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From the profound experience of making “Dead Poets Society” to the “Before” trilogy and his new book, Ethan Hawke discusses a life spent celebrating creativity in its many forms.

Design Matters: Ethan Hawke

Design Matters: Ethan Hawke

ACTOR / DIRECTOR / WRITER

26.4.21

Ethan Hawke / acting / writing / A Bright Ray of Darkness / The Good Lord Bird / John Brown

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

Yes, I know Ethan Hawke is a famous actor and hardly needs an introduction. He’s starred in more than 80 movies, many of which have made their mark in the zeitgeist. You’ve likely seen him in everything from Dead Poets Society and Reality Bites to the Before trilogy and Boyhood. Ethan Hawke is also a writer. In fact, in high school, he wanted to be a writer before becoming interested in acting. Over his nearly four-decade career, he’s managed to do both, and then some. Today I’m going to talk with him about his latest novel, A Bright Ray of Darkness, and his bravura performance as John Brown in the showtime series “The Good Lord Bird.” Ethan Hawke, welcome to Design Matters.


Ethan Hawke:

Well thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.


Debbie Millman:

Ethan, is it true that when you were growing up you had fantasies of becoming a merchant marine?


Ethan Hawke:

That is very true. Well, I was a big Jack London fan. I had a kid who lived down the street from me. He was a grade older than I was, Nick, and he liked Jack London. He was really cool. When you’re 16, a 17-year-old just feels like he’s got the world by the scruff of the neck. He went off to be a merchant marine and live off his Jack London fantasies. I have no idea what happened to him. But we used to read books together and talk about him, and I thought he was a … I wanted to be just like him. But I also want to be just like Jack London. So I thought that might be a great avenue to chase down an interesting life, is to disappear into the seas and come back somebody interesting, because I thought I was pretty boring as I was.


Debbie Millman:

Really? Why is that?


Ethan Hawke:

Well, I think I was pretty boring. I mean, I think most young people struggle with a sense of who they are and what they want to be. You look around you and some things seem interesting, but most paths feel impossible to walk down. I think the road of adventure loomed large in my head. I longed to been born in another time period when the world felt wilder, I guess, but probably every generation feels that way.


Debbie Millman:

Your parents met in high school, Ethan. Your mom was 17 when she had you. But they divorced when you were 4 years old. When asked in an interview if their divorce scarred you, you stated, “Scarred puts a judgment on it,” and then go on to declare that you were formed by it, and made by it. I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing.


Ethan Hawke:

Well, I mean, that’s called the unity of opposites, isn’t it? It is a good thing and it is a bad thing. I find children long to … they long, long, long in their heart and soul and every stitch of their body longs to believe that their parents love each other and that they were born for a reason, and that they were born in love. Most of us long for that. The advantage of being raised from the point of divorce, from that vantage point, is that you see the world as more complicated a little earlier and you get your heart broken a little earlier. That break has an opportunity to invite some wisdom into your life, or at least some experience, right? I think that it can make you stronger. You know that poem “Stronger in the Broken Places”? It wakes you up to the idea that no one has the perfect life and that you were born in love and it doesn’t matter what happened to the band after they made your music. Your music was born out of something beautiful.


Debbie Millman:

After the divorce, you alternated between living on the East Coast with your mother and visiting your dad back in Texas. I read that this caused you to alternate between personalities. In what way?


Ethan Hawke:

Well, I bet you everybody who came from going to mom’s house, going to dad’s house, they know exactly what I’m talking about.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, yeah. My parents got divorced when I was 8, so I get it.


Ethan Hawke:

There’s a personality you have that you think makes your mother like you better and there’s a personality you have that you think makes your father like you better. For a long time, I thought that meant that I was a liar. That I wasn’t showing the real me. Who’s the real me? Slowly, as you get older, you realize that these people, they’re all me. I love my mother and I love my father, and I want them to see the best of me. It doesn’t make me a liar. But I do think it taught me at a young age how malleable my personality was. If my personality was malleable, probably everyone’s is, and it might have been a very good entry point for the life of a performer.


Debbie Millman:

Do you think that that gave you a sense that you were performing for them, your parents?


Ethan Hawke:

Well, I know that Marlon Brando would tell you that you’re performing for me right now and I’m performing for you, that what is our authentic self is very mysterious. We want our peers to like us. We want to be somebody respected. We want people to think positive things about us and all those things, and we manipulate ourselves and we do a little bit of … you perform for grandma. “Yes, ma’am. This apple pie is delicious, grandma. You’re the best, grandma.” Then you walk into your buddy’s house and you say, “Hey, who’s got a joint?” I mean, it doesn’t mean you’re the worst person in the world. It means you’re bigger than one thing. That’s what I think, anyway. Performance, like the thing about divorce, we use all these words. Performance makes it sound like you’re not being true. I am being true when I talk to my grandmother. That is who I want to be for her, and does that make sense?


Debbie Millman:

Oh, absolutely. I read that while you were in high school it gave you the opportunity to become an expert at fitting in. I was really fascinated by that because as also a child of divorce, I also had that ability, that range of wanting to be friends with lots of different groups. I understand that you were on the school football team, in the church youth group, you had a range of friends that included graphic novel reading geeks, theater nerds, punk rock girls, deadheads. How were you able to slip in and out of so many personas at that time? Because I do sense that it really was authentic in the same way that I felt that as I was slipping in and out, I was still being aspects of me too.


Ethan Hawke:

I think you can be authentic with different types of people. I mean, the positive, maybe without breaking my arm patting myself on the back, is that I’m not inherently judgmental. I’m not convinced that I’m the moral authority on anything. So I don’t really have a belief that somebody’s got it right and somebody’s got it wrong. I think because I moved around a lot, I was really hungry for friendship, and I would accept it wherever it came. I think that’s a quality I like. I’ve tried to hold on to that quality. It’s a quality that when I see it in others, I like it.


Ethan Hawke:

One of my best friends is Richard Linklater. We’ve spent a lot of time together. He’s a great filmmaker. One of the things that makes him a great filmmaker is just a genuine love of people. If you watch Dazed and Confused, you see he has love for every type of category you want to put somebody in. He sees people with compassionate eyes, as opposed to—there’s a lot of movies and films out there that are always judging. He’s a good guy, he’s a bad guy, she’s a liar, he’s the enemy. We’re all caught in this huge spiderweb trying to make sense out of where we were born and who was our grandma and what our aptitude is for. I’ve just never felt too judgmental, and that helped me as a kid.


Debbie Millman:

From what I understand, you wanted to be an actor since you were 12, after your mother enrolled you in an after-school program and you were cast in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Was that really when your first seeds of wanting to perform were cast?


Ethan Hawke:

I think a lot of young people want to feel like they matter, like they’re special, like they’re interesting, like somebody cares about them. One of the first ways you could do that is to jump in front of the class and dance or sing or play a song or be great at sports or some way to set yourself apart. I think that I don’t believe that my initial interest in acting came from a desire to express myself for some real artistic impulse. I think it came from a simple desire to be noticed, to be liked. I think that’s a very dangerous fire to play with. But yeah, I went to an acting class. I really did love it. I was pretty good at it. From my first class, I think we had a guest teacher come into the … it was at the Paul Robeson Center for Performing Arts, and this guest teacher came from McCarter theater and he led a little improv class.


Ethan Hawke:

I remember vividly in the parking lot there and he asked me will I be interested in playing [inaudible] page. I was like, “Well, do I have any lines?” He said, “You have two lines.” I said, “Then, heck yeah.” So I got to put on armor and be a little page to a knight, his little squire, and I had a couple … I had to sneeze, which was very hard to do. The page sneezes and they know the winds changed. I took that sneezing exercise very hard. But so anyway, my point is, my first acting class I got my first part. My life has been … sometimes I say acting chose me. It guided me. I felt caught in a river almost. Early in my career with Dead Poets Society, that movie could have been a bomb, and two weeks later, I’d been on a boat chasing my friend Nick, emulating Jack London.


Debbie Millman:

You got your first part after your first big audition for Joe Dante’s science fiction film Explorers. You beat out 3,000 other actors. You co-starred with River Phoenix, and though it didn’t do well, at the time you thought God had found you.


Ethan Hawke:

I did feel like that. You kids, you feel like you’re lost in this sea of prepubescent everybody … I felt the thing I was hunting for, somebody will notice me. I’m here, I’m raising my hand—pick me, pick me—and I felt like I got picked.


Debbie Millman:

What was it like to have such an epic disappointment at 13 when the movie didn’t pan out the way you thought it was going to?


Ethan Hawke:

Well, that’s why being a kid is so hard. You have no sense of perspective. On my emotional radar, it felt like a helicopter fell from the sky and destroyed my house. I would have dreams of going to see the premiere, and they remade the movie without me. River and another kid would be on there. It was scary to be sucked into the adult world and fail. Because it felt like, well, I guess I can’t do this, this thing that I’m yearning for. Now, ironically, this was one of the greatest blessings. When you talk about the unity of opposites, right? This is one of the greatest blessings of my life. Those tears I shed over that, nothing better could have been happening to me. Because all of a sudden, I wasn’t a child actor. I’m back in high school, being a nerd, trying to do my thing, getting a dose of humility, and learning a more genuine relationship to what the arts is about.


Debbie Millman:

You decided to give acting a second chance as a senior in high school playing Tom Wingfield in your second cousin twice removed, I believe, Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. What motivated you to try again?


Ethan Hawke:

Well, I loved it. It actually happened a little differently than that. I was a senior and the kid who was in The Matchmaker … they were doing the … I was playing soccer that fall, and the lead in The Matchmaker dropped out three days before the performance. And the head of the English program came to me and said, “Would you do this?” I said, “Sure.” I learned the lines … I was the lead of the show, and I learned the lines in a couple hours. I went out there and I had a ball, and I was good at it. I made everybody laugh. I think I was really loose because I didn’t put any thought into it. I couldn’t fail because I was so coming through for the team just by showing up.


Ethan Hawke:

It’s like there’s a great relaxation—no matter what I do, it’s going to go well because otherwise the show wasn’t going to go on. It was a perfect scenario. Once I did that and felt that laughter in the room, I felt that high, well, then I really wanted to do it. It was very uncommon in high school to pick such a small play, as The Glass Menagerie has four characters, and it gave me this great part and they knew I really love that play. I was really into Tennessee Williams as a kid because my family was always telling me that we were related to him, and he’s brilliant.


Debbie Millman:

After high school, you attended Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, but you hated it. How come?


Ethan Hawke:

Yes. I had really wanted my life to begin when high school ended. The joke about the Jack Lemmon thing was very real to me. I didn’t want to be a kid anymore. The thing about being a senior in high school versus being a freshman in college is you just go back to square one. You’re just a kid again and everybody’s telling you what to do. I had a couple strange experiences that are too boring to get into. But just with fights and different things. I wasn’t in the mental headspace to learn, and I heard about these auditions because of my experience with the Explorers. They were doing big casting calls for this movie Dead Poets Society.


Ethan Hawke:

I knew there were seven parts for young kids, and so I took the train back to New York and auditioned for this movie, because I just had the thought that, well, if I can’t get one of these seven parts ...This is the way a 17-year-old thinks. If I don’t get one of these parts, then I’m not meant to be an actor. Well, that’s a dumb thing to say. But in this case, I got one of them. I was able to have an adventure. I mean, going down there and meeting Robin Williams and having this part and all this responsibility and working with genuine artists, I mean, this was not Peter Weir at that time, for people who are cinema fans. Peter Weir is a master craftsman and I was his pupil. He spoke to us with respect.


Ethan Hawke:

I mean, we were being assigned Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman and Emerson, running little acting workshops and being given improvs, and who’s in our workshop and Robin Williams. I mean, what that’s like for a young person. You can’t unsee that. He’s on set with John Seale, one of the greatest cinematographers, and listening to the way that they talk about light and the frame and the way he listens to music, and we watch movies together. The way he watched movies was different than the way my friends watch movies. Your brain starts to … little particles open up that had never been opened before, and you start to absorb. It was an experience that I don’t think any of us understood how impactful it would be in the mind of a young person.


Debbie Millman:

I want to talk about one of the moments in that movie. Despite it being so long ago, you’ve stated that one of your all-time favorite scenes is the one where Robin Williams inspires you to make up a poem. You said it was basically Robin teaching you the creative act, which is what the scene is about. But he was also teaching you how to act.


Ethan Hawke:

There’s a certain magic that happens in movies sometimes. If you try to put it into words, what’s so beautiful and mysterious about life itself, you just become an idiot by trying to give it vocabulary words that make sense. But when there’s a subconscious to your work and when the subconscious is in line with what the larger metaphor of the movie is about, then you accidentally, through no credit of your own, stumble into something profound. I was struggling with my own confidence and I was struggling with this burning desire to contribute and to have a relationship to poetry and rock and roll and anything that made sense to me when the world didn’t make sense, and so was my character.


Ethan Hawke:

Robin Williams is in the height of his powers. He’s just done Good Morning, Vietnam. He just finished [inaudible]. He’d been doing Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin on Broadway, directed by Mike Nichols. I mean, he was working with the best people in the top of his game, and it was him making me sound my barbaric yawp. It was exactly what … I mean, there was just levels to it, and that’s what the movie’s about. It’s unlocking the creativity of young people. Funny enough for people who are film fans, I don’t know, the steady cam had just been invented. They were really excited about the fact that you could move the camera an interesting way. Peter Weir and John Seale were very excited about this new camera toy, and that maybe we could do this scene in one shot, or what would at least feel like one shot.


Ethan Hawke:

That puts a lot of pressure on the actors because he’s doing these five, seven minutes takes in one shot, and all of a sudden you disappear. You just disappear into the process of making something. All of a sudden, they broke for lunch, and I was like, “What just happened? That was awesome.” I’ll tell you something funny. Robin took me by the shoulder and he said, “And the Oscar goes to Ethan Hawke.” Right? This is who I was back then. I was so angry because I didn’t know if he was kidding. I felt so confused by that. Because he’d been nominated for an Academy Award. That idea seemed like saying, “You’re going to win the Super Bowl,” and it felt like he was teasing me. Because I just had this unbelievable high. I don’t need any prizes. I don’t need this … I wanted to be taken seriously. I think back on it and I go, “Oh, God, I was such an intense 16-year-old. Jesus, get over yourself, kid.” But I remember that’s how complicated and stirred up I felt. I didn’t know how to judge the feelings that were happening inside of me.


Debbie Millman:

So much of that is in your face. I mean, I just recently watched that scene again, and I think that that steady cam, the way it’s going around you, and as you’re both spinning around and as he’s holding you and as you’re finding yourself, it’s almost like giving birth to creativity. It was so powerful.


Ethan Hawke:

That’s the way it felt to me.


Debbie Millman:

Do you think that he was complimenting you, looking back on it?


Ethan Hawke:

He’s having experiences like that five times a week. I mean, I think he loved it. I think what he was saying is, “Wow, that was great.” I mean, I think that’s what he was saying. But he didn’t understand how badly I wanted that compliment. Because then he runs off and he’s at lunch and he’s on a meeting, he’s talking to his agent and I’m still just sitting there waiting for everybody to come back from lunch. He got me my first agent. I think I would have to say that he did. He did mean it well.


Debbie Millman:

In 1991, you took your Dead Poets Society money and you used it for a down payment on the Sanford Meisner Theater on 11th Avenue in New York City. You and Josh Hamilton and Jonathan Mark Sherman founded the Menlo Park Theater Company. What made you decide to do that as opposed to hightailing it to Hollywood?


Ethan Hawke:

Why didn’t I buy a bag of cocaine? I don’t know. Why didn’t I buy a Porsche? I had no interest in anything but a life in the arts. Because of my experience with the Explorers, I was very dubious of the success of Dead Poets Society. I knew how fleeting that could be and I knew that I didn’t go to college, that I wasn’t educated. I knew I didn’t know what I was talking about, but I did have a tremendous amount of energy, and I had 26 grand in my pocket burning a hole. I was trying to start this theater company, and we couldn’t decide what to do and we couldn’t … it seemed like all we ever did was talk about it. I decided I’ll just rent this theater, and we only had the rental for three weeks or 20 days or something like that, so we had to do it.


Debbie Millman:

You also auditioned for Titanic. But I have a feeling if you got that part, then instead of Leonardo DiCaprio, you would have had a very different career. I recently talked to Claire Danes about the same thing. She turned down the part that Kate Winslet ultimately played. Were you upset at the time that you didn’t get the part?


Ethan Hawke:

I knew I wasn’t going to get the part when I went in for a screen test. I just didn’t audition for that. I went in for a screen test and I knew I wasn’t going to get it when I started talking to James Cameron. First of all, let me say that I don’t think I could have possibly handled it any better than DiCaprio did. DiCaprio used that success to launch. I’m one of the few people who really understand how hard it is to work. He has worked in the major leagues for years, working with great people and doing amazing work, and he used that success to launch himself into relationships with major film art directors. He was not frivolous with his gift at all, and I admire the hell out of him.


Ethan Hawke:

I’ll say the reason I knew I didn’t get the part—you can tell by this interview, right? That I like to talk. They gave me the script and you couldn’t get the script. It was so … they literally came to my hotel with an armed guard who sat and waited while I read the script, right? I walked into that audition room and I broke his script down. I told him, “This is going to be the biggest movie of all time.” I said, “This is Gone With the Wind meets Towering Inferno. This is an unbelievable script.” I started breaking down what the references were. I thought I was so smart. I watched his eyes glaze over. I saw him go, Oh my god, I never want to see this kid again. If he comes on set, he is going to be such a bore.


Ethan Hawke:

My inner voice is saying, “Shut up. Come in character. Have some dice in your pocket. Try to be a bad ass. Sell him on that you really are Jack.” I knew inside I should be shutting up, but I wouldn’t stop talking about. … It’s a best romance novel of all time set in Towering Inferno, right? I just I thought it was brilliant. I love the way it was written. It was a beautifully written script. I mean, it read like a novel. Anyway, I was over before I started. Done, done, done. DiCaprio was a star born.


Debbie Millman:

Ethan, you published your first novel, The Hottest State, in 1996. From what I understand, you were motivated to start writing because of how mercurial an actor’s life could be. Were you afraid at that point that the acting roles were going to dry up?


Ethan Hawke:

I wasn’t afraid. I was sure of it. River had died. I watched all the people who were successful when I was a kid actor have terrible experiences and be like people I met at auditions. There were other people who auditioned for Dead Poets Society, people that went on to have big careers and stuff like that. I watched how all this success was awful for human beings’ development. I come from a family that doesn’t have a lot of respect for society’s idea of “success.” My father is a man of deep faith, and that is his priority. I don’t want to speak for him. But your relationship to whatever is the eternal is really what matters. It wouldn’t matter how successful you were if you weren’t right within, right? I mean, that’s the house I was raised in.


Ethan Hawke:

My mother, she’s given me Wallace Stevens poems, she’s given me Thomas Merton books, and the people around me wanted something better for me than to be on the cover of Teen Beat. But I was very restless. I really enjoyed the buzz of being around creative people and the high of trying to talk about why we’re born and why we have to die, and so I tried to write. Because I thought that the experience would make me grow. What would publishing be like? It was a huge education. My mother has a great line: “Well, how do you want your obituary to read?” People in the moment might think, “What a dummy. He’s publishing a book. Who does he think he is?” But when they read your obituary and they say you wrote a novel, you think, “good for him.” You know what I mean? If you get yourself in the long view of time, then you can deal with the ebb and flow of criticism.


Debbie Millman:

Is it true that your mother read your first draft and stated, “Well, you’re not Chekhov?”


Ethan Hawke:

Yeah, that’s what she said. But my ego was not my problem. It needed to come down a peg. Right? She felt that was her job. I bet if you were around a 24-year-old me, you might want to tell me I’m not Chekhov too.


Debbie Millman:

I read The Hottest State back when it first came out, but I hadn’t seen the movie, which you also starred in and directed. I watched it in prep for the interview. I noticed in the credits Richard Linklater, the director of your Before trilogy, and Boyhood, and Dazed and Confused, and so many other amazing, amazing movies. He was credited as the John Wayne enthusiast in the film.


Ethan Hawke:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. There’s a scene [where] he plays a guy who’s trying to chat up a girl at a Williamsburg party. It was a monologue. I’d always wanted to put him in something. It happened to me standing in line at McDonald’s, and this guy was crying. I said to him, “Hey, what happened, man? Are you OK?” He’s a big guy. He says, “Didn’t you hear?” I said, “Hear what?” He said, “John Wayne died today.” I thought that was a great story, and I went back and told my girlfriend. I said, “Ain’t that interesting?” She said, “I’m a vegetarian.” I don’t know why. I just thought, I’m putting that in something someday. Because it just struck me as, all right, some people think something’s important. What one person hears is not the same thing as another person hears.I love Richard’s acting. I love acting for him and and he took the part really seriously, if you watch the movie, which he’s very good in.


Debbie Millman:

He is indeed. I had to go back to make sure I really understood what he was going for there.


Ethan Hawke:

Did you ever see Slacker?


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Ethan Hawke:

His first film?


Debbie Millman:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Ethan Hawke:

Anybody listening, go watch the opening scene of Slacker, about maybe I took the wrong bus, I think it was the … I think I took the wrong taxi. It’s a phenomenal monologue. I always wanted to get him back in front of the camera.


Debbie Millman:

You appeared in six of his films, and you’ve said that the experience of working on Before Sunset exceeded all expectations of what being involved in the world of film could be for you. In what way?


Ethan Hawke:

Well, I pray that every person who listens to this has a moment in their life where you feel like this immense gratitude for being in the right place at the right time, and that you felt like … it was so much fun to write that movie with Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater, to be in Paris. I was in a lot of pain personally, and having a place to put that pain was healing and not self-serving. It was in service of something better, greater. It was not navel-gazing, painting pictures of your tears or something like that. That film experience taught me a lot.


Ethan Hawke:

Rick and Julie are some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever come across, and they’re also extremely educated in the language of film. They have an extremely high bar, and they know a lot. It was fun to be around them, and listen to Julie and Rick argue. I’ve learned a lot. It felt like, wow, this is where I’m supposed to be right now. I got to be in Paris making a movie with Julie Delpy, and it was a good one. I mean, what else do you want?


Debbie Millman:

I read that when you worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2006, you realized that what made him so great was his experience playing smaller parts. During the years that he was doing that, you said that you were doing films like White Fang and getting paid a lot of money, and girls were asking for your autograph. While working with him, you realize you needed to work harder. I was wondering, harder in what way?


Ethan Hawke:

I watched Nobody’s Fool the other day, Paul Newman movie. Robert Benton directed. Really wonderful film, and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays this small-town deputy or something. He’s just kind of an idiot. Little part. He probably has 10 lines in the movie. I was friends with him back then. He worked so hard on that part. Who was that guy? What does he have in his pockets? How did he get the job? Why does he do this dumb thing? What’s his thing? He was rigorous with his imagination. I watched the movie, it’s years later, and he’s just so wonderful in it. When he started getting bigger parts, he applied the same rigor to every line he had.


Ethan Hawke:

I had kind of a “let’s get through this scene, I’m really looking forward to that scene, we’re going to shoot on Thursday” attitude. I started seeing the possibilities of … There’s a difference between the job of leading man and the job of a character actor. Fascinatingly enough, the job of the character actor is extremely challenging because you have to facilitate the story. You’ve got a job to do, and that’s your only part. Then you get laser-focused about it. Then when you come back to a larger part, you see smaller stitches in the fabric. You see how to sew it tighter. You see how that helps your scene partner. That’s really the change for me.


Debbie Millman:

Despite the lesson you learned from Philip Seymour Hoffman about working harder, you’ve also come to recognize that every time you tried to sell out, you fell on your ass—your words, not mine.


Ethan Hawke:

I like these quotes you’re finding.


Debbie Millman:

I suspect that you’re talking about your first foray into television, which I want to talk about briefly before going into “Good Lord Bird.” The Fox show, “Exit Strategy.” What happened with that show?


Ethan Hawke:

That was my midlife crisis. I turned 40. I felt like I had to quit being an artist and get a real job and hate it like everyone else.


Debbie Millman:

Why? Was it because of having so many children? Was it … I mean—


Ethan Hawke:

My wife was pregnant with my fourth kid, and the economy just dropped out in 2008, and I’d spent a lot of the previous years falling back in love with the theater. The thing you asked me about filling smaller parts—I got really interested in that, and I started doing smaller parts in some big Broadways. I did The Bridge Project, which we took Chekhov and Shakespeare all over the world. I did Coast of Utopia, which ran for a year. It’s a nine-hour play about Russian radicals. Hurlyburly I’d done for almost a year, and they’re all big ensemble pieces. I mean, some of those parts are big, some of them were small. While I was doing that, I was living like I was making a million dollars a year making movies and I was having a lot of children.


Ethan Hawke:

Well, when I was a kid, I was very, very fortunate. Dead Poets Society, I had this money. I got to do what I wanted to do, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. I wasn’t getting cast. The younger actors were getting more parts, and you start seeing the world, and I just panicked. I love Antoine Fuqua. We had this idea of maybe we can make a great cop show. What if we did? Well, I started betting my mindset—well, if Antoine would do it, maybe we could make this badass cop show and sneak one through. I don’t mean to knock that show or whatever, but it’s just … they didn’t really let Antoine do what he wanted to do. The show never turned into the show that we had imagined it would be, and thank God it didn’t happen.


Debbie Millman:

You said that it ultimately resulted in you rebooting and revitalizing the next 10 years of your life. How?


Ethan Hawke:

I just started doing things I care. I have an amazing wife, and she’s an amazing partner. She’s not a materialist. She’s like, “Don’t do that. What are we making the money for?” She sees very clearly the kind of capitalist design that this country gets motivated by the accumulation of wealth, accumulation of possessions—that’s how we define success. We all just get on this treadmill and hate ourselves if we have to get off it, and feel like we failed if we don’t have the school that we want or the house that we want, and she just wasn’t buying into it. Then she’s like, “Let’s start making decisions based on love. Let’s tap. That’s what you need to do.” I started doing things I cared about, and then my career started going well again. It’s mysterious how that happens.


Debbie Millman:

It’s so interesting the arc of a career. You said that there have been three times over the course of your career that you felt washed up.


Ethan Hawke:

Yeah, completely.


Debbie Millman:

What made you continue on, and how did you overcome that sense of being over and done with or discarded? How did you find the way to reinvent yourself?


Ethan Hawke:

The world is not a very responsible critic. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Lots of things that are very good make people tremendous money, and lots of things that are staggeringly brilliant go unnoticed. I mean, through the history of the world and history of arts, if you are in service of your art, then everything’s easy. If you want the art to be in service of you, promoting you, if everything you do has to be successful, everything you do has to be “good,” then you’re always waiting for everybody’s reaction as opposed to really just engaging with what you want to communicate. What do you want to be doing? There’s so many churches in New York with basements where you can do a play.


Ethan Hawke:

There’s something that really moved me. I read this obituary of brilliant actor Paul Scofield. Late in his life, he was acting at a very high level, playing big parts, but only at the church near him. He realized that it doesn’t matter how many people see it, it matters what you do. I want to walk to work, and I’m going to play King Lear at my church. Everything gets washed away like a sandcastle anyway. Who do you want to be? What do you want to do with your time? One of the things that I do want to say, though, is sometimes when I say that people think that what I mean is I’m judgmental of other people’s actions, and I’m really not, I love all kinds of movies and all kinds of art. There’s nothing wrong with doing “Exit Strategy” if you love “Exit Strategy.” I’m saying it matters to be you and figure out who you are. If you do that, then everything will take care of itself.


Debbie Millman:

Ethan, let’s talk about your most recent book, A Bright Ray of Darkness. Came out last month. Congratulations.


Ethan Hawke:

Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

It’s a wonderful book. The book brings us back to a character you actually first introduced to us in The Hottest State, William Harding. That really surprised me. Would you say that this is a sequel of sorts?


Ethan Hawke:

If I was forced to, maybe. But really it’s a continuation of a thought, in a way. Sometimes I think it’s not so much a sequel as a reboot. I was young when I wrote The Hottest State, and I was learning how to write. One of the things I really avoided and was ashamed of as a young writer is I wrote a book … The Hottest State is about young love, and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m an actor, but acting has nothing to do with it.” I realized over the years that it would be really fun to have the cojones to write about acting, to not run away from that aspect of his life. Because there’s so much superficial writing about acting. It doesn’t really have a place in literature of … there’s not that many first-person accounts of an actor on stage. I thought, well, I really like writing. That might be interesting. I gave myself that challenge to revisit that character in maybe a more substantive way, a hopefully more substantive way.


Debbie Millman:

William talks about fame quite a lot in the book, and really is trying to deconstruct it. He talks about fame as the Black Death, and declares that we like to watch people die. So we put them on magazines and fan the flames of their ego, they catch fire and explode. But at the same time, the character pleads with the lord to grant him the Black Death, because it’s very seductive, isn’t it?


Ethan Hawke:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Do you feel like you understand that moral dilemma better? Do you feel like you still have that moral dilemma?


Ethan Hawke:

What’s that St. Augustine line? “Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet.” It’s like I really want to be sober, tomorrow. I mean a lot of times when a young actor gets told, “Oh, you are great in that show,” they’re not really sure what it is that you mean, right? They don’t know themselves, they don’t know what … What do you mean I’m amazing? Your brain when you’re left alone, like, “Why do you say that? What did I do?” That compliment immediately turns into fear because you’re like, “Well, if I do anything much different, maybe they won’t think I’m amazing because I don’t understand what it is that’s working. If I change, I might screw it up.” You end up keep being the same person.


Ethan Hawke:

We all know, as a grownup, you got to keep changing. You got to keep evolving. He said this thing about, after I said being washed up three times, how do you reinvent yourself? Trying to reinvent yourself for me is a mistaken way of thinking. The washed-up thing is actually just a perception. I’m often so disappointed when I start getting offered movies again, good parts, when it comes back again because often the work that I do when I’m busted is the best. By the best, I mean it’s the most true to me. When things start going well, you start getting decent offers and you can go to Istanbul and make a lot of fun movie everybody’s going to see. It’s very seductive, but it also takes you away from the self that comes out when nobody else cares. I think change is good, and I think the Black Death for me is being frozen in that formaldehyde where you’re just trying to stay this thing that everybody likes.


Debbie Millman:

The book takes us back to 2003. William Harding is getting a divorce from his beautiful, famous wife and is working in the theater playing the part of Hotspur in the show Henry IV, and back in 2003.


Ethan Hawke:

Yeah, the book isn’t set in 2003. The book is set in an anonymous time … People put that in there because they know that something like that happened to me. But I’m using 30 years of experience and putting it in this one fictional production that’s more like 2016 or something. It’s like I’m combining a life in the theater and turning it into this fictional production. What was your question?


Debbie Millman:

Well, really it was about how there were all of these similarities that you were using in this fictional way, and confronting so much pain both as what it felt like to me as the reader, William Harding, aka Ethan Hawke. Yes, there are certainly differences, but it felt like you were confronting a lot of the pain that you shared with your main character.


Ethan Hawke:

Absolutely. I love fiction that feels personal. There’s something about the first-person narrative. I think that I have found that using writing to make it more personal because my whole life as an actor is becoming John Brown, becoming somebody else. But writing is a place for me to explore what’s happening in this rib cage. I do the same thing with Jesse. There’s a certain Jesse in the Beforetrilogy, this character that I’ve written, and there’s certain events that do happen to me, Ethan, that I feel like belong in the universe of Jesse. Then I have this weird character of William Harding that, when I do something really stupid, I think, oh, that’s where Willie … that would be great for William to experience.


Ethan Hawke:

They’re exaggerated versions, they’re heightened situations, but they are things that are personal to me. For example, I was saying to you about the real healing power of Before Sunset, part of why I wanted to write A Bright Ray of Darkness is to explain to the reader that when acting is really working, it’s working in this dance with the audience and the author. What I was talking about with Robin Williams, there’s this healing power that can happen in storytelling. Your whole life, right? Your emotions are always in your way. You’re tripping on them. Why did I get so angry at him? Why did I say that stupid thing? Why did I start crying when my mom brought that up again? I thought I worked through that.


Ethan Hawke:

Your emotions are always in your way, and acting is this one place where you can take these feelings in your gut and you put them on stage and you put them in from the camera, and it’s not narcissism. It’s in service of the story. It’s a service of Prince [inaudible] or Jesse and Celine, or Jake in Training Day, or whatever. You’re using this well that you have. I thought, that’s what A Bright Ray of Darkness is to me, is turning something dark into something bright, and how do you do this? Yes, it’s all deeply personal to me. When I sit down with a pen and paper, this other thing happens. I just have to trust it and try to be disciplined with it and try to give the reader something worth their time.


Debbie Millman:

William also states that the public makes a big deal of acting, as if it’s the celebration of the individual, and you write how the irony is when acting is going well, it’s like the individual dissipates entirely, and nowhere in your work is that more evident than in your playing abolitionist John Brown in “The Good Lord Bird,” the seven-part Showtime series adapted from James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award–winning novel, and you have an award-nominated performance as well. You also wrote and directed this series. One thing I felt in watching this performance is when indeed Ethan Hawke does essentially disappear as he does, and you become John Brown. There seems to be so much confidence in your embodying this character, your effortless confidence in disappearing as Ethan Hawke. I’m wondering if that was even something that was intentional, if you’re even aware of.


Ethan Hawke:

I remember reading somewhere about a football coach that was just insane about making sure all the players had their shoes tied right and their laces were aligned in the right way, and people were teasing him about it. He said something about how inside every detail you can see the hole. I mentioned this to say that I’ve spent my life thinking about acting. Slowly, you start to figure out how to lace your shoes, how to wear your pants, how to learn your lines, what voice and speech is, what movement is, and you don’t learn it all at once. Some of it starts to be—if you’re building the right habits—starts to be instinctual. In reference to the novel, I’m a young writer. I’m an old man actor. But writing is still really young to me. I don’t really know what I’m doing.


Ethan Hawke:

I learned a lot on this. This new novel, for me, was all about the architecture of the novel. I started understanding what people talk about in regards to the architecture of writing. I started seeing it differently. That happened to me a long time ago with acting. I’ve “succeeded” as an actor and I’ve failed as an actor. I’ve had these experiences. Through those experiences, a confidence does arise. You learn that not everybody knows what they’re talking about, and you got to listen to the right moment and not listen at the right moment, and it’s really tough to know.


Debbie Millman:

What inspired you to make a movie about John Brown?


Ethan Hawke:

The genius of James McBride. Race in America, it’s a wound that hasn’t healed because we don’t look at it, we don’t talk about it, we keep wanting to move on as if … in the DNA structure of this country is a crime. When we don’t look at it, it doesn’t get better. My mom would say all the time, one of the great failures of her generation is she thought that when MLK was murdered, that would be the fire of which we would restructure the zoning of this country, the police of this country, the school systems of this country. She thought her generation would do that, that that’s what they were marching for. Then it all quiets down, and then we think Obama’s elected and we all like to think, well, now all this stuff is gone.


Ethan Hawke:

It’s not gone. It’s very real. But it’s very difficult to make art about it because the guilt, the fear, the shame and the anger is real. McBride writes this story. Yeah, John Brown is the main character, he’s the event of the movie, but the narrator is this young boy who John Brown thinks he’s liberating, and the kid thinks he’s kidnapped, and he puts him in a dress. At the first minute, you think you’re making this abolitionist piece and it’s going to be about Dudley Do-Right doing the right thing like you’re … John Brown’s nuts. He puts a kid in the dress and you think you’re talking about black and white, but now you’re talking about gender, and you think you’re going to talk about North and South, except John Brown hates the North as much as he hates the South.


Ethan Hawke:

Freedom for young Black men at that time didn’t look a lot better than what he was getting in the South. I mean, it’s not North, it’s not South, it’s not left, it’s not right, it’s not white and Black. It’s human, and it has all this love in it. I read this book, and I laughed my ass off. My wife said to me, “What are you laughing about?” I said, “The Good Lord Bird.” She said, “Isn’t it about John Brown?” I was like, “Yeah, how is this possible that I’m laughing?” I really wanted everyone in America to read the book. Then my wife and I started talking about, “Well, maybe we should make it a movie.” Then we met McBride, and he is one of the most gracious and … you have that fantasy when you were a kid of what it might be like to meet a great novelist.


Ethan Hawke:

You imagine meeting Tolstoy or something, how wise they would be. I want to go out to dinner with Toni Morrison. She would be so smart and discerning and say the right thing. You meet McBride, it’s like it’s OK to meet your heroes. He’s a beautiful person, and he treated me with respect and he treated my wife with respect. He treats everybody he meets with respect. I thought, I want to do whatever I can to be in a room being creative with this human being, and I’m so glad I did. Personally, I can’t believe that the movie came out. I can’t believe we made it happen.


Debbie Millman:

Well, it’s a remarkable story for our listeners that might not be aware of who John Brown is. He was a fierce opponent of slavery who was hung in 1859 after seizing an armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to spark a slave rebellion. Quite a lot of people believe that this was the first battle of the Civil War. Ethan, you know what I was thinking about as I was watching it and reading about it because I didn’t know about the book before? Why weren’t we taught more about John Brown in school?


Ethan Hawke:

The answer to that question is Black Lives Matter. It’s a big answer. You were not taught about John Brown on purpose. Because if you teach people really seriously that the Civil War, what it was about, what was happening, how African Americans in this country were being treated, and why a white Christian would want to take over the nation’s largest armory and demand equal rights for everybody, way back when, and they didn’t want to teach you about him—it was much easier to rewrite history and try to make peace and try to move on, and not really assess what was at the root of that big giant fight where so many people died.


Debbie Millman:

Well, thank you for bringing this life to work, Ethan. It’s a remarkable series. I really hope everybody listening can watch it. I have two more questions for you. The first is about the state of the world. Small question. Broadway has been dark over a year now. I read that this is the least you’ve performed in a year of your entire life since adolescence. Are you doing any performance work at all?


Ethan Hawke:

It’s hard. I just did a Zoom production of Waiting for Godot that will be available for people to stream. John Leguizamo, Tariq from The Roots, Wallace Shawn and I.


Debbie Millman:

Oh wow.


Ethan Hawke:

It’s not just the reading of it, we memorized it and perform it on Zoom. It’s crazy and nuts, but it was a wonderful way for us to feel the actor in us. I did a small part in Robert Eggers’ film, this kind of viking epic. I’ve been trying to do my thing, but that’s where perhaps this generation under me might wind up being one of the most substantive generations we’ve had since my … I always think about my grandfather having lived … he was a kid in the Depression, and he never forgot the things he learned as a kid in that era. I think a lot of young people are understanding how the NBA just doesn’t happen. The movie theaters, theater, colleges, summer camps, there’s so much to be grateful for that we didn’t even know to be grateful for in the sense of our interconnectivity and the natural world, and I think might end up hitting them in a way that escaped my generation. I’m hopeful that something good could come out of that. But certainly, the state of the world is something to talk about.


Debbie Millman:

Leads me to my last question. In A Bright Ray of Darkness you write that there must be some faulty gene in humans that motivates them to want to step out in front of 1,000 of their brothers and sisters on stage just to be judged, and that we wouldn’t do this unless we were hopelessly insecure. But as you were taking me through all of William Harding’s theatrical experiences, I realized how much he took it for granted, that we all took it for granted, that 1,000 brothers and sisters were allowed to congregate around this stage in the first place. I’m wondering if it’s changed your perspective at all. Do you still think that it’s insecurity as the motivation, or do you think it could be just a profound need to connect?


Ethan Hawke:

That part of me that’s writing William in that moment is not really my worldview. That’s the insecure, dark, broken, character version of me. It’s like a different entity. I believe in the power of connection and I believe that we all know it to be true that feeling seen is so beautiful, and feeling unseen is so hurtful. That’s what’s so important about diversity in our artforms, and from all kinds of people in every walk of life. Part of what art is supposed to do is represent our collective consciousness. It’s our collective imagination. It’s how we talk to each other and share our ideas, and it has real power. For me, I love the movies, I love them a lot, but when you’re at a concert, sweaty, and somebody rips a killer solo and you’re dancing, and you know you’ll never return to this moment, this concert, this day.


Ethan Hawke:

I mean, I remember when I first arrived in New York, I’d meet older actors and they’d be like, “I was there. Streetcar Named Desire. It was a Wednesday, I got standing room only. Brando was on fire. I think he had an erection or something.” You know what I mean? The craziest stuff comes out of people’s mouth because they were really there. They were there with the performers, and there’s this magic that happens. I remember Paul Dano and I were doing True West. I was on Broadway, whatever, I guess 18 months, two years ago now. It’s all … time is so strange. But in the silences, the lines are almost percussive. Pop, pop, pop! Pop, pop, pop! You start to hear the percussion and the silence becomes a part of the language of the play. The audience is actually participating in our rhythms, and I would get high from that. I mean it would take us, Paul and I, to new places, deeper, stronger places. I’m so sad not to be with that audience.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, I can’t wait to be back. Ethan Hawke, thank you so much for making the world a more interesting place with your work.


Ethan Hawke:

Thank you. But thanks for being so well-researched, for doing such a serious interview. That’s not easy to do. I know that.


Debbie Millman:

Thank you.


Ethan Hawke:

I really appreciate it.


Debbie Millman:

Thank you, Ethan. Ethan Hawke’s latest book is A Bright Ray of Darkness, and he could be seen on Showtime in “The Good Lord Bird.” This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman