A Hawke-Eyed Star

Actor/Writer/Director Ethan Hawke Plays a Brother That Spells Trouble in “True West.”

“Do I read reviews?” Ethan Hawke asks with a laugh. “Of course! I always read the good ones. My confidence is fragile, and I need some sense of self-preservation. But I read others, too. As an artist, you are doing this to connect, so I need to know what everyone is saying about you.”

For most of the past four decades, Hawke has earned more than his share of “good ones.” “I cut my teeth on acting,” notes Hawke, who first trod the boards at Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre at age 12 and has since triumphed in such films as “Dead Poets Society,” “Training Day,” “Boyhood,” and “First Reformed,” as well as onstage in Tom Stoppard’s trilogy “The Coast of Utopia,” Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” and “Macbeth,” and Chekov’s “Ivanov.” He recently won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor in  the drama “First Reformed,” while “Juliet, Naked,” the 2018 indie rom-com in which Hawke plays an aging rocker, was a runaway hit at 2018’s Sundance Film Festival.

But acting is only one part of the Texas-born Hawke’s identity. He’s also a screenwriter, director, author, husband and father (to four kids, two by ex-wife Uma Thurman and two by current spouse, Ryan Hawke). And once again, the actor, who currently lives in Brooklyn, is back on Broadway—this time as the quarrelsome, aimless brother Lee in the latest revival of Sam Shepard’s iconic 1980 play “True West,” which officially opens Jan. 24.

I recently spoke to the 48-year-old Hawke about the play, inching up on 50 and his favorite spots in New York.

 

What made you take on “True West”?

The truth of the matter is, like a lot of actors, I saw the original production with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich and it really lit a fuse. I never felt the same afterward. Not only was I moved by it, but it helped me decide what to do with my life. What I’ve always admired about Sam [Shepard] is how he tried to define the male experience and always did so in exciting ways that have never been touched on since. So, on some level, I have always wanted to do this play, but I never really felt I was ready until now.


So, how did it happen?

A week or so before Sam died (in July 2017), our director, James Macdonald, approached me about doing this production. Sam and I had worked together a few times—in different capacities—and he had a profound impact on my life. Aparently, Sam felt the last Broadway production, in which John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman alternated in the roles of the two brothers, had led to a mirroring effect. Now, Sam wanted a new production where the brothers are very different, especially in their ages. It’s one of the reasons I am so excited to be working with Paul Dano as Austin. I directed him in a play once, and I know he’s the real deal as an actor. I think we are really able to display a true older brother/younger brother relationship. While I didn’t grow up with siblings, I know that sibling rivalry is just intrinsic to human nature. No matter our age, we are still all fighting to be noticed.

 

Does being an actor fulfill you differently than being a writer or director?

As I get older, I continually study myself and try to think about what makes me tick. A few years ago, I would have said acting is the great passion of my life, because it’s my way of staying alive and maintaining my childlike playfulness and curiosity. It’s like being a perpetual student and watching how a lot of great artists’ work has been enlightening and exciting. But as time goes on, I realized I can step away from being in front of the camera or on the stage and start to explore storytelling from other vantage points, from writing graphic novels to screenplays to directing. Writing and directing “Blaze” (about the country songwriter Blaze Foley) last year was so special. The young musicians in the film not only loved acting, they had no cynicism and came to this profession completely humble. That really stoked the fire inside me.

You mentioned getting older. Does it bother you that you’re not far from turning 50?

First, you have to remind yourself that it beats the alternative! There was a period about 10 years ago when I felt I was the youngest person in every room and so I saw myself that way. Now, there’s been a transition, and I’ve seen my role in the arts community shift. And I realize if you roll with it, you can see how many exciting possibilities are left. So, honestly, I am enjoying this stage of life. I feel like a really young old person, and that makes me happy. It’s fine that I am not trying to be 25 anymore; as an actor, you start thinking about being in shape to do “King Lear” at 84, not how good you’re going to look on a magazine cover.


“True West” could put you in the Tony Awards race again: You’ve already got some awards recognition for “First Reformed.” Does winning awards matter to you? 

Honestly, if you win, you win, but your friends like you less. I think whatever your profession, though, you want your work to be deemed worthy by your peers. But I also feel awards are an advertisement for the industry, and without them, most producers would only care about making money. So having them motivates financial people to make better art—whether it’s a film like “Moonlight” or some small play that was done in a church basement. Of course, I know it’s all a bit arbitrary, so you have to have a sense of humor about the result. And, ultimately, I feel proud of all the work I do, whether I get an award or a nomination or not.

 

You’re practically a lifelong New Yorker. Where are your favorite places to eat?

There are a lot of great restaurants in the theater district, like Café Un Deux Trois and Joe Allen, and I love stopping into Bar Centrale for a drink after the show. For special occasions, my family loves the Waverly Inn downtown, and we always head to Blossom for vegetarian food.

 

Where else do you like to just hang out?

I would say my favorite place in all of New York is St. John the Divine [Cathedral Church], because it’s so peaceful, and you can’t beat just walking through Central Park. And going to Marie’s Crisis, that piano bar in the West Village, is always a fun way to spend an evening.

 

So, now that you’re finally doing “True West,” what else is on your bucket list?

Some of my most thrilling years in New York revolved around Malaparte, the theater company I co-founded in 1991 with people like Josh Hamilton, Robert Sean Leonard and Steve Zahn. I would love to have that come full circle somehow and start another company. But this one would be more cross-cultural; I have a dream of setting it up in the Bronx. More than ever, I believe we all need a place to play with theater and rediscover what this art form can truly be.