Ethan Hawke has a thing or two to say about misconceptions behind Method acting.
The “Last Movie Stars” director discussed the Method, as formerly taught at the Actors’ Studio by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg using the Stanislavski Technique, during a PGA panel moderated by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz at the Warner Bros. Discovery offices in New York on Tuesday.
In the CNN Films and HBO Max docuseries about famed Method actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s marriage, respective careers, and acting practices, star Vincent D’Onofrio exemplifies a Method moment by reading a script with emotion, and crying on cue. D’Onofrio teaches at the Studio and even helped Hawke with his “Training Day” audition, with the role landing Hawke his first Oscar nomination.
“If you’re going to make a documentary about Miles Davis, I really want to learn something about music, not just about Miles Davis,” director Hawke explained of the scene. “You hear all this talk about Method acting. It’s thrown around all the time. People say, ‘Oh, I guess he’s getting Method.’ My dad might say that. He doesn’t know who Stanislavski is. He doesn’t know what that means. But you hear the expression.”
Hawke continued, “How could I teach the audience what we mean when we say Method acting? Because I feel like if you don’t understand what Paul [Newman] and Joanne [Woodward] are chasing, this idea of not pretending to be a person, but to be the person in imaginary circumstances. That’s the essence of Method acting. It’s interpreted a lot of different ways. Yeah, Dustin Hoffman wants to stay up all night, or Daniel Day-Lewis builds an outhouse or whatever. It’s their interpretation of what the Method is working for them, and that’s the genius of what Kazan, Strasberg, Stanislavski were teaching. I felt like I needed something to show why some people spend their lives chasing this dream. It’s hard to do. It’s about cultivating your imagination in a very powerful way.”
Moderator Mankiewicz asked Hawke to weigh in on the hotly debated comments from “Succession” Emmy winner Brian Cox on Method acting as a whole. While Cox has called out co-star Jeremy Strong’s approach to the HBO series in the past, Cox’s recent controversial memoir detailed working on “The Boxer” with Daniel Day-Lewis and how the Oscar winner met co-star Emily Watson while in character. Mankiewicz paraphrased Cox’s take on the situation as having “deprived her of an authentic meeting with her collaborator,” Day-Lewis.
Hawke responded, “My thoughts are that a lot of extremely gifted and inspired people are extremely selfish. And it works for them. If you’re going to be a grown-up and play grown-up, professionally, sports, arts, whatever, I wish he behaved differently, and part of Emily’s job is to meet him [where he is]. She’s a grown-up too, and that’s what he needs. I understand both points of view.”
The “Black Phone” actor added that perhaps there is a “Method” to the madness, though.
“Personally, I’m in agreement with Brian and Emily. But, I know that ordinary effort creates ordinary results, and the longevity and genius of Daniel Day-Lewis’ career proves that there’s method to his madness. I don’t sit in judgment,” Hawke said. “I find it endlessly fascinating. Personally, I think it’s crazy. But it works! So, far be it for me. People thought Jackson Pollack was nuts, or they thought Emily Dickinson was nuts. These are exceptional brains. Charlie Parker practiced the saxophone 12 hours a day. Can you imagine living with somebody practicing the saxophone 12 hours a day? But we’re still listening to his records, so you want to tell him, ‘Really, do six’?”
While Hawke never professionally worked with Newman or Woodward, the subjects of “The Last Movie Stars,” his directorial ode to the Method and meditation on acting as a career, Hawke has had overlap with the late Newman’s former collaborators like director Sidney Lumet. Hawke starred opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in Lumet’s 2007 film “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and recalled when Lumet called out Hoffman for not crying in character during rehearsal.
“‘Well, we’re rehearsing. We’re working,'” Hawke remembered Hoffman saying. “‘On the day we’ll do it.'”
To which Lumet responded, “‘Well today is the day! We’re working today.'”
Hoffman joked to Hawke at the time, “Did [Al] Pacino do this?” citing “Dog Day Afternoon.”
“Sidney wanted it all, all the time. He didn’t believe in the magic and mystery of some hidden talent or whatever. He believed in the work,” Hawke said. “So when I heard that story [that Lumet told Newman he was faking it on set] about him taking Paul to task, I know how that room is like. I remember I was critical in the first read-through. I said to Sidney, I’m not really feeling that last scene. I feel like the movie ends a scene before. And Sidney goes, ‘That is so interesting. You know I’ve only had a problem with three actors and I really don’t want it to be four.'”
Similarly, Newman’s contemporary Martin Scorsese remains a director that Hawke aspires to work with. Scorsese is featured in “The Last Movie Stars” discussing his relationship to both Newman and Woodward’s respective works, and the auteur even gave notes to Hawke on the documentary as a whole.
“I had an amazing, luxurious experience. I mean, I dream of working with Martin Scorsese as an actor. And my only creative meeting with him ever was getting notes on this,” Hawke said. “Of course I was super defensive, saying of course I would fix this and the music is going to be better, don’t worry. And he was like, ‘Listen, it’s really terrific. Pencils down. I’ve made a lot of documentaries, it’s never going to be what you want it to be. It’s great. And it’s time to go back to your trailer and learn some lines and do what you’re supposed to do for a living.'”
Hawke continued, “And I was like, ‘Oh my god, ‘pencils down’? Really? I can’t imagine it.’ Something about making this, it did hijack my brain for a couple of years. It did become an obsession.”
The “Before Midnight” alum went to the same high school as Clea Newman, the youngest child of Newman and Woodward. Despite being three years apart at the New Jersey school, Hawke didn’t know Clea well until embarking on the docuseries that was originally slated to be a tentpole premiere for the now-defunct CNN+ streaming platform.
“Non-fiction requires a discipline that is really difficult,” Hawke said. “It’s so hard, it’s a math riddle, it’s unending. You can always make it better.”
And Hawke is still getting notes to this day, even after “The Last Movie Stars” premiered in July 2022 on HBO Max. While the series features the voices of George Clooney, Laura Linney, Zoe Kazan, Oscar Isaac, and Sam Rockwell, among many more A-listers, a mutual friend told Hawke that a certain star felt left out.
“A friend messaged me tonight and said, ‘Hey, Paul Rudd is really grouchy you didn’t interview him. He worked with Paul, he has the best Paul Newman stories. Is it too late?'” Hawke said. “Yes it’s too late! Everyone has a great Paul Newman story! But don’t get me wrong, I love Paul Rudd!”
In a few years, when Hawke said he would consider directing a documentary again, it’s clear Rudd is the first on the call sheet.
To read Ethan Hawke’s previous IndieWire interview about “The Last Movie Stars,” click here.