Ethan Hawke long ago vowed to do whatever it took to make good art on his own terms, no matter what anyone said Image Credit: NYT

Now he’s 47, but when he was much younger, Ethan Hawke read Cassavetes on Cassavetes, the indie filmmaker bible, and then went to hear the author’s widow, Gena Rowlands, speak. She looked out at the crowd and laughed. She said John Cassavetes was always disappointed because nobody would finance his movies; he’d always felt dismissed and disregarded. “‘And now here you guys are making a big deal out of him’,” he remembered her saying. She said that was nice, but that they shouldn’t miss the point. “‘Make a big deal of yourself’. You know? Whatever indifference the world gives you, he felt it, too. So you’re just as good as he is. Like, go out and do it.”

Hawke found that so moving, the idea of ignoring what the world was telling you about yourself and instead living only by standards that you had, yourself, carefully defined for your life and work. He vowed right then that he would do whatever it took to make good art on his own terms, no matter what anyone said. He would take himself seriously, even if no one else did.

He’d had his first starring role by then — in Explorers, when he was 14. By the time he was 20, he’d already starred in White Fang and Dead Poets Society. But he didn’t just want to be a movie star. He started a theatre company in 1991 called Malaparte with his friends, but the world didn’t quite know how to react to his kaleidoscope ambitions. He debuted on Broadway in 1992 in The Seagull, and the New York Times said he played Konstantin with an “arm-waving display of unfocused nervous energy.” Variety determined that he gave the “single truly ineffective performance” in 2003’s Henry IV: “Movie actor Ethan Hawke is simply out of his depth.” Movie actor! The Chicago Tribune said his Macbeth in 2013 was a “tragic hero without drive.” I can’t even bear to print what the New York Post said about his Clive that very same year.

Anytime he showed ambition outside the avenue of mainstream matinee idoldom, it was the same thing. In 1998, The Times said of Great Expectations, “Mr Hawke seldom registers anything more interesting than astonishment at Finn’s good fortune.” Of his Hamlet in 2000, The Times wrote, “Mr Hawke’s moping slows things down too much.” Variety wrote, “This slacker prince forms a sinkhole at the centre of adaptor-helmer Michael Almereyda’s otherwise compelling contempo update.”

He wrote a novel, The Hottest State, which Kirkus determined was “clumsily written” and “takes itself very seriously.” The movie adaptation that he directed was similarly panned, with The Boston Globe writing that “Hawke has the instincts of an actor rather than a director”; The Times described it as “nearly two hours long, with a tenuous narrative continuity.”

But he never forgot Cassavetes. He never forgot that it was entirely possible that people wouldn’t appreciate your work while you were doing it. That they might appreciate it only long after you were dead. Or maybe even never! But that didn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. The critics — the ones who called him pretentious and too earnest and too overly serious for a movie star — became a force he worked in contrast to, a dark shadow that rode alongside him. He learned to defy them, if not ignore them. He learned to let them remind him what he was supposed to be, which is an artist, which is someone who tells the truth, not just a puppet who dances to please his audience in a series of films that resemble the one he just did.

He wrote two more novels, thank you very much, plus a graphic novel called Indeh about the Apache nations. He continued to mount plays. He directed a music video, then a movie, then another, thank you very much again. He helped write the sequels to Before Sunrise — Before Sunset in 2004, while his own marriage to Uma Thurman was “collapsing and I took all of that and put it into that movie”; and Before Midnight in 2013. He earned Oscar nominations for best adapted screenplay for both, thank you very much.

But it almost didn’t matter by then. By then he’d learned to metabolise the criticism as something else. He remembers when his mother read the first draft of The Hottest State, she said, “It’s not Chekhov, but it’s a start.” He thought that was a nice way of looking at it. “The subtext of that is it’s OK to try to be Anton Chekhov, and if no one tries to be, no one will be.” He didn’t win the best supporting actor Oscar in 2002 when he was nominated for Training Day. But Denzel Washington whispered into his ear right there in the seat next to him that losing was actually a good thing. “‘You know, you don’t want to win that, man. Wait until they give it to you because they have to. You want to win because the work demands it’.” He was years away from the kind of unequivocal, unsurprised accolades that would accompany his performance in Boyhood and now First Reformed. Back then, he liked the idea that he was in training, that he was at the beginning, that the world wanted him to do only what he was expert at, but that his goals were bigger and that no one would really understand until he finally arrived, however and whenever and ifever that happened.

He was thinking of Cassavetes again when, last summer, a film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real that he was set to direct got delayed temporarily after an actor pulled out. Hawke was left with nine free months on his hands. He had nothing to do, and let’s just say he’s not the kind of guy who should be left with nothing to do for that many months.

But he’d had this idea for a while. He’d been wanting to write and direct a movie about Blaze Foley, the barely known country singer who died in 1989. Foley devoted his life to music, but was wary of the way commerce could corrupt it. Hawke loved that — he loved the story of a man who battled the questions of how an artist is supposed to exist in the world, and whether making art for its own sake can ever be rewarding enough (and rewarded enough) to forgo fame — or if celebrity is necessary to continue doing what you love. This was basically all he ever thought about anyway. His wife, Ryan Hawke, suggested that he look at Camino Real’s delay as a blessing. Maybe this was the chance to make the Blaze Foley movie.

As it happened, one of Ryan Hawke’s childhood friends was married to Ben Dickey, a folk musician who bore a strong resemblance to Foley. Back during New Year’s 2016, Ethan Hawke and Dickey had been drinking, and Dickey pulled out a guitar and began to sing the Blaze Foley song Clay Pigeons. He was sad; his own band was dead, and he sang it in a particular, mournful way, and it was as if Blaze Foley himself were in that room. That night, Hawke asked if he’d ever consider starring in a movie about Foley. Dickey hadn’t acted before, but yes, he’d do it.

Hawke wrote the screenplay with Sybil Rosen, Foley’s former romantic partner, and the author of a memoir of her time with him, Living in the Woods in a Tree. They shot the film, a “gonzo country-western opera,” as Hawke called it, last summer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They’d find old cars driving through town, and they’d give the drivers $50 to drive back and forth through a scene so that they’d have 1982 Cutlasses in the background of a shot. He bought a 1973 pickup truck that they’d drive to the set every day in case of a problem — if you look in the background the truck “drives through the movie about 90,000 times.”

He wanted the set to feel like a Sunday afternoon, where you wake up late and decide to “listen to music and watercolour while you watch a football game or something like that.” He wanted the stakes to feel low even though they weren’t. He told Dickey that they’d be spending the first week just doing screen tests, and Hawke would let the camera run while Dickey and Alia Shawkat, who played Rosen, sat and talked. But they weren’t screen tests. Hawke was making his movie.

Blaze started playing festivals this year. The early reviews are truly golden: “Blaze is more affecting than most other live-hard/die-ugly music biopics,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter. “Hands down the best movie of its kind since Inside Llewyn Davis,” wrote RogerEbert.com. No one was saying that he was taking himself too seriously this time; no one was asking why an actor had such outsized ambition.

Over the years, he’d somehow worn his critics down with his earnestness and his dedication and his sincerity — the same things that caused the ridicule in the first place. Then there was the patronising surprise that the acting, the directing, the writing wasn’t as bad as one would imagine. And now — now! Now here he was, a nearly 100 per cent surefire Oscar contender for his performance as a pastor in this spring’s First Reformed, the kind of role he would never even dream of asking to audition for 10 years ago. Blaze is entering theatres attached to early reviews that offer no qualifiers when they mention their admiration for it and its director.

By the time he sat down with me in July at a restaurant in Brooklyn, near his home, he didn’t even have to appear in his own movie to get it into festivals. His pursuits had become markedly unchallenged. He was able to do the work he wanted to do without any resistance. The battle that defined the first part of his life was won. And Hawke, with no tide to fight against, found himself happy and satisfied. Maybe. OK, not truly. Because if he was honest, well, now what?

Dead Poets Society wasn’t his first movie, but it was the one that made him a star: 1989, 18 years old, and the offers just start coming in. He drops out of college. He does Mystery Date. He announces that he’s going to start Malaparte. He does A Midnight Clear. He’s going to use the money from those movies to mount a newly translated Pirandello play. His mother, who had him when she was 18 in Austin, Texas, and raised him herself from a young age on the East Coast, worked so hard to give him a chance at life — she can’t stop crying. Sure, she’s supportive, but all she ever wanted was his solvency, and he’s putting the first money he’s earned into the paper shredder known as off-off-Broadway. She doesn’t understand that he was balancing out his universe with the necessary corrections that a handsome (he will only cop to “photogenic”) man with a soul must make.

He has the 20-something actors he needs for the play. Thing is, they need a man in his 50s. Someone suggests Austin Pendleton, one of the “magic elves that run through the bloodstream” of the theatre world in New York. He’d worked with Orson Welles and Olympia Dukakis and Blythe Danner. So Pendleton agrees to do it, and Hawke watches his process and his performance. He learns something from Pendleton for sure that he’d only guessed at instinctively: that there is the true value of a performance, and that value is wildly overinflated when you’re extremely good-looking and have a few hits behind you.

He’s just real, Hawke said now. “He’s a real actor. And when you listen to him talk about art and the value of performance and what it means when you can be a part of this other realm where consciousness exists and it actually doesn’t matter whether it’s Madison Square Garden or a 90-seat house, or whether it’s published in a ‘zine or at Random House. It doesn’t matter. Ideas have energy and meaning. It was really inspiring.”

He thanked Pendleton for helping him out and teaching him, and went off to make more movies, but he couldn’t shake the guilt he was left with. “And then you” — meaning him — “go get paid $100,000 for your next movie and he’s” — meaning someone like Pendleton — “still got a kid and a wife and is off doing Richard III in some little basement church theatre. It’s hard not to have guilt. You know? It’s hard not to go like, [expletive] me, life is not fair. Like, here’s this guy I just learned so much from and now I’ve got a savings account.”

He couldn’t get Austin Pendleton — and the Austin Pendletons of the world — off his mind. There was something enviable about creating art without introducing wholesale commerce into it — doing what you wanted to do in front of as large an audience as possible before the audience and conditions compromise the work. You can be a rock star playing stadiums, or you can be someone playing his guitar in the subway station. “And you can play for people, and some businessman stops and he sits there and cries while he listens to the song you wrote, and it’s a meaningful exchange. You’ve made your art.”

He wanted to live a life like that, but by then he had a wife (then an ex-wife) and two children. Then he had a second wife and two more children. He had alimony and tuition and nannies and a brownstone. He had opportunities that Pendleton perhaps never had, and what good would it do to cast them aside in favour of a more monastic artist’s existence?

Richard Linklater, who directed Hawke in Boyhood and the Before trilogy, said Hawke has had this instinct since the earliest days of his career. When he was casting Before Sunrise, he remembers that Hawke was “really at that moment getting offered everything from Hollywood, but here he is talking to an indie film guy about going to Vienna and doing a film for no money, super-low budget, that he thinks probably won’t work, and would take a huge effort to make it work as a film. Ethan has turned down a lot of fame, in Hollywood terms.”

Every role he took, he took for a reason. He knew there was something about Troy Dyer in Reality Bites that was irresistible to both men and women. He knew Training Day was a great script and would be big — it was; and, of course, there was his hero, Washington.

For First Reformed, he wanted to work with Paul Schrader, plus have the “opportunity to do a serious portrait of a religious person.” He took the role of a faded rock star in this summer’s Juliet, Naked — “Troy Dyer looks at 50,” he calls it — out of something of a career-long gripe about Nick Hornby adaptations: “Well, first of all, I really wanted the part in About a Boy, and I didn’t get it, and second of all, I really wanted the part in High Fidelity, and I didn’t get it, and I felt like I was right for Nick Hornby. I know About a Boy turned out great, and I know Hugh Grant’s great, but I would’ve crushed that part.” So with Juliet, he was finishing out a grudge.

By the time 2012 came along, and Anthony Lane, the New Yorker movie critic whom he admires, wrote a nasty review of Sinister, saying not a bad word about Hawke — in fact, he talked about how such a terrible movie is unfair to someone with the kind of talent Hawke has — he no longer cared what people thought of his trajectory. He thought he’d like to go to dinner with Lane and ask him, “Do you know it is hard to grow up?” What was Lane doing with his life that’s so interesting? Did Lane know how many people told Hawke how much joy that movie gave them? How could Lane not notice the thread that all the projects had in common was that he never phoned in a performance, that he brought the same work ethic to everything, no matter how high or low? How could Lane not know it’s all worth taking seriously? What is more serious than art? What is more serious than a person?

See, he finally figured out how to exist as an artist in contrast to the noise, just the way he wanted to. But just like that, the minute he figured it all out, it changed again.

When Hawke turned 40, he began to experience “crippling” bouts of stage fright. He didn’t really understand why, except that he knew it was related to his age. He was a literal child in 1985 when he filmed Explorers. He was no longer the youngest person in the room. He wasn’t the oldest, either. He didn’t know what he was.

That’s when he met Seymour Bernstein, who had been a friend’s piano teacher. Hawke told him about his stage fright. He told Hawke, “Most artists are not nervous enough. You’re reaching a point where now your awareness of death is increased at such a point that you are aware, painfully aware, of how important this moment is. This, you will never return to right now, and if this doesn’t go well, it matters.”

Later, Bernstein invited Hawke and his oldest child, Maya, to hear him play, just the two of them. And Hawke sat there, unable to believe that this beautiful music was being played just for them. Yes, he thought. Art should be made for art’s sake. But more people should hear this. More people should be exposed to it. He decided to work through his issues about fame and performance and aging by making a documentary about Bernstein and particularly his decision to fade from public life just at the moment when fame was upon him — not unlike Foley, who sabotaged his own chances at fame and compensation for his art just at the moment when it was starting to work out for him. And yet, Hawke’s instinct with both men was to make them famous. Maybe art should be seen by as many people as possible.

He emerged from Seymour: An Introduction with a new understanding. The questions about his pursuit of money and his acceptance of fame — the way he was haunted by Austin Pendleton and Seymour Bernstein and was just starting to think about Blaze Foley a lot — he realised those questions weren’t the obstacle to his life as an artist but the cause of his life as an artist, and of his art. It was the burning question in him that fuelled his best filmmaking.

–New York Times News Service