Four-time Academy Award-nominated actor, director and writer Ethan Hawke has been living in Richmond for months now, filming his role as fiery abolitionist John Brown for the upcoming Showtime limited series, “The Good Lord Bird.”
Based on the 2013 novel by James McBride that won the National Book Award, the series has been shooting in central Virginia, with its main set in Powhatan, and will continue into November before airing in eight parts next February.
The 48-year-old Hawke already has an impressively diverse career on stage and screen, and he’s only getting more intriguing roles with age.
He first gained notice for his breakout performances as a preppie youth in “Dead Poets Society” and the sarcastic Troy Dyer in the trapped-in-the-‘90s dramedy, “Reality Bites.” Since then he's starred in multiple great films by director Richard Linklater, including the “Before Sunrise” trilogy and "Boyhood," as well as the gritty cop drama “Training Day” with Denzel Washington, and more recently, a brilliant turn as a disillusioned priest in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed.”
Before arriving with his family in Richmond, he had been co-starring with Paul Dano in a Broadway revival of Sam Shepherd’s classic play “True West.”
It wouldn't take long for Hawke to discover the majestic Byrd Theatre in Carytown after attending a screening of “The Unforgiven” held for the cast. He'll be returning this weekend to show a movie he directed last year, “Blaze,” a music biopic that plays like a poetic, visual mix tape of legendary Austin musician Blaze Foley’s short life. The country folk singer and songwriter was shot dead 30 years ago, at 39, during a dispute with a friend’s son.
Hawke’s acclaimed film looks gorgeous, like the worn jacket of a 1970s private press album that has come alive beneath muted earth tones.
“I tried to imagine, every time I looked at the monitor, how I remembered my childhood - as if we made a Polaroid come to life,” Hawke says. “It was one of the most perfect experiences of my life getting to make this movie; a movie about music. To get to see it and hear it in the Byrd, a really beautiful theater: I love this place!”
The movie stays focused on Foley's creative genius and features uniformly great acting by real-life musicians, including the astonishing first-time actor Ben Dickey in the title role, as well as Charlie Sexton, guitarist in Bob Dylan’s band, who delivers a mesmerizing take on the revered songwriter, Townes Van Zandt.
Hawke says his method of working with nonactors in the film was influenced by his own role as jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in “Born to be Blue” (2015).
“I worked hard on that character and felt like I got close to doing something good. The more I learned about him, I saw the best of him was in his relationship to his trumpet, to music,” he explains. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun, instead of teaching an actor how to play the piano, what if I work with musicians on acting so that the music is authentic?’ Ben Dickey is a real country blues singer, he’s played dive bars, been kicked off record labels, his entire life.”
Hawke points out that most every other music biopic is about someone famous and inadvertently, those films wind up becoming about the trials of celebrity.
“I wanted to make a movie about creativity and not have to deal with that kind of superficial aspect. Ben and Charlie have a lot to say about music. And they are performers, so it was an easy jump for them.”
He agrees with the analogy of the film as mix tape, while elaborating that he intercut scenes to create “a diagram of two different wells of creativity.”
“One of them for Blaze is this beatific, falling-in-love-in-a-treehouse way of making art for the sheer joy of singing your own songs. A pure Whitman-esque state of bliss,” he says. “Then there’s this other well of self-destruction, self-loathing, setting yourself on fire, and that works too. That’s one of the most confusing things to me about art. There isn’t one right way to do it.”
He quickly adds that his friend and collaborator Richard Linklater steered him away from the youthful seduction of artistic suffering for authenticity’s sake: “He’s one of the happiest guys I’ve ever met,” he says.
However, Hawke did work and became friends with a pair of once-in-a-generation acting talents who went the other, more tragic direction: River Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who both died young from drug overdoses.
“You just mentioned my two greatest influences of my generation, and I lost them both to heroin,” he says. “In that way, this movie is personal to me. These are real traps. That’s what really led me to make ‘Blaze.’”
Hawke co-wrote the script with Foley’s former wife, Sybil Rosen (beautifully played by Alia Shawkat) whom he describes as a “touchstone” for the project.
“There was something healing about it for Sybil. She felt like she was on a mission to teach us what outlaw country was coming from before it had a name,” he recalls. “But she understood we were making art, not a documentary.”
So what is it about all this Americana in his recent work that is appealing to Hawke at this stage in his career? His production company’s next project will be another music film about legendary country duo, the Louvin Brothers (Hawke is playing Ira).
“Growing up in Texas, I grew up with so many fake ideas of America as well as something really wonderful. It’s confusing as a kid,” he says. “You want to believe in these icons, this myth and dream of freedom. But this country is at war with itself as to what its identity is: Is it an identity of freedom, or it is an identity of oppression?”
You can see why Hawke had a major interest in playing John Brown, the militant abolitionist who led the doomed Harper’s Ferry raid. “You can’t tell a true American story these days without stumbling on issues of race,” he says. “To be here in Richmond telling this story, it’s very interesting.”
Apart from the “Blaze” screening at the Byrd, Hawke will take part in the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville (Oct. 23 – 27) where he’ll discuss another of his most memorable films: 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” the final work by director Sidney Lumet (“Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico”). The tightly plotted, heist-gone-wrong story is a bleak but compelling genre film, co-starring the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, as well as Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei.
Hawke recalls moving to New York around the same time as Hoffman, who brought Lumet to see him perform onstage in “Hurlyburly” and immediately got him cast in the film as his younger, ineffectual brother.
“Phil did everything with a huge appetite. He lived really hard. If he wanted to work on a scene, you worked on a scene,” Hawke remembers. “He had a funny line, he used to say there’s no pleasure that he couldn’t turn into a pain [laughs].”
Re-watching the movie, it can be painful for fans of Hoffman (like this writer) to watch the scene where his character retreats to a New York high-rise to shoot heroin. Hoffman died five years ago on the bathroom floor of his Manhattan apartment with a needle still in his arm. He was 46 — a freakishly natural talent gone in his prime.
“Watching it now, you see what a personal performance it is. It does hurt to see it, I will admit that,” Hawke says. “But it’s also Lumet’s last film and it shows you what a brilliant mind he had. He called it a Greek tragedy: two brothers accidentally kill their own mom. Everyone in the movie is a shit, you know?”
The cast was very much aware that Lumet, then 83, was working in the twilight of his career, “the last burst of the rose,” as Hawke describes it.
“He had been trying to make that film for a long time. It was Phil who gave him that opportunity, having just won the best actor Oscar for ‘Capote.’ Instead of cashing in, he went back and gave a job to one of his heroes.”
Staring down middle age, Hawke continues to impress with his interesting choices as an actor and director. While aging women in Hollywood are treated much differently, I point out to him that, like actors such as Brad Pitt, Hawke has aged from a fresh-faced young actor to an artist with a more interesting face and complexity. Or as a New Yorker critic described him in “First Reformed”: “a soul that can frown.”
“It’s funny about aging. You start to realize how much movies are a young person’s game. The thrust of cinema is about seducing young people. So the negative aspect is there are less parts, but the parts are more interesting,” he says. “You have to have lived a little to play a priest with an existential crisis of faith.”
He continues this line of thought when discussing his peer.
“Brad Pitt is giving the best performances of his life right now. It’s really exciting to watch him. I didn’t used to be that interested in him, but now I find everything he does so interesting. And I think it is the roles,” he says. “If you’re lucky enough to stick around, to keep getting parts. I mean, I’m playing John Brown right now, love him or hate him, he’s one of the most interesting Americans that’s ever lived. Is he insane, enlightened, a saint, a murderer? Just a very complicated soul – and it’s thrilling.”
Ethan Hawke will screen “Blaze” on Sunday, Oct. 6, at the Byrd Theatre at 7:30 p.m. with a Q&A to follow. For details on his appearance at the Virginia Film Festival, visit virginiafilmfestival.org.