Ethan Hawke on Wrestling With the Unknown in ‘First Reformed’ and Why He Wants To Be in ‘Star Wars’
This interview contains a few slight SPOILERS for the end of First Reformed.
Ethan Hawke has a career full of memorable performances, from Jesse in the Before trilogy to Jake in Training Day, Troy of Reality Bites, to the dad in Boyhood. But after three decades of acting, screenwriter and director Paul Schrader asked Hawke to do the complete opposite of everything he’s done before for First Reformed. “Withhold, withhold, withhold,” Hawke said of his director’s instruction. “You actually have to try to not act and just keep withdrawing.”
In First Reformed Hawke gives one of his most startling performances as Reverend Ernst Toller, a depressed pastor. On the outside, Toller seems fine, but through his private journals, read aloud via Hawke’s voiceover, we discover he’s beginning to doubt his faith, grieving over his dead son, and questioning his place in the world around him. But when he meets the equally depressed Michael (Phillip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist, Toller clings to a new purpose in life.
I caught up with Hawke earlier this week to chat about Schrader’s film, one that’s slow, challenging, and confronts its audience with unanswered questions. He spoke about drawing inspiration from Ingmar Bergman and Schrader’s Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, the film’s staggering and mysterious ending. And while Hawke has spent most of his time in smaller, art house fare, he told he’s more than ready to act in a Star Wars movie. Actually, he’e been waiting to get cast in one since 1980.
I saw this a couple of weeks ago and it’s still sitting with me.
Paul has a great thing he says about that I never heard anyone say – “A good movie doesn’t end with the final credit.” That a good movie asks a question or rings a bell inside you. So, it continues on and how good a movie it is is how long that bell rings. Isn’t that kind of beautiful? I feel that way about One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I still think about Chief throwing the sink through the window. What did that mean? That bell has been ringing with me for 30 years or something.
That can be the test of a great movie and its legacy, how much an ending stays with you.
So many movies try to entertain you. They really are over when the credits run. It’s just like a song and dance, but Paul’s definitely ringing the bell.
And this ending especially. I mean, I don’t want to spoil it, but it ends on a note that totally throws you.
I love it because I often have to do Q&As. If you walk out to do a Q&A right after that movie, nobody has any idea what to ask because that ending of that movie is so … it takes you a couple of days to think about what just happened.
Was it written that way in the script or do you know if that ending came about in the editing process?
No, it was in the final script. There were several – through rehearsals, through the process, Paul was always fine-tuning the ending. There are things throughout the movie to prepare you for that to happen. You know, whether it was the levitation. For a movie that’s so realistic, it’s almost scientific, it’s not over-glossed, it’s not over-lit. And then all of the sudden there’s these gestures to another plane, a spiritual plane that prepare you for the ending, I think. That aspect of the movie he was working on all the time, so the very end, and certain aspects of my relationship with Amanda’s character, he was always adjusting them, trying to make the end work. It was always in the name of what’s going to help the audience be ready for how I want to end this movie.
And yet despite those spiritual nods, your performance is so natural and grounded in the real world.
Yeah. But you know, if you think about it, we live in the natural world and most of us have a sense of another realm. Here we are, most of us have had some type of loss in our lives and still feel the presence of those people and that energy and most of us have dreams and most of us, when you fall in love or you are really upset, there’s a psychic plane where things are happening.
So it’s hard to dramatize. It’s one of the things that film is not very good at, which makes it hard to make. If you really study movies, spiritual films, films that really address a spiritual void, awakening in us are really rare. Whereas literature is full of it. It’s a medium that gets inside of you, whereas film is outside of you and so an inner life is – and if you really try to dramatize a spiritual awakening, well it’s very slow. It doesn’t lend itself to entertainment.
One of my favorite movies is Malcolm X. I just recently rewatched it because Denzel’s performance is so staggering and the filmmaking is so interesting. But even in that film, it’s so hard, his Islamic conversion of what that inner life is. It’s good. It’s well done and it’s the best I’ve ever seen it done in a movie that’s not about that, you know? There are movies that are about spiritual life: Kundun, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Winter Light. There’s a lot of movies that this movie references. But it’s very hard to communicate what changes the heart of a man or woman in their spiritual life. Because it’s something, it’s an inner tick that is not really playable.
Yeah, so you have to bring that inner experience to the surface.
You have to slow down. You have to slow the audience down. That’s why Paul’s not playing music, that’s why the camera doesn’t move. He’s constantly trying to take you and just slow you. Don’t look at your phone, don’t look at your phone, don’t look at your phone, you know?
How does that affect to you as a performer? He’s using all these techniques as a director, but did that need to slow things down make this role different from other parts you’ve played?
Yeah. You have to withdraw from the camera and hope the audience chases you as opposed to, you know – most movies you see there’s people shucking and jiving, tapping their fingers and smiling and trying to entertain you. And you can’t, you ruin this film. You actually have to try to not act and just keep withdrawing. It’s almost like coiled spring, you just keep pulling it back, so when it pops, you feel it, you know it. I mean the obvious example would be if you decided you’re gonna paint a picture with no primary colors. Right? Well, then when you did put some red and yellow in there, it would blow your mind. Right? And it’s the same principle at work: withhold, withhold, withhold, withhold, give something, and then boom! It’s interesting, right?
You don’t really see many performances like that.
I’d never been asked. When I first met Paul for this movie, he said, “You know, this would have to be a withholding performance. It’d be the opposite of what most people have asked you your whole life.” And I immediately understood what he meant. I like a lot of the movies that he cites, and you know, particularly Bresson, he likes a lot. But as an actor, it’s difficult to love Bresson, because the acting is generally not fantastic.
Whereas, a director like Bergman uses a lot of the principles that Bresson does, but he does them with really well-trained actors. If you ever read Bresson’s Notes on a Cinematographer, which is a phenomenal book, and Richard Linklater gave me when we first started Before Sunrise. And [Bresson] has theories about acting, which are the opposite of what everyone at Julliard is telling you.
He talked about his actors as models, right?
Yeah, but when I first read it, you could get offended by it. But he means models the way that a model is for a great painter. He means like a great painter captures the soul of Mona Lisa, right? She’s his model. It’s not a model like, ooh, look at me. It’s a model of like, can you present yourself. But it’s also why I’m not that interested in what Bresson has to say about acting because he’s so much more interested in the filmmaker, whereas Bergman is interested in the filmmaker and the actor. And that’s why I think his movies have aged so much better. I mean, they’re so much more accessible. Maybe not better or worse, but accessible.
Did you cite any specific Bergman films for this?
Well, Winter Light. Which is funny because you know, Before Midnight had its Bergman counterpart too and Scenes From a Marriage. So I’ve been doing a little Bergman kick.
There’s this duality within Toller. He presents himself to the world one way, as a confident believer, then we see his doubts and fears though his journal. You give a physical performance, but another type of performance via voiceover.
I love it because all of us know that there’s this face we show the world. And then there’s the face of us alone in our room. And with some rare enlightened people, there are often big differences in those faces. So this movie allowed me to show both. A lot of people, screenwriting schools hate voiceover and stuff. But Paul does it so well because it’s part of the DNA of the story he’s telling. It’s not some tool used to tell you information or deliver jokes. It’s really the spine of the movie. It’s his inner life. And that’s kind of what I was saying about it allows access to a spiritual life. Because you can really articulate the voice inside. I mean it’s so effective and well, a lot of Paul’s movies, but particularly Taxi Driver.
Was that present in your mind while making this?
It’s so present in my mind. They did an anniversary screening I guess five or six years ago. That movie has not aged a day. It’s so modern. It’s so beautiful. You just [makes explosive sound]. You know?
Totally. I saw an anniversary screening recently at Metrograph in 35mm and it was amazing.
Probably the same anniversary, I saw a 35 print of it too. Somewhere else, I was in a different city somewhere. And I just couldn’t get over it. Because I’d seen it a couple times, but I think I’ve only seen it on VHS or something. I hadn’t ever seen it screened.
I imagine a role like this could inspire you to keep your own journal while filming to get inside the character. Did you keep a diary for it, or do you have one of your own?
I’ve often in my life kept my own journal. For some reason the last few years I’ve stopped. I mean, I know why I stopped. I lost my journal. It got stolen, and it upset me so much that I couldn’t start a new one. And it’s been five or six years. But I wrote a journal from the time I was 13 until I was like, 41, every day and then I just stopped. I’ve tried to start at various times but it hasn’t caught on. Part of the problem is also, my kids got older and you can’t – for some reason I’m just haunted in writing a journal that I never had this thought before about imagining my kids reading it after I’m dead. It somehow made me want to stop, I don’t know.
But the interesting thing about writing for my character, I had to write these journals. We had to photograph them so I had to write Toller’s journals. I had to write in character. I would write my lines out, change them and work them as if they were journal entries so you can create a background. It’s a great exercise for actors, to write what you’re thinking when you’re not speaking. It’s kind of like journaling.
Were you fully embodying the character in those moments, or was it more of a technical thing, where you’re focused on helping the director compose the shot?
Yeah, Paul was obsessed with it. He sent me a giant box, it was right before Christmas, of those journals and these pens. He wanted to be able to basically shoot whenever he wanted, the journals. I had to write all of them over and over again. One paragraph, the first paragraph, the first and second, the first, second and third, the first, second third and fourth. Like each entry had to be done so many different ways so that I just gave him this giant box so that we could almost shoot all of them so when he was editing he could know which ones he wanted to see. But it really helped me find the character’s voice and get to know Paul and how meticulous he is.
Toller takes a sudden pivot towards ecoterrorism, saying at one point, “I’ve found a new form of prayer.” That made me question his relationship to the church, that perhaps religion is also just a coping mechanism for his grief. How do you understand his relationship to the church and the environment, and the things he latches on to with such passion?
I would say that the young man [Michael, played by Phillip Ettinger] is actually passionate about the environment, but I almost just caught his virus. Like, the depression. I’m counseling him. We’re both very sick people. We’re both really sad people and one is pretending to be better off than he is. Sometimes when you’re deeply unhappy a righteous cause can make you feel better.
That’s where martyrdom comes and that can be seen in a really negative light, but then also, what’s so fascinating to me about this script is that nothing is one thing. On one level he’s become this ecoterrorist, so he’s becoming a terrorist for a good cause which is a thing the brain wrestles with anyway. And [Paul] also presents us with me teaching young people about the abolitionist movement. Those people were seen as radicals, they were left-wing terrorists, John Brown, Harriet Tubman. So he’s presenting us with these riddles. Is he losing his mind and becoming this malevolent person? Well, wait a second – is becoming a terrorist losing your mind? Because it sure wasn’t for Harriet Tubman. Well, how will, 100 years from now, people look on a person who blew themselves up to stop oil drilling? They might smile really hard. It’s so confusing! And if a person is depressed, meaning they’ve really lost joy and lost humor and lost love, it can be a spike to hold onto and impale yourself on.
What I think is brilliant about Paul’s writing is that it’s really asking you a question. He’s not telling you what the right thing to think is. He’s not telling you who Toller is, he’s not telling you that Cedric’s character’s a bad person or an enlightened person. He’s presenting you with the possibility that there’s a lot of different points of view and life is really hard. It feels to me like a cry, a search.
When playing a character full of such complexities, did you have conversations with Paul about answers to those questions? Or were you more performing into those unanswered spaces?
I’m supposed to perform into them, that’s a nice way of saying it. There are no answers. Anybody who’s been seriously clinically depressed or has loved somebody who is, you can get to know Toller pretty quickly. I also love Phillip Ettinger’s character, Michael. He’s such a great, beautiful actor and a beautiful performance. That’s one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever done in my life. Counseling him. They’re both seeking, they want to be better. They want a friend, too. Both the mentor and the mentee.
It’s a great moment. And neither of them are necessarily right or wrong in either of their perspectives.
I really enjoy that so many contemporary movies are always presenting heroes and villains. It’s like, the same, it’s Trump speak, it’s either this or that. Whereas non-dual thinking is where the truth usually lives. That’s what’s so beautiful about the ending of the movie back to where we started – it’s hope and despair. Around and around.
I know we’ve got to wrap this up, but I want to ask about something you recently told Variety, how you’d be interested in being in a commercial movie. Have you been offered roles in franchises before? What would be the type of project that would draw you to one?
I guess I’ve been offered things like that that didn’t appeal to me. You have to be careful about what you’re famous for. You don’t want to be famous for something you don’t love. It brings people a lot of pain when that happens. But I saw Benicio Del Toro in the new Star Wars. He was so good and it was so nice to see a great actor in a comic book setting where it was really mass entertainment. But he’s using everything he has learned about acting to really, really make a great character. I love it when actors can do that.
And a lot of British actors throughout time have done that. The obvious example being Alec Guinness in Star Wars. You can tell that that guy is a serious person. But he’s there in this comic book movie, two great tastes that go great together. It’s years of Shakespeare training that allow Ian McKellen to play Gandalf or Alec Guinness to play Obi-Wan and make us take those people seriously. It’s a life well lived. So I have hopes for old age to be – I think I also say that because you get a reputation of only being interested in one thing and I like to do other things. I’d love to be in Talladega Nights. I love movies. So any kind of movie I’d love if it’s done well. There’s movies done without any thought in them that suck. But any kind of movie can be great if people think about it.
Is there an ideal franchise you’d like to be in, or a role you’ve seen and you’re like, I wish I could’ve played that?
I’d definitely love to be in Star Wars. Who wouldn’t? I’ve been waiting my whole life to have a lightsaber.
Yeah who wouldn’t!
I wonder if it’ll ever happen. I remember raking my lawn being a senior in high school and Return of the Jedi had come out and my friend drove by. It happened to be Chris McQuarrie, who actually went on to be an Academy Award winning screenwriter. And he drove by in this really old yellow Volvo that he had scribbled all over, literally painted drawings on it. I was raking my yard, and he pulled over and said, “There’s gonna be more Star Wars.” I said, “Nah it’s over.” He said, “It’s not over! They’re gonna make more!” He drove away and I was thinking, “Wow maybe I’ll get to be in a Star Wars movie.”
First Reformed is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.