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Ethan Hawke on Paul Newman, Marvel and What’s Wrong With Today’s Movies

Karlovy Vary Film Festival: ”Paul Schrader says a really great movie starts when you walk out of the theater, but most contemporary movies end when the credits roll,“ says the actor

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Ethan Hawke came to the Karlovy Vary Film Festival to receive the President’s Award and to show Paul Schrader’s masterful 2017 film “First Reformed,” a dark drama in which Hawke gives one of his finest and most complex performances as a former military chaplain fighting despair.

But the actor also came to the Czech town at an extraordinarily busy time in his career: The past several years have seen the four-time Oscar-nominated actor and writer acting in “First Reformed,” “Juliet, Naked,” “The Truth” and “Stockholm,” among others; directing “Blaze,” a sharp and lyrical film about cult musician Blaze Foley; acting in and producing the massive Showtime miniseries “The Good Lord Bird”; releasing his first novel in 20 years, “A Bright Ray of Darkness,” and collaborating with Greg Ruth on the graphic novel “Meadowlark: A Coming of Age Crime Story.”

He also has a voiceover role in Antoine Fuqua’s drama “The Guilty,” which will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next week; and bigger parts in Scott Derrickson’s Blumhouse horror-thriller “The Black Phone,” “The Lighthouse” director Robert Eggers’ period drama “The Northman,” the Marvel limited series “Moon Knight” and the “Knives Out” sequel.

He sat down with TheWrap to talk about some of those projects, and about a career that began 37 years ago, when he was 15 years old.

It seems natural to look back when you get a career achievement award of sorts — so I’m wondering how your priorities for what you want to do in your career have changed over the years.
My life has happened a lot faster than I anticipated, meaning I’m shocked to find how interested I am in the same things I was when I was younger. I remember the first film festival I went to was the Venice Film Festival with “Dead Poet’s Society.” Watching a community of people celebrate film in that way, it’s so different than the marketplace. There’s this feeling, especially in America, that everything’s publicity and sales. And you get to a film festival and it feels more like a celebration of movies. And that, to me, is just more interesting.

It’s like it’s the one place where the metric is not accumulation of wealth. There’s great respect and reverence for films that are never going to make any money. And I enjoy that game — it changes the playing field and creates a different set of rules that I think are more ambitious and more exciting. There’s a great Flannery O’Connor line, “I’d rather have one reader in a hundred years than a hundred today.” And film festivals are about, “What actually is happening right now that is worth talking about and remembering?”

I feel as if the act of traveling somewhere to see movies changes things. You end up with a line around the theater to see a movie that probably most of those people wouldn’t go see if it was playing at their local multiplex.
Yeah. Right before the pandemic started, I was a juror at Sundance. It had been a long time since I had seen 16 movies in eight days, but when I was younger I used to do that all the time. I watched two or three movies a day for weeks on end. I found it unendingly interesting, but life happens and you get busy.

And that’s what I mean when I say that time has happened faster than I thought. I remember when I first started, I assumed that by midlife, I would go into another profession. I couldn’t imagine still being an actor. I guess it’s a little bit like sex: You think you might get bored of it, but it just keeps being interesting.

In recent years, you’ve been involved in a string of really interesting projects — movies like “First Reformed,” which is showing in Karlovy Vary, but also “Juliet, Naked” and the film you directed, “Blaze,” and the limited series “The Good Lord Bird,” and now a string of films that’ll be coming out in the next year. Plus your third novel …
I’ve just always put one foot in front of the other, just trying to keep moving. Sometimes I feel like a cat, you know, just trying to stay alive. But one of the things that’s happened in the way the film business has changed is that independent movies take so much less time to make. When I was younger, it’d be a big deal if you made two movies in a year, but that was because most movies took about four or five months to make, you know. We shot “First Reformed” in five weeks. We shot “Juliet, Naked” in six weeks.

I did the Robert Eggers film (“The Northman”) this year, which was the first film in a while that I’ve done that was really big. Robert really strives for a level of excellence that’s really exciting. It was one of the rare times where you’re making an independent movie that has a real budget around it, so he was able to work at a pace that was more like it was when I started.

I thought “The Lighthouse” was amazing …
It was a masterpiece.

… and this one doesn’t seem as if it’s going to feel any smaller than that.
No, no. It’ll feel a lot bigger than that, but it’s just as adventuresome. I mean, who knows? What’s fun about Robert is he goes and dances out on the edge. I have no idea if it’ll work, but it was certainly thrilling to be a part of.

When you’re doing something like that, do you really not have a sense as to what it’s going to look like or how it’s going to work?
In my heart, I have clues, but it seems arrogant to suppose that, you know. I’ve never thought I was doing something interesting and then it turned out not to be interesting. Take a movie like “Gattaca,” for example. I love that movie. And I felt confident when we were doing that movie that it was worth watching, that it was going to be extremely interesting. And then it came out and people didn’t like it and didn’t respond. But eventually, they did.

And the same with “Before Sunrise.” There’s a lot of movies I’ve done that in their first brush with the public, they’re kind of met with indifference. But it just takes time for them to find their audience. It’s funny, recently I’ve been getting a lot of nice feedback about “Juliet, Naked.” Nobody paid much attention to it when it came out, and over the pandemic, I got a lot of emails from people who I guess they got bored of watching certain things and were looking for something else and they found it and they enjoyed it. It’s always fun to watch that happen.

The last time we spoke, after “First Reformed,” I think you said that it’s never been easier to make an independent movie, and it’s never been harder to get people to watch it.
It’s so true. Even “First Reformed” — without the journalists, that movie would have been lost. It’s so hard to compete in this atmosphere. You know, what Paul (Schrader) says, which I think is brilliant and true, is there are so many movies now that do all the work for you. They don’t ask much of the audience, and that can create an audience that can be resentful when they get asked something, even though the joy of being a filmgoer is participating.

You know, when you watch “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” it doesn’t do all the work. It invites you into a dialogue. What does it mean when the chief throws the sink through the window? I don’t know, but you feel something and you can talk about it. Paul says a really great movie starts when you walk out of the theater, but most contemporary movies end when the credits roll. It’s over and you’re never going to think about that again.

Some footage from the Blumhouse movie “The Black Phone” was shown at Cinema-Con recently, and word is that you scared the hell out of people who saw it.
One of the jobs of an actor, probably the biggest part of my job, is deciding what to do and how to do it. And helping filmmakers that you believe in get their work made is a big part of what we do. Scott (Derrickson) taught me a lot about movies. My first experience was with Joe Dante (in 1985’s “Explorers”), who’d come out of Roger Corman. And before Quentin Tarantino, Joe was the biggest film geek of all time. And he taught me at a young age that there’s no difference between high and low art. It’s just about, are you working hard? Do you love what you do? Do you care about every frame and are you sewing secrets into it?

Scott, I had a great experience on (2012’s) “Sinister” with him, and I wanted to help him get “The Black Phone” made. And I’m glad that people freaked out over the trailer.

You know, I feel like when all is said and done, as an actor, I have these little boxes I want to check. Can you make a great Western? Can you make a great romance? Can you make a great art film? Can you make a great horror movie? Can you make it a great comedy? I love putting myself inside different genres to try to create a larger life’s work.

And now you’re in the Marvel universe in “Moon Knight.”
Yep. If you were an actor in the ’50s, you know, they made Westerns. If you’re an actor in the 2020s, you’ve got Marvel. And I’m really fortunate because we’re dealing with a story that doesn’t have a lot of ancillary baggage. If you play Spider-Man or Batman, they’ve got so much baggage and the audience have such expectations. It’s like playing Hamlet — you can’t play it in a vacuum. You’re playing it in relationship to the other Hamlets. Whereas with “Moon Knight,” people don’t know much about it. It doesn’t have a lot of baggage. Oscar (Isaac) is giving an absolutely phenomenal performance, and it feels exciting to be a part of it with him.

So you’re not really playing a known character within the Marvel universe?
Yeah, it’s … (Pauses) I’ve signed 10,000 NDAs and they give me a hard time anytime I say anything about it. They’re very secretive about it. They like to create a lot of anticipation. But I understand why people love working for them. They’re extremely active, friendly. They do good world-building and create space for actors. If you want to play, they want you to play.

Are you looking for more things to produce and direct? I know you spent a long time producing “The Good Lord Bird,” which felt massive.
After “Blaze,” that was my life’s project. About four years of my life went into “The Good Lord Bird.” I love that so much. And to be honest with you, I’ve been trying to put myself back together after that experience. I need a little time to figure out where to put my energy, because all my energy went to that.

I’m doing a documentary right now about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. That’s been my pandemic project, and I’ve been pouring myself into that. I turned 50 and it seems like a really fun moment to step back for a second and study two people that did my profession as well as it could be done. It’s very rare to have really long careers and sustain a level of excellence over a long period of time without giving in to the vanities of the profession or becoming jaded. Life beats so many people up — through success, through failure, through indifference, whatever. There’s so many variables, all of which can lead you to self-loathing. And those two stayed alive and figured out how to give back and how to have a family.

It’s been one of the biggest endeavors I’ve ever had, trying to make sense out of such a big narrative. I mean, you can make a documentary about what happened at the Actors Studio. It’s hard to imagine Paul Newman, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Geraldine Page and Marilyn Monroe in the same acting class. They changed storytelling, and then the rest of their lives could have vibrated off that moment.

I really want to make it for the people who are my age and older. I think it would mean a lot, because their legacy is kind of turned into philanthropy, and you forget what massive artists they were. I mean, Newman, in the height of his life, was about as big as the Beatles. You couldn’t be a bigger cinema icon than him, and yet his giving overshadowed it. And then to have “The Verdict,” “The Color of Money” and “Nobody’s Fool” in the final act of his work life — three of his greatest performances happened in the last chapter. So for a guy like me, you can imagine that’s an exciting thing to think about.