Interview: Ethan Hawke
The Woman in the Fifth
Making his film debut at the tender age of 14, actor Ethan Hawke has had a career as prolific as it has been diverse, ranging from scruffy-faced heart-throb in Reality Bites, to philosophizing Wanderlust writer in Richard Linklater’s beloved Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, to scrappy rookie cop with steadfast morals in Training Day. A rare Hollywood Renaissance man, the actor also writes and directs, and for the stage has performed Chekhov and David Rabe—not to mention penning two novels.
In what is perhaps his most reserved and subtly intense performance to date, an ultra-husky Hawke stars opposite Kristen Scott Thomas in Pawel Pawlikowski’s sensual and darkly phantasmal The Woman in the Fifth, adapted from Douglas Kennedy’s novel. Hawke plays Tom Ricks, a professor and (singly) published author suffering from depression and struggling to regain contact with his estranged wife and daughter in Paris. Happenstance traps him within the city’s seedy underbelly as he quickly becomes consumed by a hypnotic affair with an enigmatic woman, Margit (Kristen Scott Thomas).
FILM COMMENT interviewed the affable actor, who was more than willing to get existential about the movie, and life, and dropped hints about the rumored long-awaited sequel to Before Sunset.
How did you get involved with this project and what drew you to the role?
I was drawn to Pawel—that was really the appeal to me. I was doing a play in London and Pawel came to see it. We went out and we got along really well. I started watching all of his movies, including his documentaries, which are really great. He wasn’t exactly sure what this movie was going to be, and he knew it would be strange. He asked me if I would help him make it, and I said yes.
Both plot and protagonist are very different from the novel. In the book, Margit is portrayed as a haunting poltergeist, whereas in the film, it seems that Tom is closer to being paranoid schizophrenic. How did you create this character: did you draw from the novel at all, or was everything you needed in the script?
If you know much about the way Pawel works, the script is hardly even a blueprint; it’s more like plans for a party. I think what moved Pawel about the story was more that it was a portrait of depression. What was fun for Pawel was to make sense out of the book in a way: What is a vision? What is it really? It’s not really going to be a poltergeist. I haven’t met a poltergeist, but I’ve had visions. I know what they are.
What the movie became for me was, strangely enough, an exercise in naturalism. The movie is so surreal and strange that I just tried to make sense of the character for myself—who he was and what he might be experiencing. When a movie is really strange and surreal, and the acting is also surreal, it’s just frosting on frosting. So I tried not to do that. I don’t know to what extent I succeeded, but I really left the book behind from the get-go. I was much more interested in trying to assist Pawel in making the movie that he saw in his head.
The character doesn’t have a typical rise-and-fall trajectory. He starts out at rock bottom and pretty much stays there. You keep thinking things can’t get any worse for him, and then it’s like: “Oh, hey, the woman you’re in love with has been dead for 20 years.”
[Laughs] I’m kind of proud of that scene. It’s just him realizing that he’s nuts. It must be such a strange moment when for a minute you’re sane enough to understand that your whole basis of reality is not reliable. One of the difficulties of the movie is that because you’re given such an unreliable narrator, it’s hard to feel any of the normal arcs of a narrative. You’re almost as off balance as he is: you don’t know what his job is, or where he’s going.
I will confess, I watched the film twice, almost back to back.
The movie aspires to work on people in a different way than they’re used to, or want a movie to work on them. Almost every movie I work on tries to get a reaction out of the audience: you’re supposed to be moved here, you’re supposed to be scared here. This movie was different. I was working with a really talented film director who was trying to get inside depression, and the symbol of that depression, from Tom’s myopia to the imaginative elements, like, who are these people? Everybody in his world is either a demon or an angel.
The film, or at least Margit’s character, suggests that the realm of familial happiness and stability, and that of creativity are mutually exclusive. Margit tells Tom that he doesn’t belong in the same world as his wife and daughter, that all the writers they love and admire “had a price to pay,” and that now he finally has “the makings of a serious work,” namely a broken life and mysterious lover. Does creativity necessarily stem from suffering?
I don’t think so at all. But I do think that’s a voice inside people’s heads. Kristen and I are essentially playing the same character: she’s just a facet of him. It’s that part of ourselves that says: “I don’t need responsibility, responsibility is bad for me! Responsibility is bringing me down, I’m an artist!” It’s the voice of his demons: that he can’t be a responsible father, that to give himself to his art he has to give himself to her completely. And if she’s a part of him, it’s like giving over to complete self-centeredness. It’s no coincidence that her first [sexual] act [with Tom] is kind of masturbatory.
Another memorable scene for me was the bathtub scene in Margit’s apartment, when Tom describes the feeling of being separated from his “real self” — essentially an idealized self, off winning a literary award and still living with his wife and daughter. “The me that’s here is like a sad double,” he says. This doubled self re-appears in a lot of your work, both acting and writing. In The Hottest State, the protagonist worries that he is merely someone he’s pretending to be; in Before Sunset, Jesse expresses the desire for his best self to override his honest self.
It’s funny, I wrote that speech, so you’re really spot on there. It’s definitely a theme of mine and of Linklater’s. When you’re in a crisis mode and things are going badly in your life, you almost feel detached from it, like it’s happening to someone else. You see yourself inside a larger narrative. We all tend to make stories out of our lives and sometimes those stories have a positive healing effect, and sometimes those stories cut us off from the reality of experience, which is that there is no story: we’re all just living these moments. That bathtub scene came out of an improv we did in rehearsal. What’s fun about working with Pawel is you dive into the deep end of the pool. He had these themes in mind and would get Kristen and me together. We’d get to talking about our lives and before I know it I’m getting my hair washed and talking about something that’s kind of important to me.
Shifting towards your career more generally, can you talk about what has governed your decisions as to what projects you take on and those you turn down?
My favorite thing is great writing, but more and more I come up against the fact that movies aren’t about writing. The theater is about writing and movies are about something else—some kind of attempt to capture moments in a bottle. [Filmmaking] is such a collaborative endeavor. What I like about Pawel is that he’s an old-school film director. Not to be corny, but when I saw his movies, I almost felt like I was kid again sneaking off to some art-house movie theater. Do people even make movies like this anymore, cinema as self-expression? There’s a great Kundera essay that basically says this art form was born about 100 years ago, and 50 years ago it was completely stolen by big business.
There’s something so refreshing about being on set with Ryszard [Lenczewski], Pawel’s cinematographer. It’s what I dreamed it would be like to be on a film set; these guys would talk about what shapes were in the frame. I did this scene where I really gave my all, rolling on the floor and crying, and Pawel was really disappointed in the color of an extra's jacket that passed behind me. When I was younger, I think that would have pissed me off, but now I'm grateful that somebody cares about the performance in the context of a world. I felt that I was part of a much larger goal.
On one level I make choices so that I can stay in the game. If you’re not in movies that play at the mall, you don’t get to be the lead of a Pawel Pawlikowski film, because you can’t get the money for it. And if you’re in too many movies that just play at the mall, you lose all sense of yourself. For me it’s been kind of a balance.
You also direct, write (both novels and screenplays), and act on stage. Do you consider these art forms to be completely different beasts or merely variations of storytelling?
I consider them variations. If I was always acting for directors with such a clear voice like Pawel, or Linklater or Antoine Fuqua, I don’t know that I would have the desire to write and direct. When you get to work with these guys, and those three directors couldn’t be more different, but you feel like you’re a filmmaker, like you’re part of a collaborative team.
The trouble is those jobs are few and far between. The wonderful thing about theater is you can go work with Anton Chekhov—granted he’s not actually alive and present in the room, but his work is present in the room. Or you do get to go work with Tom Stoppard who is alive and present in the room. Theater is a very ancient and beautiful profession, but it doesn’t speak to audiences the way film does. Even a movie like The Woman in the Fifth, with its tiny release, will reach millions of people by the time 10 years go by. Whatever the number is, it’ll certainly be a lot more people than saw me in Hurlyburly. It’s a fascinating conundrum for a modern actor.
Writing keeps me sane because it’s an art I can control and can put myself into. I don’t need anyone’s permission; I don’t need to get the job. An actor’s life is full of so much failure. There are so many great scripts I’ve been associated with that we didn’t get the money for, or so many cool projects that I auditioned for that another fancy-pants actor got the part on. That’s just life. Writing and directing for me is a space where I get to be free of that. I’m a professional actor and I get to be, in the best sense of the word, an amateur writer and director—in the sense of doing it solely for love.
What’s coming up next for you, film or otherwise?
I did my first straight-up scary movie with Scott Derrickson, who’s really a talented filmmaker that I’m excited about. It’s called Sinister and is coming out this fall. It’s like an Edgar Allan Poe short story. We showed it at South by Southwest, and I think the movie really works, so I feel good about that. Then I did this movie Vigilandia. It’s a really cool science fiction-indie movie that I think could be really good, and I’m getting ready to work with Linklater again on a movie this summer.
Does it happen to be the third installment of the Before Sunset movies?
It might be. Rumor has it that might be what it is, but I’m sworn to secrecy.
I was going to ask how sick you are of people asking that question, but apparently I couldn’t restrain myself either.
It’s funny, some people have never even heard of them, and then the other day I was in a coffee shop, and this woman came up to me and told me that when she read in the paper we were making a third one she burst into tears. I was thinking, “God, it’s so strange that these movies can mean so much to people.” When we made the second one, it felt like everyone had completely forgotten about the first one; there was no pressure. We thought it was kind of ridiculous—never before had there been a sequel to a movie that made less money the first time around.
This third time we’re feeling a real obligation to try to do it right, and that’s a lot of pressure, you know? We don’t want to force it. It feels slightly unfinished to me, that series. I love the end of the second film, but it does feel unfinished. We don’t want to ruin the other two by making something half-assed. Linklater is a special person and unique filmmaker. Of the three of us, I’m really an advocate that we do it. I think we should go for it. So there’s a good chance we’re going to do it this summer.
That is very exciting news. Finally, have you ever been without a goatee since Reality Bites?
[Laughs] Yes, I have. However, I have this weird problem, which is that whenever I do a movie without a goatee, it somehow seems to not connect with the audience for some reason, so I’ve gotten kind of superstitious about it. I don’t want to be the Don Johnson of my generation who only has one look. I try to shake it up—it’s just that those movies never end up doing well. Nobody remembers them… Gattaca and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are two very good movies I did without a goatee. So there!