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Cristina Cuomo | Photo: Dennis Golonka | July 29, 2014
East Hampton’s Ethan Hawke on his new movie, the meaning of time and his intense love of Long Island.
When I met Ethan Hawke 20 years ago, he was a freewheeling young guy with a love of life, writing (his first novel, The Hottest State, was already in the works), muscle cars, Bob Dylan records and deep late-night conversations at the West Village’s Corner Bistro. But of course Hawke, who was by then an established and successful performer, was also passionate about acting, especially onstage—he was running the (now-defunct) Malaparte Theatre Company he’d founded with fellow friend and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman (who Hawke has lived next door to in East Hampton for 10 years, and who’s featured in this issue’s Fictionist section).
Now 44, Hawke—onscreen this month in his latest film, Boyhood—proves his creative instincts are as strong as ever. The groundbreaking film, shot over 12 years with his close friend and frequent collaborator, director Richard Linklater, is a meditation on life, childhood, parenting and all the growing pains that come with each, and is being hailed as a cinematic triumph.
I caught up with the compellingly grounded actor and father of four, who ruminated on the dozen years that went into making this coming-of-age story and collaborative tour de force, and how the passage of time has shaped the work he does—and every other aspect of his life.
Boyhood is incredible. What a cool experience to watch the boy, played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane, grow up.
Isn’t it amazing?
I was so impressed, and moved. This film was 12 years in the making—nobody does that. You and director Richard Linklater made the three Before films—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight—and then this.
The funny thing is, we started Boyhood a year before we did Before Sunset, the second film in the trilogy. We’ve been doing this giant meditation on these life projects, using time as a kind of clay. Literature’s done it before, but to do this in cinema is thrilling.
You can’t imagine what it’s like doing a scene with a 6-year-old boy where I’m 32 years old and I take him bowling and I’m chain smoking in a GTO, then to do the last scene of the movie, where I’m 43 and he’s 18, and so much has happened in between.
It’s the only movie that I’ve ever done that isn’t like anything else.
What was it like coming back to film it every year?
I’ve known Rick [Linklater] so long that it’s a bit like being in a band. It doesn’t feel difficult at all. In this context, I know what’s required of me, and obviously this movie was different from the Before trilogy, but in a lot of ways not so different, in terms of process.
We had this wonderful period where we had the script mapped out on a two-page outline. I knew where my character was going. Rick’s father and my father are a lot alike: They’re both from Texas, and they’re both in the insurance business. Maybe that’s the root of our friendship—how we always understood each other. And we’re both relatively young parents. When my oldest was born, Rick was the only friend I had who also had a kid, his daughter, Lorelei, who’s also in the movie. I’ve known her since when she was a year old. So we were able to put a lot of what we knew about being sons and fathers into the movie. It became a little ‘crucible’ for us to work out everything we were thinking about in regard to fatherhood.
And the movie has other chapters—Rick was doing the same kind of work with [Hawke’s co-star] Patricia Arquette, regarding motherhood.
With the Sunrise series, you had an ending for each of the films. But it seems like these blocks of time really had no end—you’d leave them hanging.
We had this running title for the film, calling it The 12-Year Project. In a lot of ways, I think each of us has our own kind of ‘12-year project.’ The movie starts around the moment when you start to be cognizant of your own life. Most of us don’t have many memories pre-6 years old, pre-first grade. When you start going to school, you start to accumulate memories, and the movie follows those 12 years where you become yourself.
And so, each scene didn’t have a beginning, middle and an end because it was part of a much larger fabric, and that’s what was so hard. We spent years dreaming of what the last scene should say about that father—where that was coming to, where to set it, how to frame it. And the same with the last scene with the mother.
To be honest, I have feelings about the first couple of interviews I’ve done for this movie, and I know it’s the same with Patricia: There’s a sort of sadness setting in that we’re having to share this with other people. In the middle of this private, wonderful project, every time I’d do a play or movie, I’d be on the phone with Linklater, talking about my character, Mason Sr., and going, ‘I had this funny moment’, or I’d have a funny thing happen with my son and I’d call Rick up and say, ‘It’s interesting and relates to what we’re writing about and thinking about.’ I’m really going to miss that.
Did you have a hand in writing the film?
The film is certainly Linklater’s brainchild—he’s the only person in the world who’d have the patience, and the wisdom. A lot of people might have the idea, but to execute it the way he did, drifting the movie away from the obvious events—it doesn’t cover losing your virginity, your first kiss or when your parents get remarried.
We had this ongoing theory that those aren’t really the most important moments in your life. Society deems your 16th birthday important, but you don’t really remember it. Likewise, losing your virginity certainty isn’t the best—or most interesting—sexual experience of most people’s lives. There are other moments that are more significant in your development.
It’s like a constellation of moments. It’s very poetic in a way.
It really is. It’s a series of moments that collect into something meaningful, rather than a ‘story’ in the normal narrative sense.
And for me, it’s a really exciting thing because my parents’ divorce was an incredibly defining experience of my young life. It’s how I came to see things, and sort through my own feelings. So it’s a subject matter I’ve seen from a lot of different angles. I have a son and daughter just like Mason Sr. does, and I can relate to Mason Jr. and the issues his family’s going through. They’re things I enjoy writing and thinking about—trying to create a meaningful family life.
We’re all under duress, whether the exterior signs of pain are obvious, like when somebody loses a family member or there’s a divorce, or less obvious, like what you go through when you’re working out the inner dynamics of a marriage, or a family. The film was a place where all of us could really explore that.
How old were you when your parents got divorced?
I was 5.
So, these are literal parallels.
Yeah, very real. In a lot of ways this movie is incredibly personal to me.
How did you relate it to watching your own kids grow up?
It’s funny, my son’s going to turn 13 this year, so I’ve been working on this movie his entire life. He doesn’t know of any time I wasn’t working on The 12-Year Project.
What’s been the hardest thing about fatherhood?
My theory is that there’s nothing hard about being a father. Being a father is one of the most natural things—it’s the rest of life that’s so hard. Co-parenting, finding the right school—all of that crap is a giant headache.
But being a father is incredibly simple. I always wanted to be a father. I have four kids now—three daughters and a son.
And yet you’ve found time to do an awful lot of work, especially theater work, in your career. Do you prefer stage or screen?
The great joy for me about doing theater is that you have a level of creative freedom you can’t have in movies. As soon as a lot of money is at play, a lot of fear comes into the room. And so there’s that.
I got to do the play Coast of Utopia and be in a rehearsal room for nine months with Tom Stoppard. When I’m doing that, there’s no place else I want to be. When I’m on the set with Richard Linklater, there’s no place else I want to be. I use both the mediums to get myself into situations that are challenging and inspiring.
Speaking of which, what was it like to step into the horror film genre, which you’ve done over the past several years with Sinister, Daybreakers
and The Purge?
I have to say, I have a really strong aversion to the perspective that there’s ‘high art’ and ‘low art.’ There’s an idea in the intellectualized upper reaches of society that horror films are some lesser genre. Yet they’re incredibly popular in all kinds of urban areas where people have a lot of fear in their lives.
My first movie, Explorers, filmed when I was 13, was with the director Joe Dante, who did The Howling and Piranha. He was my first cinema teacher, and he really believed in the power of genre filmmaking—the concept that you give the people exactly what they want, but you sneak a message into it. So, instead of making some very self-important movie about race relations in America, you make, say, The Purge [Hawke’s 2013 film with director James DeMonaco], which is a fun, exciting movie that deals directly with the Trayvon Martin incident just as well as any highbrow movie could. In fact, watching that film you think more about the themes of the situation than you would watching some self-important drama that told you who was ‘right’ and who was ‘wrong.’
What are you most afraid of?
Dying. I really don’t want to die, that’s for sure.
What keeps you grounded?
My wife. It’s the most intense friendship I’ve ever known, and it’s been fantastic for me. Everything in my life works when that’s working. I’m allergic to that kind of corny dialogue, but it’s true!
You’ve had your house in East Hampton for about 10 years—why do you keep coming back?
If I think back on the most relaxing and best times of my life, I’m almost embarrassed to admit how many of them happened on Long Island.
There are a few special places in the world: the south of France, New Mexico, I hear Tibet is amazing—but I f**king love Long Island! There’s something about all these city people coming out here and turning off for a minute that I really like.
Plus, I like seeing my friends when I’m out here on vacation—that’s the fun part.