Film

Ethan Hawke Goes to Church

‘I’m interested in our inner life, and why we’re born and why we die and what we’re doing here. So for me, that’s religion.’

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In First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a pastor at a small, sparsely attended church in Albany County, New York. At the film’s start, Toller — a relative newcomer to the church, and one who is still smarting from a painful past — decides that for one year he will keep a diary, which he dubs a “form of prayer.” When a pregnant congregant named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to him with concerns about her husband, an eco-activist who cannot imagine bringing a child into what will soon become of this world, Toller himself becomes consumed with images of the Earth’s destruction. Voice reviewer Alan Scherstuhl called the film “volatile, enraging, entrancing.”

At 47, Hawke is three decades into his career, and has been an active member of New York’s theater scene, both as a director and actor. He’s also written three novels, made a documentary about the classical pianist Seymour Bernstein, and raised a few kids. The Voice spoke to Hawke about his intense new film, what it means to be a religious person, and why Wall-E is a “total masterpiece.” 

So this movie was a nice light romp.

A little light fare, sure. Just a little pick-me-up.

Hey, it’s summer! No, it is a very heavy movie. It gives you a lot to think about. What was your initial reaction when you read this script?

My first reaction was how few scripts I read are really the work of a writer. When you read Paul Schrader’s script, he’s given voice to something that’s on the tip of all of our tongues. The movie is giving voice to this anxiety I think I was feeling inside but didn’t have any way to articulate. And this character made it manifest. It was so exciting — most scripts you read are kind of like plans for a party. “We’ll invite some musicians and maybe we’ll all wear red and it’ll be really cool.” Sometimes they turn into really good movies — it’s just a different way of working. But Paul is such a writer. He’s just meticulous, and you feel it off the page — the ideas, the themes, the depth of vision, the way that no character is one thing. It’s just fascinating, and the second I put it down I knew I wanted to do it.

A lot of the movies you’re best known for — the Before trilogy, Boyhood, Reality Bites — are much looser than First Reformed.

You’re really aware while you’re watching it that the architecture has been carefully built. No shot seems like it could’ve possibly gone on a second longer or cut a second sooner. It’s made with a razor blade. Those other movies you cited, they build a lot of energy around the feeling of improvisation, whereas this movie is almost like a Nabokov short story, where every paragraph, he cares how many d’s he uses versus how many f’s he uses.

At the same time, one thing that seems to connect a lot of your characters is that they’re all fairly passionate people who want to live a life of meaning. Is that something you’ve consciously gravitated toward?

That’s interesting, I bet you’re right. When you read a script you have to decide whether or not you see yourself in this world and in that skin. People like that appeal to me, even if they’re lost or misguided or depressed, or they’re a good guy or a bad guy. But if they’re passionate, and are feeling things deeply, I can relate to them, maybe, and feel like I can play them.

In reading interviews you’ve given over the years, you strike me as a much more spirited and generally hopeful person than Reverend Toller.

Yeah, for sure.

Was it difficult to inhabit such a dark soul for the duration of filming?

A few years ago I really tried to give myself an education and I did Chekhov’s first play, Ivanov, and I did Brecht’s first play, Baal, and I did Shakespeare’s Macbeth, all within about a two-year period of time. It was really a meditation on darkness — Ivanov’s suicidal, Baal doesn’t think life is worth living, and Macbeth sets himself on fire. It was a really interesting period as an actor. It prepared me for this. Figuring out how to embody this [darkness] and let it penetrate you and bounce off your spirit, but not stay. As I get older, that’s more and more interesting to me. If you ever get a chance, there’s a really interesting Philip Seymour Hoffman interview, it’s one of the last interviews he gives. He had actually just seen me in Ivanov, and someone sent it to me and I watched it. He liked the play so much, and it’s such a portrait of depression. It’s very telling — you can see what place his head is in during this interview. And Toller is in a very similar place. He’s very, very sad.

When you’re playing a part like that, do you feel the need to do something to step out of that heaviness during filming, or do you feel like it’s better to stay in that place, even when the cameras are turned off?

I think if you’re good at my job, a lot of it starts to happen on an intuitive level. You have to believe yourself as the character. If you don’t believe yourself, I think the audience knows it. More and more in contemporary acting, you see a kind of winking going on from young people. I see it a lot, and it’s never interested me. I always love those performances where you just really believe the person. You can smell Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. You just believe him completely, and I love that.

There are certain things you can do to break that spell, and break your own imaginative power. Take Sally Hawkins, for example. Her imaginative power is so strong it’s actually contagious. You see it in her eyes, and it takes you into that world. You just believe — that world becomes real because she believes it’s real. There are certain actors that when they exit the frame or exit the stage, you know they’re going into another room. And there are certain people, you can see the slate. You can tell that when they exited, they picked up their phone. Only you know what you can do that violates that, the integrity of the character that you’re playing.

Are you a religious person yourself?

Yeah, definitely. I think that word has different meanings to different people. You take a word like God, and some people will roll their eyes and think you believe in Santa Claus, and for some people it’s a creative well and spirit of the universe that’s ever-recycling renewable energy. These words are so flexible that they’re inaccurate. I’m super interested in our inner life, and why we’re born and why we die and what we’re doing here. So for me, that’s religion.

Maybe spiritual is a better term.

But even that has kind of a New Age [connotation]. That’s what’s so hard about making a spiritual film. Literature loves spiritual life. There are countless books that deal with faith and spiritual longing and spiritual crises and existential thought. But film, it’s harder to get inside people, it’s very difficult to make a good spiritual film, and I think that’s why Paul took it so seriously. He’s really trying to slow your brain down — he calls it “the scalpel of boredom.” It’s that silence where a spiritual life really begins.

I don’t know how long ago this movie was put into motion, but did the current state of the country factor into your decision to take on this role?

The crisis with the environment and the crisis with religious, spiritual leadership in this country didn’t begin with Donald Trump. They’ve certainly been made more odious and hideous with his presence. We were performing this movie in the days of the inauguration. It was written when Obama was president. It’s beyond political viewpoints. If you look at Bergman’s Winter Light, the character [who is a pastor] has a very similar crisis worrying about nuclear war. Good art vibrates and speaks to the time period it’s in, but hopefully it’s not defined by its pop-culture moment.

The movie feels timely in how it captures this feeling of anguish and guilt and alarm that I think a lot of people are experiencing right now.

It’s a cry, in a way. That’s what I felt when I first read the script — that’s why I said he gives voice to something we’re all trying to say or yell or shout. “What the fuck is going on?” What I like about the movie is, it’s not like Reverend Toller has the answers. It’s so much more complicated than that dualistic thinking — we’re always being told it’s one thing or the other.

You mentioned that a lot of young performers these days seem to be almost winking. Everyone is so conscious of themselves in this day and age, it’s hard to just focus on the work and not think about what you look like to everyone around you.

I think that’s exactly what I’m talking about, is the self-awareness that’s come with our phones — people photographing everything all the time, trying to control their image and trying to have a brand and all these expressions that you hear that are peculiar to a more control-oriented approach. What I always loved growing up were Seventies soul singers. I always wanted to put soul into a performance, whatever that word means — some blood, some piss. And something about our phones — even when I was talking earlier about the smell of it, does it smell real. A good piece of music’s got a smell to it — it smells sweaty. I love that. We’re trying to get rid of the dirty parts, or if they are dirty, we try to make money off them, and it ruins it.

I hate how everything is a touch screen and you can’t press a button. I miss buttons.

That’s exactly my point.

If you were coming up now as a young actor, do you think you would’ve been discouraged by all the noise of social media and branding and self-promotion?

People have to find their way through it. Every generation has its peculiar riddles, and great work is gonna get made. People are going analog again, making black-and-white movies, and there’ll be buttons again.

Your daughter Maya is in the new PBS adaptation of Little Women, and she’s going to be on the next season of Stranger Things. Did you try to stop her?

I definitely didn’t try to stop her because she’s sincere. She believes, and she really wants to contribute. And she has soul. I see that in my daughter and I see it in her friends, too, so I know that it’s possible. I’m excited for her, but we’re just eyeballing the enemy.

Who’s the enemy?

The enemy is homogenization and the lack of soul, the commercialization of everything — making everything about greed and money and defining ourselves by public opinion. The best movie I saw in a long time is that movie Wall-E. I constantly think about those people that don’t even have digits on their hands, and they’re just sitting in these floating machines, watching videos and drinking smoothies and pressing buttons, and the computer has a soul. It’s like we’re ceding our humanity. I’ve watched that movie a lot, and I just think it’s a total masterpiece.

Or that scene from The Matrix where you see all the people plugged into that tower. I think about that scene all the time.

I keep checking the back of my head to see if there’s a wire in there.

But it’s not young people I worry about. I don’t worry that this generation is missing something innate that another generation had.

No, I don’t either. It’s just the world they’re living in. If you think about it, there’s probably been more pictures taken in the last eighteen months than the previous hundred years. That is going to have an impact on our psyche. It’s seeing yourself in the third person, and it’s destructive. That’s what is fun about working with an old lion like Paul Schrader. He just doesn’t think like that.

I wonder if that’s also why you’ve stayed so connected to the theater scene here.

Well, that’s exactly what we’re talking about. Film is so instantly nostalgic, whereas theater is all about the present moment. “Did you see Neil Young at Irving Plaza in ’73? I was there!” You can’t download that, and it’s about being alive. That’s what I love about theater. People who saw Phil Hoffman in Death of a Salesman, that’s a special evening, because he was there. And he’s not here anymore. It’s beautiful because it lives in the now. That’s what I try to create in front of the camera.

Do you see a lot of theater in New York?

If anybody’s looking for something to see, the greatest thing I’ve seen in a long time is this new revival of Stoppard’s Travesties. It’s unbelievable. It’s everything anybody ever wanted from cocaine. You can just go watch Tom Stoppard. He gives it to you naturally.

How do you keep things interesting this long into your career, and once you’ve reached your level of success? How do you keep up that sense of curiosity?

I’ve always done it by doing different things. Cultivating that beginner’s mind — making a documentary, doing a graphic novel, acting in a movie, acting in a play, directing a movie. It’s always the arts and it’s always storytelling, but I give myself a different seat at the table. It makes you humble, because you don’t know what you’re doing, and it makes you curious and excited. Then I come back to acting with a new energy. I’ve gotten to work with Tom Stoppard, I’ve gotten to work with Paul Schrader — people who are in another room. They’re really mastering the profession, and it makes one excited about getting older, because I want to be in that room. It’s not a superficial room.

You’ve said that you and Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy would revisit the Before trilogy five years later each time. It’s been five years since Before Midnight came out, so… 

I’ll tell you that Richard Linklater called me while we were on the phone together. I will say that every other time we’ve done one, we’ve revisited it five years [after the last film came out], that’s when the next one started. So if it’s going to happen it should happen soon, but I don’t know. There’s something about those three movies that speak to each other in a way that I find really interesting. It feels complete to me. I love the ending of Before Sunset, it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever been involved in. But it does beg for another movie, it begs for it. Whereas the ending of Before Midnight speaks to the beginning of Before Sunrise, where it opens with a couple in their forties on a train fighting. And then we’ve become that couple. It has a sense of completion to me.

Don’t do it unless it’s gonna be amazing! Don’t ruin a good thing!

That’s the way I feel. Those three experiences were three of the best of my life.

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