Ethan Hawke had a lot to smile about in Seattle on Friday night. The actor/director was in town for the Seattle International Film Festival, where he was receiving the festival’s annual award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinema and screening “Blaze,” his first narrative directing effort in a decade. The festival also screened “First Reformed,” Paul Schrader’s psychological thriller starring Hawke as an emotionally disturbed priest, which has already scored $1 million in limited release.
In conversation for the tribute portion of the evening moderated by this writer after a screening of “Blaze,” Hawke said that his filmmaking ambitions evolved from personal experiences early in his career, and took the opportunity to offer a stern assessment of the movie business as a whole.
“My mother was very depressed that I’d dropped out of college. One of the things I promised her I would do was take responsibility for an education,” he said, referring to the 1994 short film he directed, “Straight to One,” which screened at Sundance the same year as “Reality Bites.” He wouldn’t make his directorial debut until 2001 with “Chelsea Walls,” but, he added, “I was always planning on directing and writing because I had no faith in the life of an actor. I was very apprehensive that I’d be able to keep doing it. “
Hawke said that feeling emerged from his experiences working with River Phoenix on Joe Dante’s “Explorers” and watching Phoenix — who died of a drug overdose in 1993 — deal with being a young star.
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“River had a tremendous success when he was very young, and a lot of it was stuff that didn’t align with what he personally wanted to contribute artistically,” Hawke said. “So if we’d be out of a bar and a bunch of girls would come up to him and say, ‘You’re amazing in ‘A Night in the Life of Jimmy Rearden.’ It was so frustrating. I think it made a big impact on him.”
When Hawke landed his first serious role in “Dead Poets Society,” he witnessed the toll of acting at the other end of the career spectrum by working with Robin Williams. “Robin was a genius,” Hawke said. “You wouldn’t wish being genius on your child. It sounds nuts. Everybody wants to be a genius. It’s such an overused word … he would go and be alone for a while. I saw the curtain go up and the curtain go down working with him. You realized it came at a great personal cost.”
Much of Hawke’s career has been defined by a careful negotiation between art and commerce. He has avoided blockbusters and often points out that some of his best-known roles — including the “Before” trilogy — haven’t been big box-office hits. “Working with real talented people is about the best there is,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else, but it very rarely happens the right way. It’s an art form that’s been completely eaten by business.”
He pointed to the way industry metrics for success dominate conversations about the business. “Not only do we read about ‘Black Panther’’s box office success, but we read about its Rotten Tomatoes score. So actually everything in our world is a competition, and arts are supposed to be one place where competition doesn’t exist because it’s about expression.”
Hawke has a tendency to speak about his work in sweeping philosophical generalizations, much like the soul-searching Jesse in Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. This conversation was no exception, as it ended with Hawke finding his way to a bigger picture. “They learned pretty quickly that the human being loves movies,” he said. “It’s a very relaxing art form. It requires very little work on the audience’s part. They’ve learned to play music to tell us exactly how we feel. The camera pushes in on a tear just right. The light hits it. Spontaneity is drained. The cash register goes off.”