In ‘Seymour,’ Ethan Hawke and Seymour Bernstein as creative odd couple

“Seymour” presents an artistic odd couple of sorts: one of the film world’s most prolific actors (Ethan Hawke, left) examining the uncanny life of an 87-year-old classical virtuoso (Seymour Brenstein).
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

This past award season saw “Boyhood” star Ethan Hawke talking about universal human concerns in press appearances that — as he liked to joke — had him “playing Richard Linklater.”

It turns out Hawke had also quietly been getting behind the camera to ask some questions of his own.

Hawke makes his documentary directorial debut with “Seymour,” about a gnomic pianist named Seymour Bernstein.  Far from the indulgent efforts of many of Hawke’s moonlighting brethren, “Seymour” offers a moving meditation on creativity and the human spirit, a kind of self-help text sans stigma or corniness. Many films concern a character who’s thwarted in his quest for success. “Seymour” goes deeper to ask why we want — and how we define — success in the first place.

“One of the things I just lived through is this Oscar game where such a big deal is made about the ‘best,’ as if you can say that about any piece of art,” Hawke said in an interview with Bernstein on a recent snowy evening. “But when I met Seymour a few years ago, he had a very different philosophy. He would say things I never heard before, like about equating your own development with development in your work. And I found that exciting.”


Bernstein added, with a characteristically mystical tinge, “What I want to get across is that, however we express our talent, we have to synthesize that with our everyday life. We can’t become compartmentalized.”

“Seymour,” which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, presents an artistic odd couple of sorts: one of the film world’s most prolific actors examining the uncanny life of an 87-year-old classical virtuoso.

Bernstein was a huge talent in his 30’s and 40’s, earning rave reviews as he played venues  around the world.  But about the time he turned 50, he decided to give up performing entirely. He has spent the last four decades leading a near-monkish life in his small Manhattan apartment, composing, reflecting and meeting with students.

Bernstein can be seen in the film undertaking a variety of piano-related activities, such as teaching a master class, testing new models in the basement of a Steinway store, commenting on the approaches of other greats and engaging in a broad conversation with New York Times writer Michael Kimmelman, also a former student.


Bernstein is an anomaly in the modern world, particularly for performers; he’s interested in edification far more than glorification. The movie is thus something of an outlier too, ostensibly concerned with the esoterica of classical piano but actually interested in broader themes such as ambition and creativity. One can know little about music and still find much to identify with in “Seymour.”

In one scene, for instance, a former student tells Bernstein that he is frustrated when people come up to him and say they wish they could play piano like he can, “as if it isn’t the result of thousands of hours of work.” It’s a moment that underscores one the film’s larger points--that effort is as important as ability.

“There’s this talent myth we have in America that you never have to work, that Bob Dylan is graced with God and talent just comes to him,” Hawke said in the interview. “Let’s admit it: The guy plays music every day of his life for more than 70 years. But people don’t want to hear that. They want to believe it just happens, that it comes from somewhere outside himself.”

Hawke and Bernstein are in a room at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where they had just finished talking to a screening audience. “Seymour” is relentlessly reflective, and can have an effect on the viewer that’s at once soothing and thought-provoking. The audience kept Bernstein and Hawke after the screening for nearly 45 minutes, asking about their views, relationship and inspirations.

Hawke doesn’t over-emphasize the connection between Linklater and Bernstein; he limits the comparison to both being thoughtful artists.

But viewers will quickly understand the reason a frequent Linklater collaborator like Hawke would be drawn to Bernstein. Both the pianist and the “Boyhood” director seem much more interested in asking questions than in the limelight.

In an era when even many ordinary people strive for fame by whatever means necessary, in fact, Bernstein’s exit from the stage is refreshing but a little startling. It might perhaps only be explainable by a self-confessed stage fright. But Bernstein said anxiety had little to do with his decision.

“It wasn’t until I was able to put those fears aside and play on the stage the way I wanted to play that I felt, ‘well, I no longer have to prove anything,’ that I felt I deserve time to write and compose,” he said in the interview. “So I drew my career to a close.”


Besides, he said, nervousness about one’s craft--in music, acting, writing or any creative endeavor--is a very good sign; an absence of it means a person doesn’t understand the tradition they seek to occupy.

“Seymour” is rife with  counterintuitive moments like this--moments that, by their own unassuming example, suggest a better way to think about the world. The subtle, spiritual message of “Seymour” is that we’re all eager for some kind of wisdom, but too many of us spend our time chasing it in the wrong places.

Bernstein’s prescription is a kind of secular religion that’s a mix of art and self-reliance.

“I remember I had this talented student who, anytime someone would ask her how she could play like that, would always answer ‘I ask God every day,’” Bernstein recalled in the interview. “And I would just say ‘stop this ridiculous nonsense. First of all you’re extremely talented. Second of all, you practice six hours a day. And thirdly,’” Bernstein added with a twinkle, “you have a really good teacher.”

Hawke met Bernstein at a dinner party about four years ago. The actor had just turned 40 and felt adrift, wondering why he’d begun to develop a mid-career stage fright and also wondering whether merely seeking the next big role was enough to make him happy. (Some, but only some, of Hawke’s concern about his own artistic future figures into the movie. Hawke’s appearances are strategic; one of the many pleasing aspects of “Seymour” is its outward focus.) He began gently cajoling Bernstein to appear in a biographical film.

Originally Hawke thought he might enlist someone else to direct; he had made some fiction films and didn’t see himself as a documentarian. But Hawke’s wife, Ryan, saw how much the relationship with Bernstein was moving her husband, and pressed him to get behind the camera. Hawke began filming Bernstein in various interactions, capped by a visit from Bernstein to Hawke’s theater group, where the musician played in public for the first time in decades.

In person, the duo enjoy a kind of yin and yang — Hawke articulate and excitable and Bernstein placid and low-key, though occasionally tilting from cuddly to curmudgeonly. (Bernstein is the kind of person you instantly want to adopt as a surrogate grandparent, even or especially because he will feed you an uncoated truth.)  Though occupying very different worlds, Hawke and Bernstein have become good friends. They are bonded by similar creative impulses, and sometimes the frustrations of pursuing them.

Bernstein, for instance, believes the world has failed to produce a Bach or Beethoven because too many performers have given up composing (“in our century, the creative and the re-creative artist have parted company,” in his Bernstein-ian phrase). The insight resonates with Hawke, who said he has found it frustrating when his artistic attempts outside of acting, such as with novels and screenplays, have resulted in a harsh critical reaction. “It’s almost like ‘you’re eating too much of the pot, taking more than your share,’” he said of the response.


That doesn’t mean some fault lines between Bernstein and Hawke aren’t exposed. Bernstein can seem naïve about the Hollywood world Hawke inhabits; at the Q&A, after Hawke said he felt that his film career lacked constructive criticism, Bernstein said, “But don’t you get that from producers and directors?”  Hawke smiled and said, “No, not really.”

Bernstein has also been living in his own bubble long enough that he can seem nonplussed by how different his approach really is. When an audience member raised his hand at the Q&A to say that watching “Seymour” brought on a strange sense of calm, Bernstein looked slightly puzzled and asked whether it was the sound of the piano that did that. He seemed unaware that a psyche that had put aside the rat race, an instinct so natural to him, was foreign to many in the modern world.

Ultimately, Hawke said he came to believe that Bernstein’s approach — an emphasis on craft over competition — is a better way to live, even if it means sometimes losing out professionally. “I realized after talking to Seymour how much the other way was the wrong way to go. Some of the most successful actors and artists I know are some of the least successful human beings I know.”

“A lot of people are consumed by self-hatred,” Bernstein offered.

“Exactly.” Hawke replied. He paused. “There’s this idea that loving yourself is of a type with narcissism. And it’s the opposite — it’s connected to self-worth.”

Bernstein brought it back to a subject he knew well. “If a person looks in the mirror and says ‘I’m gorgeous,’ that’s narcissism. But if a young person plays the piano and produces a phrase that’s deeply moving, you should tell him that’s beautiful, because that will register in a way that helps make him a better human.”


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