Ethan Hawke and I had something in common late Monday morning: neither of us had eaten breakfast. He invited me to pick off a fruit plate just delivered by the hotel, and that’s how our interview began.
Hawke’s been through a lot in the last 10 years–a separation and divorce from Uma Thurman, a dark period spent in the Chelsea Hotel, a new marriage. You can’t help but feel that some of these life experiences have worked their way into The Woman in the Fifth, a psychological drama he stars in by acclaimed Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love). Adapted from a novel by Douglas Kennedy, Hawke plays Tom Ricks, a writer in Paris trying to reconnect with his estranged wife and child. While his world slowly unravels, he meets a seductive older woman played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Look for our review of the film tomorrow night.
Hawke seemed genuinely meditative while we talked, and he’d pause at times to think as he chewed some granola. We spoke about ambiguity, writers, a documentary he’s making on pianist Seymour Bernstein, his work with Richard Linklater, and an interesting tidbit about his involvement with the new Total Recall movie.
[Editor’s note: I omitted or reworded some questions and responses in order to avoid spoilers.]
What initially got you interested in The Woman in the Fifth? I remember you describing in one interview as like a European art movie from the 60s.[laughs]
For me it was sort of like Barton Fink by way of [Last Year at] Marienbad.
Yeah, yeah. You know, I’d seen Pawel’s other films, and it’s that there aren’t that many people who have real warmth for the camera, who really are their own beast–he’s clearly an artist. I wanted to work with him. He came to see this play I was in and told me about this idea he had about this movie and what he wanted it to be like, and I just signed on board. The rest of it was– [Apart from the concept,] I really had no idea what the rest of the movie was going to be.
Were you familiar with the novel at all?
No, no, in fact we very quickly departed from the novel. There was just an essential element in the movie that he loved from the novel. You know, the novel is the novel and the movie needs to work in its own terms. We left the novel behind, even changed the main character’s name. And I think in a lot of ways we wanted to make a movie that was a portrait of depression. I don’t know, I loved working with him, just watching how passionate these guys were about the photography. Kristin is one of the very few people– She’s had a huge career in two languages: her French movies are fantastic and her British movies are great, she’s had a great stage career. I was interested in her and was happy to get to work with her.
What was it like to work with her, and with Pawel as well? How was the entire experience?
Well, if you got to meet Pawel you’d know. He just… he doesn’t make movies or do anything quite like anyone else. It was kind of like we were hunting for the movie. You know, we didn’t really have a script. The script would say one thing, but we were like, “What if we go here? Oh, that’s pretty.” He works more with symbols, and that’s really what interests him.
Like all those images of imprisonment and confinement were so prevalent in the film.
He was really obsessed with that, and what kind of photography evokes that feeling and what kind of photography doesn’t; also how to create a sense of drama without being dramatic; how to evoke Kafka on screen, to achieve something that’s more often achieved in the literary world.
And to achieve that sort of paranoid sense with that narrator, or point of view–I suppose it would be a narrator or point of view with your character.
Yes! It’s an unreliable narrator, and it’s kind of fascinating. You have it in literature often: a narrator is telling a story and then you realize he’s crazy. But in movies it’s less so. It was a fascinating process. I remember when I was younger, when Wings of Desire came out and when Paris, Texas came out, there was this little art house movie theater in my town. When I got older enough to be interested I would go see these movies, and I think that Pawel’s just a fill-blown art house director, and it’s fun to work with somebody like that.
Since the movie can be so ambiguous at times, did you ever have conversations with Pawel or Kristin about what you thought the movie meant?
Absolutely. So the movie, funny enough for me, because I’m so inside Pawel’s head while we’re making it… The idea that it’s ambiguous? It’s so clear to me what’s going on. I think it took me a while to realize how much Pawel doesn’t like it when things make sense perfectly–succinct in some way so you can bottle it up–because he doesn’t feel that real life makes sense perfectly. You don’t know why things happen. “Why did she do that? What was happening? Why didn’t she come back? Why didn’t he just–” I don’t know. We want our art to be so neat and yet we have no idea why we’re born! So, I find that really refreshing to be on a set where somebody wasn’t obsessed with having the audience get everything. He was obsessed with what he was trying to say, and what the movie felt like–on an intuitive level, did it feel right.
Do you think there’s an allure to ambiguity and being able to interpret art openly?
I do. I remember one of the first plays I worked on was [Sam] Shepard’s Buried Child. One of the cool things about Buried Child is that you’re never exactly sure what happened. There’s a baby, it’s buried– There’s definitely a dead baby in the backyard, but you’re not really sure whose it is or where it came from or who buried it. The baby takes on this very powerful symbolic quality: lost youth or lost innocence or whatever it is. In this movie, you get the sense that Tom has fallen, but it’s unclear what’s making him fall. Is it something from the inside, is it from the outside? What is this job? But when you start to think about it, that’s much more realistic in a way than really spelling it out. What do any of us do at work? Why are we doing it? Are we improving or are we falling apart? And who is our lover? Are they really who we think they are? And that’s how symbols work. They make you think in a wider context than the literal, and that’s the allure of ambiguity to me.
And perhaps there’s an allure to writers as characters. Is there an allure to writers, you think?
I think it lends itself to filmmaking well because filmmakers want to make a personal film that’s not about a filmmaker, so they always pick a writer. I think it’s a little– Look no further than that. [laughs] They don’t know anything about painting, they don’t know anything about dance. [a beat] One of the things that I think made All That Jazz so wonderful was that Bob Fossey was a filmmaker but he was also a choreographer so he could make a movie about a choreographer so it wasn’t a movie about a moviemaker. But I think there’s also something very romantic, even something universal. All of us can relate to trying to express our feelings and we’ve all read books, so I just think it’s a great stand-in character for a person trying to find themselves. A writer. What’s their voice?
As a writer yourself, have you ever been to a literary party like the one in the movie?[laughs] That party in the movie– It’s like– You know, even as I watch the movie I wonder, “Does that party even really exist or is that his imagination of what that party would have been like?” I’m not even sure that it really happened that way. It’s almost, if you look at it, it looks like what you think people would be like at a literary party.
Is it true that you’re working with Pawel again? I saw on IMDb that movie Epic is listed.
We’re working on a script–we want to make another movie together. Think the soonest we can make it is next summer, a year from now. We’re just working on a script; Pawel’s a really obsessive guy. It’s a romantic comedy. And it takes place– He’s made some documentaries that are brilliant about Russia. This takes place in Russia and it’s a comedy, so… It’s expensive… I don’t know, it could be very cool.
I heard you’re working on a documentary yourself. Could you talk about that?
It’s a very strange thing how it happened. It’s about a piano maestro [Seymour Bernstein], he’s a great teacher here in New York, 85 years old. I met him and was so moved by his insight into playing the piano and how it relates to how we all live our lives. And I thought he’d be a fun person for a documentary– It’s more of a portrait of a teacher, you know?
Could you explain a little of his spiel on playing the piano?
I what to show you in the movie! [laughs]
But… what is harmony? What is dissonance? Why should we practice? Why should we work hard, and what difference does it make when you play the right note of don’t play the right note? He’s a very deep guy. I was touched by him, and I thought he had a lot to teach me about acting, and then I slowly realized that the way he’s talking about the piano relates to every profession. You know, it’s like zen and the art of archery, or whatever.
Or Motorcycle Maintenance.
If you study any one thing intensely enough–mechanics, building, sports, anything–the same principles apply about how to do it well. This guy’s really a beautiful person, you just got to see it. I don’t remember the day I had the idea [to make this], it just started happening. First I though somebody else was going to do it.
And then just all of a sudden…
It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve been involved in and I can’t wait for people to see it. We’ve been making these short films every year for the last 10 years, Richard Linklater and I–well, I’m not in all of them. It follows a young boy from first grade to twelfth grade, very simple. In just the period of a two-hour movie, you watch a human being grow up. It’s almost like watching a flower bloom in time-elapsed photography. It’s just two hours of the experience of growing up. We have two more years, and they’re two important years because it’s the finale of the movie. I think it’s the greatest thing that Linklater’s ever done. I think it’s mind-blowing.
I can’t wait.
Oh, it’s so interesting. I mean, it’s very simple, it’s very humble. It’s epic in the most fragile of ways.
Because it’s like life.
It’s just like life. It’s so amazing watching these scenes. I don’t want to talk too much about it because I want everyone to see it, but it’s just amazing. For one minute you’re watching a six-year-old boy, and it’s so beautiful what Richard [Linklater] does with time: you don’t ever see him go from six to seven, to seven to eight, to eight to nine. It’s just all of a sudden you’re watching a seven-year-old and [whispering] oh, his voice has changed… Are those whiskers…? Is that him with a girl…? A couple minutes ago he was just riding a bike with his buddies! It’s so cool! [sighs]
It’s like in the 95% category that we’re going to film that this summer.
Yeah. So, it’s been nine years between the first one and number two, and it’s nine years again. [laughs]
Sort of like the Up [documentary] series. [laughs]
I guess. I mean, obviously it’s becoming clear that Linklater’s obsessed with time and that a lot of his movies actually deal with our relationship with time. When we made the first movie, I remember at the wrap party talking about how fun it would be if we made five of these movies, where you did [one for the] twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, you know?
That life progression.
You could write a magnum opus about love over a lifetime. And we’re just taking it one step at a time. You know, the hard thing about the third one is… [With] the second one, no one was really paying attention–nobody ever expected the sequel, it took people absolutely by surprise that we even made one. Before Sunrise is the lowest-grossing film of all time to ever garner a sequel. But, yeah, there’s a struggle with the fact that people have expectations. Yeah, [sigh]: “I want this to happen,” “Oh, they can’t be together,” “Oh they should be together,” “Oh, if this happens it’d be stupid.” We’re all really proud of those movies and we don’t want to ruin them. At the same time… [a beat] I watched them both. Richard asked Julie and I to sit and watch them both again last year to see if we thought we had it in us to do another one, and I thought very clearly that when the second one ends that they’re really just not over. It needs some resolution of some kind, and so I’m excited to try.
The best part about that second movie is that it ends at a perfect spot but there’s obviously more story.
That movie can’t go on, but, you know, you’re like, “But wait a second…”
I think the truth is we’ve got a good crew, we’ve got a good hit on it. It took us nine years to come up with what the hit is, but we got it! [laughs]
If it gestates into a good thing–
–that time was a wonderful thing.
And Richard didn’t want to be careful with the exact years. He didn’t care if it was 13 years or nine, as long as the movie’s good. We had this little realization. We had a big week-long workshop last Christmas and we realized, “All right, we’re ready, we’ve got it.” We’ve all had so many things happen to us and we’re ready to write about them. [a beat] I see a ghostly figure in the hallway. [Editor’s note: It was the publicist letting us know it was time to wrap up.]
I’ve heard you’re in the Total Recall remake.
I actually don’t know anything.
[laughs] [Editor’s note: There was some spoiler news about Hawke’s role in the movie the other day, and it came from one of the producer’s of the Total Recall remake. (Of all the people to ruin the surprise…) Personally I think Ethan wanted to help maintain some semblance of mystery about the film, hence his response.]
I did a day’s work for them, and I’m not sure it’s even going to be in the movie. I did it as a favor, but I don’t really know anything about it–or at least anything more than you do about it. I hope it’s good. I liked the first movie, I like Colin Farrell. I hope it turns out good, but I don’t know anything about it, and I doubt if I’m in it at all. I helped them do stuff, figuring it out, before they even started shooting, so it got all over the internet that I was involved in it, but… I– I don’t even think I’m going to be in it. Sorry I don’t know anything about it, or if I’m even in it or not! [laughs]