TELLURIDE — Actor Ethan Hawke is in the middle of a career high right now. In the space of a year he has been a part of two landmark films from director Richard Linklater, "Before Midnight" and "Boyhood," each of them the result of years and years of work exploring characters as they change across a wide spectrum of time. He has two films set to play the Venice Film Festival next week in Andrew Niccol's "Good Kill" and Michael Almereyda's "Cymbeline" and he's here in Telluride with his own directorial effort, an emotional documentary that is ostensibly a portrait of pianist Seymour Bernstein, but on a deeper level is an exploration by Hawke of finding satisfaction in one's art.
It's a delicate piece of work that played like gangbusters to a Telluride premiere audience Saturday, rapt as the so wonderfully well-spoken Bernstein rattled off philosophical nuggets throughout a lively Q&A. And it holds an interesting place in Hawke's filmography right, as he is absolutely an artist who has been looking for something after all these years. And as of late, he seems to be finding it.
I sat down with Hawke to discuss all of this and much more. He remains, for me, one of my favorite people to talk to in this business, ever thoughtful, a really cerebral guy who is nevertheless unaffected and never elusive, even though you can tell there is just so much going on inside his head. Read through the back and forth below.
Sundance Selects picked up "Seymour: An Introduction" ahead of the festival. It's set for release in 2015. "Good Kill" and "Cymbeline" premiere next week and "Boyhood," of course, is currently in theaters.
HitFix: You're really on a bit of a tear lately. I actually think you're an actor who keeps hustling admirably regardless, but the last couple of years in particular have felt really streaky. Does it feel that way to you?
Ethan Hawke: It feels like the best profession in my life to be in, only because I'm doing the kind of work I really want to be doing. A combination of the work with Rick [Linklater] really going over, "Before Midnight" and "Boyhood" — coming out basically within 12 months of each other. I mean, I know enough to know that the life of an actor is one of ups and downs. I find it fascinating being at this festival, hearing how brilliant Michael Keaton is in this new movie ["Birdman"], and God, actors have to suffer so much. The guy has always been brilliant. You have to kind of go out of fashion to come back in fashion. There's a scene in "Seymour" where it says "you have to have dissonance to have resolution." But yeah, it is a weird moment. I feel like I'm going to get hit by a bus or something. You know that feeling? "Who's going to come down with cancer now?"
Let's dive in with the film you have here, "Seymour: An Introduction." I was going to ask why you thought a film was a good idea but it kind of becomes obvious when you watch it. The way Seymour is so drunk on the art of music, it's rather seductive, to just hear him talk. I just want to hang out with that guy.
You know, that's why I made the documentary. It's an instinct you have. I was like, "How can I spend more time with this person?" I had this dinner with him and I had an amazing time. I came home and told my wife all about it: he was this Korean War vet, he seemed so interesting. The trouble with being an adult is if you don't work with people, it's hard to make new friends. It's hard enough to see the friends I have. And then all of a sudden this idea of this documentary came about and I thought it would probably be good. He's not wrong when he made that joke that he thinks that I just wanted to learn some things. You spend a couple years following this guy around — I mean off and on, I'd go do a project and think, "Let's go film that teaching. Let's go film that." I've heard this about documentaries, though it's a little haunting: they're never really done. You just decide to walk away at some point.
They're not really "released," they just kind of escape.
You talk in the film of how when you met Seymour, you confessed that you had been dealing with sometimes crippling stage fright as a performer in recent years. Not to pry under the hood too much, but did you figure out what was going on there? What the root of your sudden self-consciousness really was?
Well, I think it's a lot like — I started acting when I was 13. It's like I've been acting 30 years and my relation to it was changing. And I think that I didn't have a very childish relationship to it anymore. There's positive things that come from an adult relationship to your job and then there's some things you lose. There's a thing that happens: when you're young, it's so much about being promising and then comes this moment where you feel like you're supposed to deliver. And that pressure was feeling really hard on me. And it didn't matter whether it was movies or theater, I all of a sudden felt self-conscious in way I just never had, and I just felt like I was supposed to be, as I was getting older, less self-conscious. What's really nice about it was realizing that I wasn't alone. It doesn't matter what you're going through in life. Usually when you're hurting you feel like you're alone with it. And I realized that this is a pretty normal feeling for somebody that's been doing something a long time, to try to figure out what the fuck I want from it for the rest my life.