Seymour Bernstein, master pianist and renowned music teacher, ponders the link between a person and his creative self. Director Ethan Hawke, himself a creative artist, first met Seymour at a dinner party just as he was looking for meaning in his own life and craft, and the spell was cast.
Seymour is the kind of old man you could sit and listen to all day: the reminiscences are legendary, and when they’re occasionally tinged with tiny thorns or barbs or resentment or hubris, we’re reminded of his vitality, of why we’re listening to him in the first place.
Hawke has past Bernstein protogees interviewing their formidable teacher, and the result is a thoughtful piece on craft, authenticity, artistic bravery, and the thing Bernstein seems to revile the most, commercial success (he retired from a successful career in order to dedicate his life to teaching). I’m not sure if Hawke ever gets the answer to his questions on how to achieve his life’s purpose through acting, but he does come up with a work of art in the process, and I guess that’s something.
Watching this, and wondering why Ethan Hawke would be drawn to make it, has made me reflect on his career a bit. Who is Ethan Hawke? He attended Carnegie-Mellon University to study theatre for about ten minutes before landing his breakthrough role in Dead Poets Society.
aid this thing during the Q&A earlier that when you’re playing well – he’s talking about playing piano – you don’t feel like you’re playing; you feel like you’re being played. Somehow, it’s like you’re not breathing; you’re being breathed. And the first time I ever had that feeling was with Robin Williams. We had this scene, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.” And it’s etched in my brain as him standing in front of me, writing “yawp” on the chalkboard, and he said, “Todd doesn’t think he has anything of value inside him.” That scene is pretty much shot in one take. It’s cut a little bit, but Peter Weir shot it on a Steadicam spinning around us. I remember Robin hugging me after that scene was over. It’s a high I’ve been chasing the rest of my life.”
Hawke never finished his degree, but did wind up at NYU studying English before dropping out again for another part. He may not have diplomas but he did earn a Tony nomination for his work in theatre, and he published some novels, and wrote some screenplays along the way.
But mostly he’s been acting. Gattaca and Training Day are among his most-viewed, most-loved parts, but Hawke has struggled to find a place for himself outside the mainstream. “To be a contemporary movie actor, you have to kill people – that’s basically it. If you don’t cock’n’load’n’fire a Smith & Wesson at some point in your film career, you’re not going to have a film career.”
“It’s eye candy, just violence and sex. Definitely lots of sex, people making out or showing their tits, which is always fun, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I tried it – I tried doing this Angelina Jolie movie, a popcorn movie, the first movie I did that’s about nothing. And I didn’t like it, because I do ultimately feel there’s enough crap like this. It’s so much more fun and harder and more challenging to try to make something that’s entertaining but isn’t wasting your time.”
I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an Ethan Hawke fan, but I am a fan of the Before trilogy – Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, Before Midnight. Those are frequent collaborator Richard Linklater’s babies, but Hawke (along with co-star Julie Delpy) has received writing credits on the last two, and Oscar nominations for best adapted screenplay both times. I think those movies really reflect his sensibility. They’re satisfying because they’re nuanced, because the characters are fully-formed, because the dialogue feels authentic even as it’s breaking your heart.
Hawke’s IMDB list is studded with indie efforts (we saw him in Maggie’s Plan at TIFF and will see him in Born to Be Blue at Whistler Film Festival) but there’s not much in the way of directing. “Directing? You know, I don’t know that I have the necessary skill set to be a good genre director. The movies that I want to direct are too weird. We’d just turn it into an art film somehow.” So we may not see him behind the camera too often, but we’ll always have this little 90s ditty by Lisa Loeb to console ourselves with, directed by none other than Mr. Ethan Hawke.
(That’s Ethan’s cat, by the way)