his fourth directorial outing, “Blaze,” picked up a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award this year for star Ben Dickey.
Hawke and Linklater’s most-revered collaborations are “Boyhood,” filmed over 12 consecutive summers, and the romantic triptych “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004), and “Before Midnight” (2013). The duo shared screenwriting Oscar nominations with Hawke’s co-lead, Julie Delpy, on the latter two installments.
When asked whether the $2.7 million-budgeted first chapter — where the leading strangers get to know each other as they stroll Vienna — could be made amid the 2018 demands for tentpoles, sequels, and remakes, Hawke said, “Yes, of course it could…It’s easier to make that film and harder to get it released, and seen, and get anybody to pay attention…The writing has to be at a really high level.”
While “First Reformed” is strewn with liberal concerns, “I have never been interested in having a political agenda with making art,” Hawke said. “Besides telling the truth. I think that you can make a case that the ‘Before’ trilogy’s extremely political, even though politics never comes up. It’s political because it’s about humanity, and people, and that’s what politics is supposed to serve. And society — government — needs to create laws that make it easier for our best self to thrive.””
A24 will release “First Reformed” in theaters this Friday.