Q&A

Ethan Hawke on life, films and experimenting

.@latimes Sunday Conversation: Ethan Hawke talks about 'Boyhood' and his many other stages

If you think you've had an eventful year, consider the one Ethan Hawke is having. Since 2014 began, Hawke has unveiled the 12-year epic "Boyhood," shot the drone drama "Good Kill," prepared for the release of his sci-fi picture "Predestination" and has begun shooting his role as jazz great Chet Baker in the biopic "Born to be Blue." He also made his documentary directorial debut at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals with "Seymour: An Introduction," a look at art and creativity via the pianist Seymour Bernstein that earned a rapturous critical response.

From his beginnings as a teen upstart in "Dead Poets Society" to his turns as a stage actor, novelist and musician, Hawke has had an eclectic, at times polarizing career, highlighted by a 20-year, eight-movie collaboration with Richard Linklater. We caught up with the philosophical actor near his New York home.

The idea of spending 12 years making "Boyhood," and then spending the last eight months doing nothing but talking about it has to be surreal. What's it been like?

It's been very strange. This is the time of year when I'd normally go down to Austin to shoot my scenes for the film. And it's the first time in more than a decade I'm not doing that. Yet I've seen Ellar [Coltrane, his costar] more this year than any other year out promoting the movie. I knew this kid since he was a little boy, and now he's at this interesting moment. He's had the last 12 years to experience the joy of acting without any of the downside or the potential dangers.

It must also be odd to watch him grow up even as you were raising your own four kids.

The meta thing about this was continually experiencing the fatherhood on-screen that I was experiencing off-screen; Ellar [20] is a little older than my oldest [Maya, 16]. It was a little like a dress rehearsal for the real part. Maya doesn't remember a time when I wasn't working on "Boyhood." None of my kids do.

Have they seen the movie?

They have, but to them it's very strange. My older two are children of divorce, and the two children in the movie are also children of divorce. Many people who see the film say that "the movie feels like my life." But the dad in the movie really is their dad. [Pauses] I think they'll appreciate it much more when they're older.

Do you have conversations with them about this kind of thing, about separating fact from fiction?

We have really complicated conversations about that. Ultimately I believe telling the truth in art — writing books or playing music or whatever it is — is to alleviate the shame of the common energy running through all of us, to say we're not as alone as we feel. But it's funny, people think it's me and Ellar in these characters. And I always say that we're not really playing ourselves. In a large way both of us are playing [director] Rick.

With all the praise there's also been the perhaps inevitable backlash that the film is too mundane, that things like the stepfather subplots are too pedestrian. What do you make of those voices?

I actually thought those voices would be louder. The stepfathers are the only parts that give you any sense of classic narrative structure. So you're constantly thinking you're going to get this big dramatic narrative and you're not. But that's the tack of the film. It's a spiritual tack. I feel like Rick has had this whole career of taking moments cut out of every other movie. He includes all the minutiae that would actually be the meat of our life.

If a Martian came down and met us they'd think we were all involved in gunplay, most of us had met a serial killer and many of us are engaging in some sort of espionage. And what he's saying is that life doesn't have to be hyperbolized. What we actually experience is good enough.

You've directed this other movie that's also about the meaning of life, "Seymour," about an older pianist who has spent decades searching for the sublime. What inspired that?

I always had this feeling of being the youngest. I was signed by CAA at 18 and made my Broadway debut at 21. And then I was about to turn 40 and I met Seymour, and it just leapt up at me,‎ this idea that I ‎couldn't be a student, that the groove had been set. It was this immense pressure. And then I looked at this older man who never stopped learning.

Do you see the point-of-it-all themes between "Seymour" and "Boyhood" and really all of the films you've done with Linklater as related?

It wouldn't surprise me if someone at a university someday screens "Boyhood" right into "Before Sunrise." You can almost see it: Mason goes to college and then a few years later he's on a train to Vienna trying to figure out what he's doing with his life. And then Seymour is almost the sequel to all that. This is who that guy becomes.‎

Did making these films change what you want to do in your career? You still seem to be pursuing more of the genre films even as you've made forays into this experimental territory.

When I was younger I turned down these bigger jobs because I wasn't sure who I was. I remember seeing the "Good Will Hunting" guys at the Oscars and being envious because they had success one stage later, and they knew what they wanted out of their careers and their lives. When you're making an ... out of yourself in People magazine at a young age it's really hard to learn on your feet.

I think the second half of my life, of all of our lives, is figuring out how to maintain your idealism but also the right ways to compromise. And that's true in my work. A high point of my career is when I did "Ivanov" off-Broadway the same weekend "Sinister" opened. [Stops to reflect] Working with Rick has taught me that we'll probably never know the point of it all. The ‎point of it all maybe is just to enjoy the passage of time."

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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