ETHAN HAWKE - BOYHOOD
Ethan Hawke has been a part of our collective film consciousness for over two decades.
First there was his coming-of-age moment in Dead Poets Society, followed by the X-generation primer, Reality Bites, that defined him as an angst-ridden outsider. Then he enchanted us alongside Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, a film that was the first volume in a trilogy that continued with Before Sunset and concluded last year with Before Midnight, and now the two-time Golden Globe winning movie (Best Director and Best Film), Boyhood.
Hawke’s collaboration with Linklater has spanned more than two decades, when the Texas natives first got to know each other in their hometown of Austin, Texas. Boyhood, marks the seventh time the two have worked together, and possibly their best collaboration so far. “This is a very revolutionary kind of film, in that we shot it over 12 years in order to show how children and life evolves, and using time itself as part of the process of making the movie,” Hawke, 43, explains. “It’s a project that I’d been working on for a very long time and I could never talk about it with anyone. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to finally let everyone in on this secret I’d been carrying around with me. Boyhood frames my own life in a strange way, because I wasn’t a very happy guy when we started work on it and now I’m in a much better place than I was in my thirties.”
Hawke describes Boyhood as an “epic journey” about all the small things and events that take place in life. The film stars Hawke and Patricia Arquette (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) as a divorced couple and follows them in their joint effort to raise their son (Ellar Coltrane). The basic skeleton of the narrative may be unremarkable, but what made Boyhood a unique film is that director Linklater traced the youth’s journey and development between the ages of 6 and 18, while using the same child, then later teenage actor, as well as Hawke and Arquette in the principal roles. This striking aspect to the film was Linklater’s way of extending the work of French New Wave director François Truffaut who, during the ‘60s, directed his Antoine Doinel series of films, in which he used the same actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud, in the same role also over a 12-year period. Linklater accomplished his bit of cinematic bravado by arranging to have Hawke, Arquette, and Coltrane come together with a small cast and crew for several days each year over the past twelve years to shoot the film. Observes Hawke: “I’m still in shock that it’s all come to an end now.”
Ethan Hawke lives in New York with his wife Ryan and their two daughters, Clementine (5), and Indiana (2). Hawke also has two children from his previous marriage to actress Uma Thurman: daughter Maya (15), and son Levon (12). Hawke met his current wife while she was working as nanny to his children after his divorce from Thurman.
SMARTY: Ethan, it must be very special for you to have this enduring friendship and working relationship with director Richard Linklater.
HAWKE: I’ve known Rick for over twenty years, and one of the things that has made our collaboration so special is that often I’ve come back home to Texas to work with him on one of these projects. It’s rare in this business to be able to maintain that kind of artistic continuity with someone the way we’ve done. What’s doubly ironic is that his work is really about time. The “Before” trilogy takes place in three days over the course of twenty years, and it’s been so beautiful for me personally to have worked with Rick and Julie Delpy on those films. And now with Boyhood, I’m just honored and amazed to realize that I’ve been part of a film that has evolved over 12 years and it’s never really been done this way before.
SMARTY: How did it feel when you finally had the chance to see the finished film?
HAWKE: Seeing it here in Austin was a very poignant moment for me. Austin is a city and a place that is very close to my heart. My parents were students at the U of T (University of Texas) at Austin when I was born, and the city has been a big part of my life. I’ve enjoyed a 20-year collaboration with Richard Linklater that has brought me continually back here to work on many of his films. Of course, I’ve been living in New York for most of the past 20 years and I’ve poured a lot of my life and energy into the theater world there. But there’s a great Larry McMurtry line in his book, “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers”, that reads: “If you leave Texas without permission, it will always haunt you.” I think I left Texas as a young man without permission and it’s always eating at me in some sense.
SMARTY: Boyhood is a very unique achievement in film history. What are your reflections on your involvement with the project?
HAWKE: It’s very special to be able to watch a young man and actor evolve and grow with the role. We worked with a very small crew and it was like this tiny family project for all of us, where we would get back together every year to work on it, but we all had to wait until now to see the result. I would always have to mumble something or invent some story when people would ask me about the project. So it’s been great to show the film here in Austin to my fellow Texans and get to take the film around the world. It’s a very universal story about youth and growing up and the wonderful ordinariness that you find in life. That’s part of what makes Rick (Linklater) such an important filmmaker – he’s able to get to the heart of magic and beauty of everyday events and moments in people’s lives and turn that into an epic journey.
SMARTY: Are there any parallels to what Michael Apted did with his (7 Up and on) series of films?
HAWKE: We’ve seen directors like Michael Apted work over a period of many years and capture the passage of time in documentary form, but his Up films are very socio-political and have a very different objective, I think. Rick is attempting this in a dramatic narrative context. I have immense pride in this project and it’s sheer originality. You can’t compare this film to anything else. What’s so wonderful and interesting about Rick’s work is that we live in a world that loves to celebrate the glamorous. But Rick’s work is a tribute to the incredible truth and beauty of ordinary people and all those gentler and smaller truths about life and what it’s all about. And in a certain way, the leading character in this film is time itself.
SMARTY: You and Richard Linklater have also been part of another unique series of films – the “Before” trilogy. What are your reflections on those films and how they have resonated so deeply with the public?
HAWKE: It’s almost unbelievable how so many people will come up to me and talk about those films, especially the first two, and what those stories and the characters of Jesse and Celine have meant to them. I love the fact that audiences were seduced and drawn into their lives, even though we only see them in this one-day, snapshot kind of way. We experience their lives through Jesse and Celine’s discussions of who they are and what they’ve experienced more than anything they actually do while we see them together.
SMARTY: Has it been important for you to have the chance to reunite with Julie Delpy over the course of the last two Before films?
HAWKE: It’s painful being separated from Julie. It’s also painful sometimes being with Julie. (smiles) The truth is that Rick (Linklater) brought us together. I met her on Before Sunrise and I’ve never met someone of my generation that was as knowledgeable, passionate and talented – and really knowledgeable about cinema in the way that she was. Even at 23, she had already worked with Godard. She was a deeply wise person at 23, and I certainly was not. I feel like I’ve been playing catch-up with her for about 20 years.
SMARTY: Did you and Julie ever wonder if Before Midnight would ever get made?
HAWKE: Julie and I realized that these characters are still alive in us, and after six or seven years went by after shooting Before Sunset, we start thinking again about them and how we want to express our ideas and feelings about where they are in their lives. We also knew that many people would be very disappointed if we somehow didn’t fulfill certain expectations of where Jesse and Celine should be in their lives another eight or nine years down the road. You obviously would like to make people happy. But what’s good about Before Sunrise and Before Sunset is that they are both something that is very personal to us. So we just decided to just continue on that path and that’s how we wound up making Before Midnight.
SMARTY: Before Midnight ends on a far darker note than the other two films. Does that mean the end of Jesse and Celine?
HAWKE: We don’t know. There’s a lot of territory left open that could still be explored and maybe we shouldn’t leave people thinking that their time together may be over. There are so many different possibilities and it’s going to be interesting to imagine what happens to them over the course of another ten years. But neither Rick or Julie, nor myself, are going to be thinking about the next one, or if there should be a next one, for some years down the road.
SMARTY: People are very curious about how close Celine and Jesse resemble you and Julie.
HAWKE: We work together to try to create something that feels authentic, and to do that, a wonderful thing to do is to blur the lines between character and performer to the extent that some people believe that Julie and I are a couple... Although, we would kill each other after a few days in real life. (laughs) Neither of us are easy to live with...
SMARTY: But you and Julie have incredible screen chemistry together.
HAWKE: Yes. It’s an amazing thing. With some people that chemistry comes really easily, and with some people it’s a tremendous amount of work. There are some times, where two people can’t get in sync with each other’s rhythms on a film, no matter what you try to do to overcome that. I’m sure there’s a reason for it... I remember my screen test for Training Day. It was pretty obvious right away to everyone in the room that Denzel and I were good together... He would go left and I would go right, which was perfect for the vibe between our characters; that there was some weird chemistry that worked well. I remember the director, Antoine Fuqua, coming up to me, and he said: “It’s obvious to everyone in the room that that was how we were going to make the movie.” It was nothing I did. It had nothing to do with any kind of preparation I did. It was just a combination of those people – with that bit of chemistry, with that director, with that co-star. But that kind of thing is very difficult to achieve. Ultimately, the actors have to have a burning desire within themselves to make it right and to not stop rehearsing until you unlock something.
SMARTY: A large part of your life has played out in the public with your marriage to Uma Thurman and then your divorce. How have you changed since then?
HAWKE: It’s night and day. I’m back in the daylight now. (laughs) I went through a period I call the “black years” after my divorce. It was a terrible time in my life, very difficult, where I felt I wasn’t the parent that I wanted to be. I felt like a lot of my dreams for the kind of life I wanted had shattered and I was really lost for a while. I hated the films I was making – things like Assault on Precinct 13 – and I didn’t really know where I was going. I was like a zombie on that film and you can see how depressed and miserable I looked in it. It was this experience where you think you had built a life that was so much better and more enlightened and cooler than your parents’ lives, and then you realize that you’ve just repeated all their mistakes. Maybe I had to experience that kind of emotional wreckage to rebuild myself. I used to think I was smarter than the rest of the world and then it dawned on me that I was just as clueless as everyone.
SMARTY: You’ve started your second family with your wife, Ryan. Do you feel you’re a better father today than you were during your first marriage?
HAWKE: I’m probably a lot wiser than I was when my oldest children were born. I feel that I’ve done a good job overall and that I’ve lived up to my responsibility to be a good father. I’m happier about the way I’ve handled being a father than anything else in my life.
SMARTY: Has becoming a father the second time around altered the way you approach your work?
HAWKE: I’ve changed my outlook on my career as a result of having kids. I used to be so committed to the idea of artistic integrity above all else and now I realize that sometimes you can’t be as selective as you would like. When you have four children, you need to be a working actor if you want to provide your children with the best schooling and advantages in life. That puts added pressure on the kinds of choices you make in your career. I’ve never been materialistic when it comes to my own life, but for my children, I want them to have the best life possible.
SMARTY: You’ve always struggled with the idea of wanting to maintain your integrity and not feel like you’re ever selling out. Is that a hard line to follow?
HAWKE: (laughs) It’s the hardest thing of all. I’ve been beating myself up about that kind of question for my entire career. Sometimes you feel that you need a big film that will free you to do other films that are less commercial and more personal. I did this horror film with Angelina Jolie that I thought would be very commercial and it was a disaster on every level. Then I did Before Sunset, which no one thought would get much attention, and it turned out to be a huge commercial success and a film that has been one of the most meaningful to me, personally. What I’ve learned over the years is to follow your heart. I don’t want to ever feel like I’m selling out. I’ve done certain kinds of films and I feel in some way that I owe it to people who have followed my career to keep playing certain kinds of roles, because they’ve invested in me. Of course, you can’t always live up to that standard, but I try.