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Ethan Hawke Explains How He Multi-Tasks As Director and Actor With ‘Blaze’ and ‘Juliet, Naked’

He's good at acting, playing music, writing, and directing. Here, he explains how he got that way.

ACLU, Ethan Hawke, Alia ShawkatIndieWire Studio presented by DropBox, Day 3, Sundance Film Festival, Park City, USA - 21 Jan 2018

Ethan Hawke and Alia Shawkat at Sundance 2018

Chase/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Ethan Hawke is a notorious multi-tasker. He writes articles, books, and scripts — both “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” (with Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater) were nominated for Adapted Screenplay Oscars. He’s a gifted theater director (“A Lie of the Mind”), musician, and songwriter.

His day job has yielded a couple of Supporting Actor Oscar nominations (Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day” and Linklater’s “Boyhood”). He can do everything from action westerns (“The Magnificent Seven” and the upcoming “The Kid”) to heist movies (Robert Budreau’s upcoming “Stockholm”) and sincere romance (“Maude,” “Born to Be Blue,” “Maggie’s Plan”). And he’s having a good year: He’s in the running for a Best Actor nod for his performance as an angst-ridden priest in the Paul Schrader drama “First Reformed.”

Like fellow multi-taskers Mark Duplass, David Lowery, Amy Seimetz and Jeff Bridges, Hawke feeds his creative mojo with rich nutrients. That’s why, at age 47, he’s already directed four features: “Seymour: An Introduction,” a documentary portrait of concert pianist Seymour Bernstein, and three fiction films, play adaptation “Chelsea Walls,” “The Hottest State,” based on his novel, and his latest, the romantic musical biopic “Blaze” (August 17, Sundance Selects), based on the life of the late great Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey) as told by his early lover Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) in her memoir. Hawke and Rosen wrote the script together.

Shot on a shoestring for less than $1 million, “Blaze” is tonally less “Crazy Heart” and more “Inside Llewyn Davis” — it takes its authentic music seriously, like a Nick Hornby movie (Hawke wanted to be in both “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity”). Hawke also stars as a reclusive famous musician gone to seed in scruffy midlife romantic comedy “Juliet, Naked” (August 17, Roadside Attractions), co-starring Rose Byrne and Chris O’Dowd (and, coincidentally or not, based on Hornby’s novel), for which he supplied some music.

One sunny afternoon at Sundance, Hawke and I sat down and dug into his multiple creative interests.

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“Juliet, Naked”

Alex Bailey

Why do you pursue so many forms of artistic expression?

It’s a difficult ship to sail to port. It’s the central question of my life, because I put in a lot of thought about it. Some of us, that’s the way our brain works. The Shaker expression is: “improve in one talent and God will give you more.” And, “to master a craft you have to apprentice three.” And it is through writing and directing that I am spending my life mastering acting. The work of my life is as an actor. In many ways, it doesn’t mean it has to be limited to that. It helps with really understanding how to give voice to cinema as a director.

I learn about acting from Ben Dickey. “First Reformed” is the best script I’ve had in long time — a part like that with a real director like Paul Schrader. To have it in the same year: I learned from watching Ben’s joy in performance, he’s cherishing every second. I tried to eat that part alive with Paul.

Did you always want to make movies?

Photography is a big part of being a director. I love running around with a camera, I always have. If you had asked me around the time of “Dead Poets Society,” I’d have thought I would have directed more than I have at 47. That’s where I thought I would go. But acting got more interesting to me.

I directed a lot of theater, which I love. I didn’t know when I was young how much I would like that. My breakthrough moment was directing Sam Shepherd’s “A Lie of the Mind,” when I figured out how to integrate costumes, sets, lights, music, performance, and writing, getting all those pistons working. When you see “Goodfellas,” you see all the departments working together like a fist, you can’t differentiate one from the other. Everything is working in such unison. I got to that on “Blaze” too, so everyone is making the same movie.

You’ve learned from directing a few films now. “Blaze” required chops.

You need experience with the camera and editing. It helps so much when you’ve spent hours in an editing room. When I directed “Chelsea Walls,” I undervalued acting: It came easy to me, I took it for granted. But when I shot film — “I need these people.” You can plan ’till you are blue in the teeth, but if they don’t have a special relationship to the camera, the movie dies. I didn’t understand that until after “Chelsea Walls.”

With “The Hottest State,” I was born and raised in Fort Worth, and after my parents split up, I was coming and going. There are different narratives I can tell. “Write what you know” is a great place to start, but it doesn’t mean the movie works. “The Hottest State” was a great way to learn.

"Blaze"

“Blaze”

Sundance Selects/Screenshot

You took on a high degree of difficulty with “Blaze.” Dickey’s a musician, not a professional actor. 

It was a dare for sure. It was a scary thing for both of us to do. My favorite moment at the [Sundance] Q&A was when he said the hardest thing about playing this role was acting. Everybody else says it was learning how to play the guitar!

I saw a show in Philly with his Blood Feathers band eight years ago. I liked the way he talked to the audience and related though his songs. The joy and the sadness he could communicate with music was really powerful. I left the club saying, “I just saw a 28-year-old Neil Young.”

The music business is so tough. One door closes and another one opens: A big break happens; he got signed, then the bass player had a problem and the band broke up; then he got a gig opening for a big band and then they broke up. Breaks start to happen and not happen, but I knew he had a huge talent.

I knew from myself: As a young person I faced so much resistance whenever I tried to step outside of the role of teen idol. If I stayed in that role I would die there, I would turn into a formaldehyde version of myself.

Benjamin Dickey Alia Shawkat BLAZE

“BLAZE”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Steve Cosens.

You allow both Dickey and Shawkat to be ugly-beautiful and not movie glam.

He’s worthwhile because she thinks he’s worthwhile. They don’t look like looks matter, but they are beautiful when you see them rolling around in bed in their treehouse. They don’t look like Brad and Angie, but it’s so fun.

Ben never has a false moment, which I spent 30 years of my life trying to do. Vincent D’Onofrio is the best acting teacher I have ever known, and Austin Pendleton taught him how to think about acting: get out of the thing about being self-conscious. What’s important is what’s in your pocket. If the guy was talented and patient, you didn’t let him think too much. I got a great DP [Steve Cosens], I knew how to create an environment conducive to acting. I let him run, and he’d run.

The best thing was his DNA with Alia. We combined Charlie and Ben with two professional actors who were always around. Josh Hamilton is a sublime actor. He did a controlled improvisation to capture that spontaneity. That worked.

You wrote music for several of your films.

I did music for “Boyhood,” played music on “Reality Bites,” and I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare where I played and sang. Actors and musicians are storytellers, troubadours.

Charlie Sexton appears in <i>BLAZE</i> by Ethan Hawke, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Josh Hamilton. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Charlie Sexton in “Blaze”

How did you come to cast Charlie Sexton?

I met him on “Boyhood.” Charlie is a world-class musician. When he talks about acting he lights up, the same way I feel about music: When you’re an amateur, it’s easier to get in touch with your pure love and start using whatever it is. If you love carpentry and sanding wood and then start doing it to pay your bills, the love dissipates.

When I did “Born to Be Blue,” I had to learn how to play the trumpet, nine months every day, squeak, squeak, it keeps life exciting, constantly putting yourself in a situation where you could fall on your ass. Then you don’t want to fall on your ass!

Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, and Richard Linklater

There’s a photo of you and Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy writing “Before Sunset”  together in a room.

We spent a month in that room in Paris; it had a small little bathroom and tiny walled kitchen. My first marriage was falling apart; this was a sacred space to go to where everyone loved me and I felt everything was going to be okay, eventually.

The “Blaze” screenplay has a complicated time structure. 

It was the biggest risk of the movie and the hardest thing to get right, to braid past, present, and future. They all connect and touch each other. Who has control of the narrative? Who’s telling the story of what really happened? He’s singing his story. She’s remembering. It’s a country western opera. We used Blaze’s song “If I Could Only Fly,” which I’m proud of. You’ve seen a lot of breakup scenes: “Let’s let Blaze write the breakup scene.” He’s gonna live and she’s not going to come with him; he wishes she could.

But the hard thing was the time braid. Audiences need narrative. They need a plot. How to do what I wanted to do? You have to tell them he was shot and killed in the second shot of the movie, like Walter Hill with “Crossroads.” I wanted it to feel like “The Ballad of Blaze and Sybil.” If this movie was one image, it’s “Blaze Loves Sybil” carved into a tree at that treehouse, at its essence.

And now you’re playing a dissipated musician.

In “Juliet, Naked” I get to play Charlie Sexton. And being a father is the biggest part of my life. The central issues of that movie are about fatherhood, art, failure, and success. I wanted to do a comedy. I hadn’t done one since “Reality Bites.” He’s like Troy Dyer looks at 50, you could imagine him evolving into Tucker Crowe in some way.

I could see that movie coming out of a studio like Paramount. It’s an old-fashioned studio comedy. My mother and wife’s friends will love this movie. It’s not “Moonlight.”

You turned out to be good at westerns.  

I got old. When you get old enough they put you in westerns. Now I play the Nick Nolte parts. I’m working with [director] Vincent D’Onofrio as Pat Garrett in “The Kid.” Dane DeHaan is good as Billy the Kid.

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