Ethan Hawke on Paul Schrader’s ‘Life or Death’ Approach to ‘First Reformed’

Oscar Wrap magazine: “He was trembling the way a young artist trembles with anticipation, anxiety, fear, electrical current,” the star says of the veteran writer-director

Last Updated: January 7, 2019 @ 4:29 PM

This article about Ethan Hawke first appeared in the TheWrap Magazine’s Oscar Nominations Preview issue.

They knew it on the first day of rehearsal. Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger and Cedric Kyles had gathered to run through the script of “First Reformed” when they all noticed something about their writer-director, Paul Schrader.

“We read through the script, and Paul was trembling,” said Hawke, who plays a minister struggling with a crisis of faith after his son is killed in Iraq. “He was trembling the way a young artist trembles with anticipation, anxiety, fear, electrical current. He’s 71 and he’s made a ton of movies, and he was trembling.

“And we all looked at each other and went, ‘Wow, this is extremely important to this man.’ And that’s the way it felt on the set. He would forget to say hello, he would forget to say goodbye. It felt like life or death to him.”

“First Reformed” is the latest and one of the best of the dark and gripping dramas made by Schrader, who has never even been nominated for an Oscar despite a career that includes writing classics like “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” and directing acclaimed films like “Blue Collar,” “American Gigolo” and “Affliction.”

It also serves as the centerpiece for a hugely productive 2018 for Hawke, a past Oscar nominee for acting in “Training Day” and “Boyhood” and co-writing “Before Sunset” and Before Midnight.” The year also saw him starring in Jesse Peretz’s engaging Nick Hornby adaptation “Juliet, Naked” as Tucker Crowe, a reclusive rock star trying to atone for a wasted life; directing “Blaze,” an unconventional biopic of cult musician Blaze Foley; and appearing in and serving as a consulting producer on “The King,” Eugene Jarecki’s thoughtful and moving documentary that finds parallels between Elvis Presley and recent American history.

“First Reformed” has already won Hawke awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Gotham Awards. And he knew it was special on first reading. “You could feel that a very serious person had just worked extremely hard,” he said. “There was almost like some kind of cry coming off this script. It was coming from his heart, and you feel the same voice, the same authorship in “Taxi Driver.”

“A lot of screenplays don’t really have voice. Even good ones are plans for a party: ‘We’ll invite these people, we’ll get this, we’ll get that and maybe some magic will happen.’ But Paul’s script was meticulous. I knew that if we could raise the money and have a certain amount of talent that there was no way it would fail. I remember saying to my wife after I read it, ‘I would make this movie on an iPhone. This guy has something to say.'”

That something, Hawke said, ties into the mood in the country. “When you look out and see the void of spiritual leadership and political leadership in this country, and you’re a parent, it’s pretty easy to relate to the crisis of faith in this movie,” he said. “We made this movie in the wake of the last inauguration, and I think the whole crew — wardrobe, cast, hair and makeup, everybody — was so glad to be able to attach themselves to this because it was giving voice to something we couldn’t articulate.

“But that’s what great writing does — it’s giving voice to the truth we’re all choking on, that we really want better leadership in so many ways.”

But Hawke’s character, Reverend Toller, spends the film mired deeply in grief and loss. Was it difficult to be in that space? “The short answer is yes,” he said. “And the long answer is that I’ve started figuring out how you can go there. I saw Mark Rylance in [the play] ‘Jerusalem’ a few years ago, and I felt like I was watching Jimi Hendrix play, it was just virtuoso. And ever since then I’ve been thinking hard about how to let really dark emotions pass through you. Because if you’re really scared that they’re going to stay, then you have a weariness of getting near them, you know?

“I remember playing Ivanov [in Chekhov’s play of the same name], who kills himself at the end of the play. I really worked on believing what that would mean — you start teaching your body, you do a guided meditation on that kind of darkness, and it gets really hard to pull yourself out. I started having a really bad experience, and strangely Mark Rylance came to see the show. We talked about how the dark and light are always at play, and if you let them pass through you, you’ll go even darker and realer.”

Despite its accolades, which include Top 10 slots on the American Film Institute and National Board of Review lists of the year’s best films, “First Reformed” only made about $3.5 million at the box office, roughly the same as its budget.

“The danger with indie movies these days is that it’s never been easier to make independent films and it’s never been harder to get them seen,” Hawke said. “‘Juliet, Naked’ is a movie that 15 years ago would have made a lot of money — it’s a romantic comedy that is intelligent and thoughtful and human. And now it has trouble finding an audience.

“I got some of the best reviews in my life for ‘Blaze,’ but it’s hard to get anybody to see the movie, because there’s so much commercial entertainment being made with huge advertising budgets.”

In fact, he said that’s why he decided to make “Blaze,” which stars musician Ben Dickey as the fiercely talented but commercially unsuccessful Blaze Foley, a celebrated figure on the Austin music scene who hung around with mentors like legendary songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

“Ben’s band had broken up and he was wondering what to do, and I said to him one night, ‘Remember Blaze Foley, man — just because you don’t have a place in a commercial environment doesn’t mean your art isn’t serious or significant.’ We started laughing and playing Blaze Foley songs and I looked at him and I said, ‘You should play Blaze Foley in a movie!’ And all of a sudden that idea just took off in my brain. I tried to make a movie about music and creativity and not having a place in the commercial environment.”

He laughed. “I should have known. One of my favorite reviews said, ‘It’s probably the only country biopic that Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt would like.’ I was so proud of that — and then my wife said, ‘That probably means we’re never going to make a dime, because they never made a dime.'”

The third part of his 2018 music-movie trilogy, “The King,” came after a chance meeting with documentary director Jarecki in London. “I asked him what he was working on and he told me this thing about Elvis, not knowing that Elvis is one of my secret geek passions. I just love Elvis and I love thinking about him and I’ve meditated on the larger metaphor of his life. We talked about it so much that he was like, ‘You’ve got to be involved in this movie.'”

But as Hawke wishes for new life for “The King” and “Juliet, Naked” and “Blaze,” he hopes above all that Paul Schrader will finally be recognized by the Academy — and he knows that “First Reformed” is the film that overshadows everything else in 2018 for him. “It came out in May and here we are still talking about it,” he said. “And that’s in a climate that eats things up and spits them out, and a climate where everything seems to hero-worship the accumulation of wealth — box-office reports, what’s making money, how many hits do you have? It’s pretty staggering to be sitting here still talking about a movie about faith.”

To read more of the Oscars Nomination Preview issue, click here.Black Panther OscarWrap cover

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