Ethan Hawke On Directing 'Blaze,' Acting In 'Juliet, Naked,' And Earning The Best Reviews Of His Career For 'First Reformed' [Interview]

Even without taking into account his 30-plus-year acting career—highlighted by performances in Dead Poets Society, Reality Bites, Training Day, and Richard Linklater's Before trilogy—Ethan Hawke has had a hell of a 2018, which technically began a year ago at the Venice Film Festival), where writer-director Paul Schrader's First Reformed premiered, featuring a career-best performance from Hawke. The film wasn't officially released until May 2018, and just recently came out on home video.

Currently, Hawke has two more films making their way across the country in limited release, both of which debuted at the year's Sundance Film Festival—one he stars in (Juliet, Naked) and one he directed (Blaze). (We could also throw in his extensive interview about Elvis Presley's flawed acting career in director Eugene Jarecki's documentary The King, which came out earlier this summer.) Produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Jesse Peretz, Juliet, Naked is the story of a British woman (Rose Byrne) whose boyfriend (Chris O'Dowd) is obsessed with a reclusive singer who had one of the great broken-heart records decades earlier. When Bryne's character lashes out at a record label releasing demos for said record as being a lame cash grab, the long-silent musician (Hawke) writes her an email confirming her suspicions, and the two begin an online correspondence that has the potential for something more, if for no other reason than it drags him out of hiding. Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, the film is charming, funny and gives Hawke the chance to use images of himself from younger days in very amusing ways.

Helmed by Hawke, Blaze is a passionate, fiery biopic of Austin-based musician Blaze Foley (played by real-life musician Ben Dickey), who is largely unknown as a recording artist but played a legendary show at the Austin Outhouse, which serves as the framework for telling his life story, which includes a marriage to Sybil Rosen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hawke, based on her memoir; she's played by Alia Shawkat in the movie. The film is part reality, part legend, part remembrance (primarily by Foley friend Townes Van Zandt, portrayed by musician Charlie Sexton). It's an extraordinarily moving work that makes a case that Foley should have had a much more prominent influence as a songwriter and performer, if he hadn't self destructed so spectacularly.

/Film spoke with Hawke recently about the work he's done in the last year (and not so much about his feelings on superhero movies), why he chose such an unusual way to tell Blaze Foley's story, and his unexpected reaction to looking at a wall full of photos of a younger him for Juliet, Naked.


I saw it at Sundance and like it quite a bit, but I just re-watch Juliet, Naked recently and think I may have even liked it more the second time around. Chris O'Dowd is such a son of a bitch in the movie, but I bet a lot of people who are fans of something passionately will identify with his character a great deal.

He is actually the heart of the film, because the essence is, in loving something that much, you win. I don't know, there's something beautiful about him; it's a classic Nick Hornby character, isn't it? I'm such a fan. He love music more than he loves his own life, that's the problem. He has that incredibly funny line about a plumber doesn't need to know about water to be good at his job. His whole speech to us in the kitchen is my favorite scene in the movie.

His last line in that scene about not caring what you think about your music is such a slap in the face.

I know, that's why I love it. "It means a lot to me." Totally.

Speaking of loving music, having spent so much time in Austin over the last 20 years, I know people who love that live recording that Blaze Foley did at the Outhouse. Give me a little bit of your history with him. How did you first hear him? What was your reaction? When did you start to hear the stories.

If you love the outlaw country-western scene—Willie, Merle, Kris—his name sneaks out of corners from the people who hold themselves experts. It took me years to figure out who he was. When the internet didn't exist, he was really gone. It was tough. Sometimes I would joke that Blaze Foley's most famous song was "Drunken Angel," which is a song about him [by Lucinda Williams], but it wasn't until John Prine covered "Clay Pigeons" that I started trying to figure out who Blaze Foley was.

Then I realized that I'd loved Willie and Merle's cover of "If I Could Only Fly," and then the internet happened, and you could find the Outhouse recordings, which are just incredible, they're hypnotizing. There's something about listening to his voice singing those songs that is absolutely beautiful, while people are spilling their beer and talking over him, doors opening in the background. I listened to those recordings over and over again and I started seeing the movie.

Music is always such a huge component of the films you direct, and you'll often have a single singer-songwriter provide your soundtrack—like Jeff Tweedy [on Chelsea Walls] or Jesse Harris [on The Hottest State}—but you've never focused on a singer as your subject. What does profiling and featuring music like this bring out in your work that nothing else can?

There's a purity to music in the way it speaks to all of us. Our relationship to music can be extremely private and public. We live in a world where people are made uncomfortable by poetry, and music let's it into our lives. I love that. You sit in traffic and you see all of these people having the most private, peaceful moment of their day, listening to the best stereo that they have in their car. Music makes sense out of the tragedies in our lives. It makes sense of when we fall in love. It has a grace to it. The scratchiness of life gets dissipated. I want to get close to it somehow.

It's funny, you asked me that question, and I have to wonder the answer myself. It's not a conscious thing. When I was young and wanted to make an experimental film, part of what I loved about making Chelsea Walls was working with Jeff Tweedy. Some of my favorite aspects of making movies were things like casting Kris Kristofferson in that; I was already obsessed with music. Or making a documentary about an 88-year-old piano player [Seymour: An Introduction], how the hell did that happen? I follow my gut about what's interesting to me and hope that's interesting to other people. When you direct, it's really time consuming, so being that close to music makes my life better.

Your films are often a collection of moments—like a patchwork quilt—that result in the bigger picture, even if it's not told chronologically. You use Foley's songs as a gateway into these events in his life. What did that approach bring that a more traditional form of storytelling wouldn't?

The traditional linear approach is kind of a lie, that our lives have this beginning, middle and end to our story. We don't ever really have that. What I love about songs is that they're little time capsules. You can hear a song like "Hey Jude" when you're 14 and you just love it and enjoy singing along to it. Then you fall in love, and it's something you listen to at that moment and it's special to you and makes you really happy. Then you break up, and the song fills you with tears. Then 20 years go by and you hear it again and you remember all of that, and it makes you happy again. The song hasn't changed at all, it's just your relationship to the song has changed. Even Beethoven is traveling through time or Hank Williams.

So I thought, Wouldn't it be cool if I used Blaze's songs as fenceposts in time—the time he first wrote the song, the time he played it was a long-ago memory of a better time in his life, the time his friend plays the song after he died. It's a way to connect and breakout of the linear form; it's a different architecture. Normal architecture for movies is beginning, middle and end.

I had this theater company when I was really young called Malaparte. Malaparte—I'd never even seen this book, but I'd heard about it—was a book that was published unbound, and the idea was that you could read it in any order. The author's intent was to say we all think what's important is what happens, but in reality what's going to happen is the same for all of us—we're born and we die, that's what happens—but what's really interesting is how it happens. So I've always loved that patchwork sensibility of finding a detail that illuminates. That's kind of the genius of Boyhood as well, the way Linklater found these little moments that were never the moments you'd think, like losing your virginity or prom or getting a home run. It was little moments, tiny moments.

One of the things that comes up again and again in Blaze is living, or dying, for your music. Do you know actors like that, or are you like that about acting, where you feel like you'd have to inhabit the destructive qualities of a character you're playing if they are destructive?

It's something I think a lot about. Two of the finest actors of my generation, of my peer group, River Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both did destroy themselves. And I see, not just them, but lots of friends and people around struggling with self-sabotage—all of us have it to  a certain degree. We all understand being angry at oneself and not feeling worthy of success or love or whatever it is. Why we're hard on ourselves and why it's so often met with something like arrogance, it's very mysterious to me.

One of the things that the movie is trying to be about is that you see different wells of creativity. There's this one well where Blaze has fallen in love and is living in a treehouse, and the masculine and feminine are united, and creativity flows easily and playfully without the desire for anything in exchange. Then you take that creativity into the world and it starts to get twisted, and there's this other well of self-hatred and self-loathing, self-importance, and that well has creativity too. You can set yourself on fire and make something really beautiful; unfortunately, you're not around to enjoy it. I've always stared at that and try to make sense out of that. Was I allowed to be happy? What is the connecting between suffering and wisdom, and is wisdom possible without suffering? All of those questions are really interesting to me. I find it fascinating.

I can't imagine you knowing those people and those questions not going through your head.

Exactly. River was my first scene partner, and Phil was a big part of my community. It's not just those guys; I see it all the time. And sometimes you see absolute mediocrity being heralded, and you go, "Wait a second, what is this world I'm living in?" [laughs] It's so confusing how to live an authentic life, you know? To a large extent, that's what Seymour the documentary is about, trying to figure that out.

Charlie Sexton is an inspired choice to play Townes on so many levels. And if I'm reading it right, you're sort of implying that Townes was a bit of a bullshit artist in his storytelling, or he's just remembering things wrong because of his own problems with substance abuse.

What it means to me is the absolute disarray of his life that leads to brilliant creativity—that's true for both of them, actually. In a lot of ways, Blaze is somebody I relate to as a working artist who's trying and fighting, but Townes to me represents that spark of genius. Townes Van Zandt was one of those souls...I think he's one of the finest poets America has ever seen—I really believe that. His lyrics are worth studying, they're so full of mysticism, rural dispossessed people, and there's so much of America in those songs. They're infused with the blues.

The point I'm trying to make is that Blaze say that genius and was envious and in love with it, like all of us are. And we're haunted by the question of what does it take to be great, not good but great. There's that part of us all where good isn't enough. On one side of the coin, he might have been lying [about being at Foley's Outhouse show], but if he didn't lie about it, none of us would have ever heard of Blaze Foley. He's creating a legend around his friend, and legends enhance music.

It helps us when we can attach a narrative to art. "This is the painting where Jackson Pollock went mad!" "Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear." Townes is fighting for his friend. He told that story of digging up the body; I'm hard pressed to believe that that's true, but I don't think it matters if it's true. I think he was trying to take care of a friend's music by creating a legend around him, consciously or unconsciously.

And you're doing the same thing by making this movie.

I'm doing the same thing [laughs]. It's actually mysterious and weird, because I could make a case that I heard about this Townes Van Sandt radio interview, and that made me want to make the movie. And because I made the movie, even if the movie stinks, thousands of people who wouldn't have heard of Blaze Foley are going to be listening to his music. I'm fascinated by that.

Tell me about the importance of having musicians in those key roles.

It came out when I played Chet Baker [in Born to Be Blue]. When I was playing him, I really wanted to play the trumpet well, and I thought my performance would be so much better if I really could play jazz music. Even when I learned, I could understand the man, but I couldn't understand the man's relationship to music; it was to profound. So I have this friend Ben Dickey, my friend, who I know and I know how much he loves music, the piano, the guitar, and how much they're friends in his life. It's a brutal truth that's left blood down the side of his face. And I know that Charlie Sexton...if some actor played Townes, if you're going to play a genius, you need to at least have the spark of it in you, and Charlie has sparks flying all off him. He's one of the great guitarists of my generation, and he understands something, it's in his blood. It's worth watching. It's not some reheated dinner; it's the dinner itself.

I have to ask about another scene in Juliet, Naked: the one where you go into O'Dowd shrine to your character and see all those old photos of you that have been repurposed into old tour posters and promotional art for his records. That had to blow your mind a little.

It is strange, and it's strange to have been an actor long enough to play these trajectories. There was something about Tucker Crowe that reminds me of Troy from Reality Bites. Imagine if Troy was in a band and got signed that next year and had maybe three really big years. That's exactly what could have happened to Troy. I could relate to it so much. So talked to the set and art department and found all these old pictures of me and put them up everywhere. It's pretty amusing.

The first time we spoke, 10 or 11 years ago, was for the film you made with Sidney Lumet [Before the Devil Knows You're Dead], and now you have this film with Paul Schrader, First Reformed. You're getting some of the best reviews of your career as an actor. Are you interested in seeking out and working with some of the great who are still around and still making movies.

The 18-year-old me who dreamed of being a New York City actor, dreamed of making movies with Sidney Lumet and Paul Schrader. When I first got my own apartment in New York, I remember living by myself, dropping out of college and having nothing to do and going to the double-feature of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. That's what I wanted to do with my life. So the fact that I get to work with these people, it right in line with the dreams that version of me was having. Hollywood has a romanticism and legend of great Hollywood actors—Errol Flynn and Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe—and there's a legacy of New York actors that's different. It's tied to the theater and gritty, tough, unsentimental, unposed style of acting—Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino—and that was always the flame I was chasing. So to get to make one of Paul Schrader's best movies with him, you can imagine what that meant to me.

Was the role of Toller in that film one of those that threatened to take you over, like we talked about?

Definitely. I think that a few years ago even, it would have been more of a problem. I put myself through grad school a few years ago. Back to back, I did Chekhov's first play, Ivanov, and a new adaptation of Brecht's first play Baal, and Shakespeare's Macbeth. I did them all within 18 months of each other, and I was kind of taking myself back to school, really trying to push my relationship with actor into a better realm, getting ready for this part of my life. This was an incredibly dark place and trying to inhabit those worlds is an exercise in imbalance. You can learn this stuff. Life is an emotional currency, and you have to learn how to use it and not let it use you. I ultimately disagree with a lot of things he says in the movie and was really haunted by him, but fundamentally I was able to play him but still disconnect when I needed to.

Actors spend a tremendous amount of energy inviting anything into their psyche and lives that can help them reach a character. They can often times struggle to use the same energy to let it go, and I've been learning how to do this. It's the part of my profession now that I'm really interested in, because it helps me in my work to be able to do that. When I was younger, that part would have destroyed me. Maybe it already has [laughs].