Hobo #11 – London, July 2009. “Cause, you know, it’s always a little bit of a lie, whenever you read a profile on anybody, that there is any narrative to any of our lives. As a writer when you’re writing the profile you have to kind of create a narrative. ‘He was born in Austin and then he did this and then he was in dead poets society and then he was in training day and then he got married and then he got divorced and now he’s in London.’ And you make it like there’s a beginning, middle and an end when, of course, life’s never really happened that way.” Ethan Hawke, London, July 2009
That’s true. Because there are at least fourty-four other film roles to account for. The two novels he’s penned. The countless stage performances and plays he’s directed. His three films as a writer and director. A great piece he wrote on kris kristofferson for Rolling Stone. The book prizes he sponsors. And then there’s all the stuff that’s really going on. So, being the writer, and needing to create a narrative, I will just say that the evidence of his journey speaks for itself. I tracked down Ethan in London where he’s playing Autolycus in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and Trofimov in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
He has three new films coming out, daybreakers, brooklyn’s finest, and new york, i love you, some film collaborations with richard linklater, a sam shepard play to direct, a third novel to finish, and an endless array of other dreams waiting to be realized. In short, perfect timing to discuss his ongoing adventures in the dark forest.
Ethan Hawke. — Hey, Brian, is this you?
Brian Hendricks. — This is me, how you doing?
— I’m doing pretty well. I want to let you know that I read your interview with [Ralph Waldo] Emerson [Hobo #6] yesterday. That is such a fantastic piece. I couldn’t get over that. You gotta do more things like that.
— Well, I picked the whole idea of starting to do these posthumous interviews because I’m a bit of a quote fiend. Certainly Emerson, browsing through his stuff, I thought ‘this reads great as dialogue’. I felt like I had a great conversation with him.
— You did man! You did. It’s really going to make me go back and revisit him. I always forget how ahead of his time he was.
— My old secondhand copy of Emerson’s writings is never too far away because I find it’s the kind of book you can open anywhere and find something that is immediately profound and current.
— If you ever interview Emerson again, I really think you should ask him what it was like when he dug up his dead wife. I’d really like to know more about that. Have you ever heard that story? [Editor’s note: Ethan is referring to a journal entry wherein Emerson writes, “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.”]
— I do know the story and, yeah, reading the biography of Emerson reminds you that these guys left such a legacy of inspiration and perseverance and creative juice. His own life, I mean, his son died, his wife died, there was a lot of bad stuff going on around him. I guess his writing probably in the end elevated him above that.
— Yeah, you know, he lost several brothers, right?
— Yeah, exactly.
— Several brothers that were important to him. It goes to show you you don’t get something for nothing.
— I think in your own career as an actor and as a writer – certainly the Beats and Salinger, Joseph Campbell, the follow-your-bliss stuff – you must take that stuff pretty close to the heart in terms of your own journey.
— It’s funny, I hoard quotes as well, you know, things that inspire you. Those guys, all the ones that you’ve mentioned, have certainly been inspirations to me. Yesterday, for example, I did a Shakespeare play and a Chekhov play, both of them in a day here in London. What’s fascinating about it is going back in time, you know, getting a laugh on a line that somebody thought up four hundred years ago. To actually puncture the consciousness of an audience in 2009 with a four hundred-year-old idea and make them laugh with it? It’s an amazing feeling to be the vessel of that.The same is true with the more profound ideas of those plays. I’m thinking right now about quotes in the Emerson piece about the continuation of time and the continuation of all beings connected to each other. When you do the plays you feel it. You feel whatever it was like in 1904 in Russia right before the first failed revolution attempt, and this dialogue between Trofimov and Lopakhin, which is kind of the communist idealist and the practical capitalist skirting around each other, you feel how that conversation resonates now versus how that conversation resonated then.
— The beauty of it is to realize that things that were spoken four hundred years ago are even more modern than stuff that’s going on now.
— This happens to me sometimes, I’ll go see a Cassavetes film or a Godard film or some Fassbinder thing and you’ll realize that they’re still so unbelievably modern. There’s new age thinkers right now that feel like they’re breaking new ground that are really just treading old transcendental theories.
— Even take Winter’s Tale, for example, the weird mix of magic realism. Trying to break down that play is very difficult.
— I’ve got a quote here from Margaret Livingstone talking about Winter’s Tale. She writes that, “The Winter’s Tale contains an astonishing number of art forms: A tragedy, a comedy, a pastoral, a tale, a dream vision, statues, songs and ballads, shepherds and shepherdesses dance, an anti-mosque, a poem, a picture and suggestions of a play within a play. Throughout the pastoral interlude, Autolycus acts as artist, stage manager, variously costumed actor and commentator. Seeing his guises deceive simple folk should make us question how art, either his or The Winter’s Tale’s, works on us. Perhaps the pockets of both audiences are being picked.” Does that resonate with you at all?
— Well, this is one of the later Shakespeare plays. Some people, in a critical way, will say that it’s just a hodgepodge. It’s like a trunk. It’s like he just threw in all these half baked ideas that belong in other plays and just kind of tied them up together, kind of scratched them together. But for me, while that may be true, it works kind of like the Beatles’ White Album worked. There’s all these ideas in it, and all this madness in it, but there’s a certain sense to it and I think it’s actually tied up between Autolycus and the character Paulina. Paulina is the woman who makes the statue at the end, and also has conned her king, depending on how you look at it. I feel that Autolycus and Paulina are both real self-portraits by Shakespeare, that he’s kind of taking to task the role of the artist. The artist is like Paulina manipulating real events and taking tragedy and fascism and bureaucracy and moving it in such a way that it can be healed and transformed through beauty. On the other side you have the other artist, Autolycus, who is basically trying to entertain people in whatever way possible while he takes money out of their pocket for his own benefit and for his own self-agrandisement. The play works as a kind of yin and yang play, they’re both shadow reflections of each other. The first statue’s incredibly stern and the other act has dildos joining in a satyr’s dance and all this kind of crazy mad sexuality. In the first act even kissing with inside lip is scandalous. The play’s absolutely unendingly fascinating and, while I have a passion for Chekhov and he is a glorious writer and incredibly simple, I really think Shakespeare was in a tier all by himself.
— I’d have to agree.
— My joke is if Shakespeare were as fun for the audience as it is for the actors, I don’t think anybody would do anything else. It’s so rewarding [to study]. You take even the name Autolycus. The character, he’s the child of Mercury. He’s a hero, half-man, half-god. This is a reference that Shakespeare’s making. He’s the God of Thieves and he’s the God of Alcoholics because Autolycus is the self-devouring wolf. The Greeks thought that the weird thing about wolves was they seemed to eat all the time and they were always hungry. This was Autolycus, that he was constantly stealing and constantly hungry. And he was constantly changing shape. He was mostly wolf but he could also, like a mouse or something, move his bones and he’d get through small holes and shape change himself. I mean, this is a reference you get from just your character’s name. It’s so thrilling. And then you watch how that informs the character’s behaviour throughout the play.
— It’s like you’re ultimately connected with all of history because you go all the way back to Greek myth where the name and the character, the son of Hermes, comes from and then you channel through Shakespeare. From the reviews I’ve been reading people have been commenting very favourably on your performance. It sounds like you’re channeling a bit of Bob Dylan and a bit of Jack Nicholson. Where did you find the source of that character for yourself?
— I’ve heard all that. It’s fun to have people reference a Shakespeare play with people like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and Axl Rose; that amuses me. Have you ever seen that documentary on Townes Van Zandt, Be Here to Love Me?
— I haven’t but I’ve heard something about it.
— He became the basis of that character for me. You know, he looks like the guy that you would be best friends with and he would pull a twenty dollar bill out of your pocket without blinking. And Sam Mendes was trying to set the whole play around the same period as the Chekhov play because we’re doing them in rep. If we set it in one period it made it a lot easier. So he set The Winter’s Tale in that period and it became very easy for me to transform all the poems and the things like that of Autolycus into a current Townes Van Zandt riff, kind of Americana bluesy… I mean, I know Townes didn’t live in 1904. I realize that, but it’s not a hard thing to imagine him living in 1904.
— It’s cool the way they’ve got the North American contingent, the actors playing the bohemians and they have the Brits playing the Sicilians.
— Yes, that works really well.
— You’ve been to Singapore, New Zealand, Spain, Germany. How long were your stints in each of those places?
— They were short but I think about two weeks in each spot. What was fascinating is [in Spain] they were having huge union strikes. You know, we’re living in a very interesting moment in history right now. And the Chekhov play was on fire in Spain. The people loved it. They kind of related to the titanic shifts, the moment where the earth underneath them was just shifting and they knew it. The old way of life was changing and they didn’t know what was next. There’s certainly that sense around the world right now, the way our environment is being affected, the whole globalization of everything, the way technology’s exploding at an exponential level creates this kind of fear, thrill, excitement, worry about the future. The night Barack Obama was elected president, in Brooklyn – we were doing it in Brooklyn – people were catcalling all over the street. You felt the play’s very much alive, at least in our consciousness as performers. The trouble with theatre is the tickets are so expensive that you’re relegated to talking to people who can afford to drop a thousand dollars on an evening. Then you have to go, like, all right, well, these people control the world and so why not have these ideas for them. But then they just sleep through the evening anyway and that’s depressing, whereas when you do it in a night where they give away the seats for ten bucks, the place explodes with joy. There’s some weird lesson in there.
— That’s the beauty of theatre, isn’t it, the fact that every performance you give is like an entity unto itself.
— It’s a living art form. It exists only in the moment. It’s witnessed only in the moment. You can’t go rent it. It’s not a unit of sale. It’s very difficult to commodify theatre. It’s a rock show, you know.
— There’s this weird thing, when you do movies, this illusion of immortality associated with celebrity and film, as if people still really care about Tyrone Power. I mean, I’m not saying I don’t. What I’m saying is “as if film stars don’t age and ultimately die”, you know. If somebody comes up to me on the street and says that they saw me do Hotspur at Lincoln Centre six years ago, there’s this kind of joy I have because I know that at one evening that person and myself were in the same room. They might remember something about the show, “it was the night that so-and-so’s understudy went on”, and that whole performance will come vividly back, versus if somebody comes up to me and says, “I rented Dead Poets Society last night”, I think, oh, cool. It’s not immortal the way I thought it was when I was younger.
— If you were just doing theatre, do you think you would miss film?
— Oh, God, I know I would. I have a passion for theatre and I think it is a beautiful way of living. It creates a better lifestyle. There’s something humbler about it. There’s something harder about it. But the magic of movies I can’t deny. When you watch the power that movies have to affect people and speak to them – I mentioned Dead Poets Society, the years that people have come up to me and talked about what carpe diem meant to them. Movies penetrate the void in a way that is amazing when they work. It’s frustrating when they don’t but when they really work, I mean, shit, you can make a little movie like Tape, this movie Richard Linklater and I made, it virtually is a no-show at the box office. Well, that movie’s probably been seen by, you know, millions of people at this point.
— I really wanted to talk to you about Tape because I teach film at the university here. When Tape came out that was maybe the most significant film I saw all year. I still think it’s an absolute showcase of you as an actor. Your performance in that film, the Aristotelian principles of time, action and place, everything happening within that context, the writing was so good. The filming was so inventive. I turned that film on to so many students.
— You’re making me really happy. I’m really proud of that movie.
— Yeah, it’s a very important film.
— Linklater’s a very fascinating person who really understands the fundamental difference between theatre and cinema and what they are. And he really wanted to use DV. We’d both seen Celebration right before that came out and we realized it was going to get impossible to release independent film; there were now going to be so many of them. Rick was able to make something that before would have been relegated to the theatre and made it cinematic in some strange way. If you talk to him about it he’d say it’s the hardest movie he ever edited in his life because he had this idea that, to really use DV well, he wanted it to be as if the room were completely covered in surveillance cameras, so that he would never return to a shot, which is a very fascinating idea. Throughout the history of film you’re always cutting from this shot to that shot, back to that angle, back to that angle. He wanted to never return to a previously used angle. I kept wondering, well, are we going to have a cut? Are we going to have a cut? And he kept saying, I’m only twenty minutes in and this thing’s impossible. Then it ended up turning out as well as it did. I was really pleased about that.
— That year, 2001, was the year that you did ‘Training Day’ as well.
— People often give me credit for Training Day. People really like the film and I do too. But for me as a human being, it was really Tape that I felt was my first adult performance. I went onto the set of Training Day having just made Tape and I was hell bent to try to force myself to be as relaxed and have as much fun on this big studio movie as I had with Linklater in this tiny little motel room. Have the same kind of spontaneity and freedom, which I did not succeed at doing. It’s very easy, when you get on a movie with a lot of money and a big craft service truck and a big powerful movie star like Denzel Washington, to kind of lose all your creative juice. You just end up not wanting to fuck up and anybody who’s put in any sports knows you can’t ever play not to make a mistake, you know. You gotta play to win and play to have fun. But anyway, I’m glad you like that film.
— I love it a lot, and your other collaborations. Waking Life was such a neat film as well. Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, I reviewed those films again. I haven’t taught them yet but I certainly will in the future. Those films really resonate with a lot of people. Before Sunset is something that a lot of people would like to pull off but very difficult to do. The chemistry that you have with Julie Delpy, and capturing something I think that’s timeless, you must be very proud of that work as well.
— I think what Rick really excels at is taking an idea that everyone has and pulling it off. I remember when I saw Slacker, which was before I knew Rick, I remember thinking, I could do that. I wish I made that movie. Why didn’t I make it?
— That’s exactly what I thought.
— I felt like he made it before I had the chance to. I remember when I saw Dazed and Confused I felt the same way. I felt, like, oh, dammit, I wanted to make a film about all my friends the night we graduated high school. I’ve heard people say that about Before Sunrise. I mean, it’s a very classic idea. But he somehow manages to do them and to execute them well. He used to say on both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset that the thing about these movies was that the target was incredibly small. It needed to be a spot-on bulls-eye, or the whole thing would fall apart. You know, I feel that way about Chekhov. I’ve talked to other actors who feel the same way. When Chekhov goes well it’s almost like hitting the perfect bulls-eye or conjuring a spell or a sleight of hand magic trick where it just takes off all by itself. And you put no effort into it. Absolutely zero effort. Then you look behind you and something beautiful happened. With Rick and Julie and I, the truth of the matter is there’s a tremendous amount of love in those movies, particularly, in a weird way, the second one because when we made the second one, the first one was all but forgotten. It had been nine years since the first one. We like the joke, I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s “Before Sunrise is the least successful film of all time to ever spawn a sequel”. But we loved working together and felt like we had something else to say with these characters.
— Would you consider doing the trilogy? Doing a third installment on that series?
— My dream for us is to do five. That ultimately could be watched as one magnum opus on romantic love, visioning these characters at different moments, capturing different moments in their lives, through their ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. I think a real big problem for Linklater is that there’s so much expectation attached to it now. People ask us about it all the time and I have people come up to me and say that they’ve got a good idea for what the third one should be. It creates a weird feeling. I feel like Rick wants to wait until everybody forgets about it. Maybe we’ll do a third one when we’re seventy.
— I’m just thinking about Jessie in the Sunrise-Sunset series and your character of Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard, saying that he’s not interested in love, his whole relationship with Anya. In your mind, do you think Trofimov will end up marrying Anya?
— Yes, I do. I do. I think when he calls love ‘banal’ he’s speaking about it the way Emerson would, that society’s definition of love is banal. That they’re not really interested in love. They compartmentalize love to be marriage or child-rearing or ‘you be the wife and I be the husband’ and this role playing out of what romantic love is supposed to be. I think Trofimov is not interested in that in the slightest and he’s not interested in defining himself that way. I also think, like a lot of men, he’s full of intellectual ideas until there’s a woman that he loves that needs something from him and then that guy could be saddled with three kids and a Baby Bjorn on his stomach in fifteen minutes, I think.
— It’s great that you’re joining the fraternity of Hobo covers. This issue, I’m working up an editorial based on a Joseph Campbell idea about private myths and public dreams. I have a quote from J.D. Salinger from Catcher in the Rye that struck me where he writes, “Many, many men have been as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily some of them kept records of their troubles. You learn from them if you want to. Just as some day if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal relationship. It isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”
— I think that quote is absolutely beautiful. There is so much to be learned and there is so much suffering all over the world. Real physical suffering and real existential suffering and it’s been going on for a long time. There’s so much to be learned by it. You know, I really never read any Dostoevsky until a couple years ago. I just picked the shortest one, Notes from the Underground, and I was just floored by it. It’s amazing and then this year I made myself read Moby Dick. You read these things and then you realize why they’re famous. Just because you were taught them at school doesn’t mean they’re for intellectuals. Somewhere along the line this thing really moved some people and it moved them for a reason.
— I couldn’t agree with you more. My life is surrounded by books and I’ve had the good fortune to teach Dostoevsky at the university here. I used to say to students, there’s life having read these books and there’s life having not read these books. I can’t even imagine my life now having not read Crime and Punishment. The fact that one of us, a fellow human being, was able to delve so deep into our unconscious, the whole process that Raskolnikov goes through – that’s what keeps me going after all these years still.
— That’s what should keep us going, man, it’s the real dialogue. I know other people find ways of expressing things that happen to them not so literally as through song or poem or literature or performance. They manifest their stories and what happens to them and what they learned through their kids and through their friendships or whatever ways. But for me, art is more real than anything else.
— Yeah, absolutely.
— I was working with Joe Chaikin on a Sam Shepard play the day that the twin towers came down, you know. We cancelled that night’s show because of all the chaos there in the city and the next day we had a meeting. We had this big talk about whether or not we should go on that night because some of the cast felt it was inappropriate to act like nothing happened and how could we do this silly little play about fathers and sons when the world was falling down. And Joe, who had suffered a stroke and had aphasia, he spoke almost like as you imagine a Zen monk might speak. He just boiled every sentence down to its essence and he said to us, “Violence, not real. Violence happened long ago in the mind. Imagination is real. Fathers and sons heal. Fathers and sons love each other. Towers go back up. We must do the play. Must do the play.” I’ve just to come believe that this imagination is very real, thought does lead to action and the arts, it’s how our collective consciousness gets boiled to the top.
— A lot has to happen in the world for a great novel like Brothers Karamazov to happen. Dostoevsky doesn’t exist unto himself. Bob Dylan doesn’t exist unto himself. This is the foam that spits off the top of the ocean.
— I read an interview you did a few years ago where you said that we live in a community which tries to box us all in, “like you’re a journalist, you just do this or that. You can’t also be a musician, you know. I just resent that; I think we’re all a lot more than that.” Yourself, you write, you act, you direct. You did your piece on Kris Kristofferson for Rolling Stone. You narrated The Last Beat, the documentary on Gregory Corso.
— I suppose the media needs to pigeonhole people and sort of put them into a particular slot or whatever.
— It does only because it wants to sell shit. Everybody always wants to make money and that’s why they want to pigeonhole things. I don’t know if you’ve caught any of them but in this latest release of Dylan’s last record, there’s been a handful of interviews with Bob Dylan. There was a piece in Rolling Stone and there was a big interview in Mojo. I kind of feel about Dylan the way… You know, I’ve been studying Chekhov all year and he used to get so excited when a new Tolstoy novel would come out. I’m not comparing myself to Chekhov or anything; I’m just saying that’s the way I feel about Dylan. It’s so exciting to watch, like you said, watch a fellow human being succeed at such a level. He’s such a huge, tremendous talent over such a long period of time. To do so many things well, so many different kinds of music – and his book Chronicles was fantastic. I don’t want to misquote him, but it’s so obvious that guy believes in himself so much. I think so many of us are so dragged down by our insecurities and our fears of failure and our fear of being made fun of and our fear of being mocked that so many people end up not even trying. When I first published The Hottest State, it sounds weird to say, but that was the scariest thing that I’d ever done. It somehow pissed so many off that a young film actor would even try to do such a thing. But I knew that to be the grownup that I wanted to be, to be the adult I dreamed of being, I would have to have some other experiences besides just pretending to be other people in front of a camera. I knew it was important to me and I knew I had to do it and I was always surprised at what a problem so many people seemed to have to with it. How much we as a society and as a culture just really don’t want people to eat more of the pie than they damn well fuckin’ deserve, you know. One of the nice things about getting older is watching that kind of subside a little bit.
— You know, I live in Victoria here, we’ve got a lot of great used bookstores and I went downtown to track down your books. I had to go to four used bookstores. I finally came to Russell Books and found mint, first edition, hard copies with dust jackets of Ash Wednesday and The Hottest State. I thought, for you as an actor, a lot of people will know you from Training Day or will know you from Reality Bites or whatever, but here’s this whole other persona. Having conversations with the booksellers, all of them were very complimentary about the fact that these are solid novels. Writing The Hottest State particularly, and Ash Wednesday as the follow up, in terms of liberating yourself, like you say, becoming an adult and overcoming that fear and putting it out there, obviously it’s good for you. It’s what a person needs to do.
— Part of why I felt so good reading your little Emerson piece is I felt like “that guy really has his eye on the ball”. It doesn’t ultimately matter whether people think so-and-so is the greatest actor or this person is the greatest musician. There’s another reality that’s happening that is much more significant than the superficial one we immerse ourself in constantly. It was very interesting, in that same issue as your Emerson piece there was a piece on that Norwegian philosopher.
— Arne Naess.
— He was very interesting, too, because he was talking about the environmental crisis in relationship to how you live your whole life and viewing ourselves, as mankind, as some special entity on this planet as opposed to actually being a part of the planet. We’re so much more of one giant whole than we really can conceive of in our daily lives. When you remind yourself of that it gets much easier to be yourself and not really worry what the ramifications of that are.
— Joseph Campbell writes about the idea that we come from the earth and so, therefore, we are the eyes of the earth. We are the consciousness of the earth. That stuff just immediately penetrates me. It puts [aside] a lot of the daily superficiality and all the things that the ego is demanding. It allows you to put that aside and realize that you’re part of something so much larger and so much more interesting than just ambition and survival. I guess that’s what keeps us all going as far as trying to find ways to communicate to other people. Because, you know, it’s sort of lost if you just keep it to yourself.
— It’s so much fun to share. As a fan of Tape and as a film scholar you should really interview Linklater sometime.
— He would be right at the top of my list as someone that I would love to talk to about film.
— He would not disappoint, I swear. My collaboration with him over the years has been one of the most enriching, rewarding parts of my life. Not just my artistic life but my life. He really wouldn’t let you down. You know the way people talk about Scorsese with this encyclopedic knowledge or, you know, Dylan’s knowledge about music is stunning, well, Rick has that about film. His passion for it is so contagious and inspiring and he’s so interested in ideas that he’s one of those people that when you get off the phone with him or see him, you walk away excited about the rest of your life. I’ve never heard him say a negative word about anybody, particularly in relationship to the arts.
— He’s contributed so much. When I first saw Slackers, that was one of the films of that year that prompted me to stay interested in film.
— It’s so inspiring. You know that feeling you get when you stumble on a great poem or a great book or anything, where you feel like there’s some like-minded soul out there. It makes it all worth doing.
— You were talking about Bob Dylan earlier. I’ve been listening, like, nonstop. I’ve become almost obsessed with a couple songs on Tell Tale Signs, his Bootleg Volume 8, real muse songs, “Born in Time” and “Red River Shore”. They’re so autobiographical and I think Dylan’s talking much larger than just about a specific lost love or a woman. It’s great that you can put on a piece of music or watch a film and a whole part of you comes alive again.
— I was at a party the other day, speaking of that bootleg series, and a Dylan song came on that I’d never heard before. It’s “Cross the Green Valley”, do you know that one?
— I don’t know if I do. “Cross the Green Valley.”
— Did I just say the wrong title? Let me just look it up here. “Cross the Green Mountain”.
— “Cross the Green Mountain”, okay, I’ll look it up.
— Yeah, it’s on that same album. And I’ll listen to the ones that you cited.
— You’ve got [the films] Daybreakers, Brooklyn’s Finest and New York, I Love You all coming out later this year.
— New York, I Love You’s just a little short. Did you see that film Paris, Je T’aime?
— I did, yeah. Enjoyed that.
— Yes, well, this is just the New York City version of that. Brooklyn’s Finest is a film I did with the director of Training Day, Antoine Fuqua, and it’s kind of like the East Coast answer to Training Day. It all takes place in the hottest precinct in the United States in Brooklyn and we shot there last summer, absolutely phenomenal experience. I had a pretty great time doing Training Day. To be making a movie with Denzel in South Central in 2000 was an incredible experience. And this was the same. It’s amazing. The Nation of Islam was doing security for the movie and we were shooting in the projects and working with and meeting a lot of fascinating people. You know, there’s a lot of extreme poverty in New York City still. It’s something that I don’t see when I’m taking my kids to school. It was fascinating to make a movie there, get to work with a bunch of people from that neighbourhood. That was fun. Then Daybreakers is my attempt at a genre film. I haven’t really made a full-blown genre movie. These two twin brothers who sent me Daybreakers are big cinema geeks and they love movies and they really wanted me to play this vampire. And I really believe in them. I thought they were really gifted and they reminded me a lot of Joe Dante. You know, Joe really taught me about film. I haven’t done a lot of genre movies because it’s not the thing that most appeals to me. But I do have a love for it. I read comic books with the best of them when I was a kid and I have a certain love for it. And I had a ball making it. I think Brooklyn’s Finest is going to come out in December-ish and Daybreakers January-ish.
— I’m looking forward to seeing them because I’ve seen the Undead by the Spierig brothers.
— Oh, you did? So you know what I’m talking about, right?
— I do, like you say, they’re real cinema geeks and they’ve got a real feel for the medium. Daybreakers is set in the same time period as Gattaca, isn’t it?
— It’s a real spiritual brother of Gattaca. Like all really great genre films, it has a terrific underlying metaphor. It takes the future where almost everyone is a vampire. And the vampires are running out of humans. They’re trying to come up with a blood substitute, people are getting foreign blood – it’s exactly what we’re doing to the earth and it’s a great metaphor for oil and corporate greed and everything. The movie’s very funny in that way and it works on that level. It also works just as a thriller.
— I teach a course called “Film on the Future” and I include Gattaca in the lineup. It’s amazing how much stuff people can find in Gattaca; there’s so much subtext in that movie. It’s a classic journey film, with the shadow and the anima and the geometry in the film, the use of circles. Andrew Niccol’s got a real eye as a director.
— I feel like Andrew Niccol should have a government subsidy. He should get to do everything he wants to do. His trouble is that all his ideas are very expensive. Rick writes a script where it’s pretty easy to make the movie for two million bucks. Andrew’s ideas are very big but I think Andrew’s a genius. I think he’s like Stanley Kubrick, right, and I think Gattaca is one of the best first films of all time. That movie’s so well thought out and getting to work with him you understand how well thought out it is.
— I think that projection about working for corporations and the whole world within that framework makes you wonder if that hasn’t already happened.
— More and more it’s happening, people’s identity is wrapped up in the company they work for more than the country they come from. Sony executives in New York have a lot more in common with Sony executives in Japan than they do with a construction worker in Iowa. You know what I mean?
— Absolutely right. There’s an Aldous Huxley quote that I often find myself spouting that “the goal in life is to discover that you’ve always been where you were supposed to be”. That everything that you do, even a mistake, leads you to a place where you can look back and say that there was a plan and that everything has worked out the way that you’ve wanted it to. Looking back, starting with Dead Poets Society to where you are now in London, doing these plays and the variety of work that you’ve done – I guess as an artist one’s never really totally satisfied because the more you know the more you realize that you have to know – but you must be pretty happy with the path that you’ve found yourself on.
— It’s funny that you said that because if you do read Ash Wednesday you’ll find that I kind of spun that quote in my book. I do find that idea very moving, that even when really bad things are happening to you, you’re in the right spot. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with experiencing pain. It doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to be experiencing pain. In my own life, when I’ve gone through the more difficult periods of my life, you always have this feeling that somehow you lost the path, as if the path was supposed to be easy. The path isn’t. I mean, look at Nelson Mandela. You read his life story, you go, “It’s not a piece of cake to be Nelson Mandela.”
— No, exactly.
— This is a very significant human being who has suffered tremendously. We all want to get somewhere for free and we somehow think that maybe others are, that somehow, so-and-so, they get to do everything they want – as if we were pitted against one another. To answer your question… it pleases me that I’m not dead. It pleases me that you would take the time to ask me these questions, that I would be in this position that I would get to play the part of the artist being interviewed. It’s a thrilling role to get to play because it’s fun to be in the game and to be participating and it’s an honour. I try to look at it like that. But the bottom line is, the reason why I haven’t written a third book yet is – when I was younger I had a shitload of hubris. I loved the arts with such a passion and I loved doing it, but the older I get the more I really want to have something to say. The more of the really great performers I meet, the more I realize most of them aren’t that successful by society’s standards. There’s a lot of people who have mastered the craft of performance that are not on the 100 Most Successful People of the Year by Entertainment Weekly’s chart. The older you get, and the more I read, the more I want to write a really good book because the truth is there’s a lot of books out there that people should read before they read something else [laughs], you know, something by me. I have a friend of mine, he’s a musician who is very, very good. He gets so despondent because it’s so hard to get a record deal these days. Even if he had a record deal, walking into a place where they sell CDs and there’s just volumes and volumes of CDs – there’s even Neil Young records he hasn’t even listened to yet. Why the fuck should anybody buy one of his? You go on the Internet, it just seems like the world is full of all this noise and how could you possibly contribute. And yet we have to. We have to try. If Neil Young has something to say, so do we. So I am pleased just to be here. I was scared shitless when I was younger – the biggest fear about having success young, if you cite Reality Bites, being twenty-four years old and being put on a cover of magazines and stuff like that, you know, man, most people burn out. Most people are dead on drugs or lost their way or succumbed to vanity or cashed out. I’m grateful to be where I am. Did you get a chance to read that profile on Kristofferson?
— Just some stuff online. I haven’t read it in its entirety.
— I think you’d get a huge kick out of it. If you want, I could have some people send it to you.
— That would be fantastic.
— He’s such a fascinating example of someone who survived and he survived because he’s worked really hard to try to keep his aim true. What’s your goal, what’s your real goal – if your goal is to be a big shot, well, you may succeed but even in succeeding, you’ll fail. If your goal is to love and to participate in the arts and to be a part of that dance, nothing will stop you. Nothing will stop you. There’s always the rare bird, one-a-generation bird, who gets to be totally true to themselves and do it all for the right reasons and sell a million records, i.e. Bob Dylan. Most of us don’t get to be that. But it doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. You’ll see Kris is a really beautiful person. I think I largely did that to have an excuse to learn from him. I was kind of interested in how somebody becomes that person.
— He’s a prime example of a guy who set the pattern, someone who went from music into acting, and his persona, the traveling troubadour and the romantic and tough guy. He’s got a heroic status to him for sure.
— Yeah, he does. He does.
— I want to read you this line, see how this resonates after all these years. I love this line; it’s the final line from Ash Wednesday. “Floating down the front steps, a fresh gust of wind at my back, I felt new, like one or maybe all of us had been resurrected.” How does that resonate with you today in terms of what you were expressing with your character at the end of your second book?
— I was thinking a lot, at that time period, about becoming an adult, and really, like, a real adult. Shedding the superficial, childish ideas of what romantic love is, being a person, how to define success, how to define yourself in context of a relationship. It’s strange to me because so much of that book is about the kind of birth I felt at being married and committing myself to a family. And a family that ultimately fell apart shortly after [laughs] I finished the book. I felt like, you turn left and you immediately bang right into a wall, a wall you didn’t even know was there. It’s funny to me that I could write about feeling newborn at a moment that I know in the back of my head that I was newborn and presented in front of the firing squad [laughs]. I’m obviously joking but that’s what that thing makes me think of.
— I remember you talking to Charlie Rose around that time, you were talking about the fear of Job, being set up with a great fall and when does leprosy strike. I think you were talking about it in a humorous vein but that idea that when things are seemingly going well, or even exceptionally well or whatever, there’s always that thought in our minds, that “when’s the other shoe going to drop”.
— I remember feeling this way during the Clinton administration when every newspaper was full about him sleeping with that girl and the semen-stained dress and this stuff. I was thinking ‘this is what a country talks and thinks about during peace and prosperity?’. We’re turning in on ourself. Then look at the next ten years, okay, great, now we’ve got an economic depression. I often feel that when things are going well in your life is the time to do the real work on yourself. You’re going to die. I’m going to die. The pages of Hobo magazine are going to be dust. There’s no maybe there. All that’s going to happen. There’s nothing wrong with it happening. That’s what’s supposed to happen. I think that’s the thing that I kind of have taken to now, just ‘cause my marriage fell apart and I felt like I got, you know, hit by a truck. I was supposed to get hit by a truck [laughs]. There was a big lesson I needed to learn. Something I didn’t know and that there was no way I was going to learn without that truck. You know what I’m saying?
— I do. It was an interesting interview with Charlie. You were talking about “luck is the residue of design” and you were also talking about politics and the Clinton era and all the rest of it and saying that government is not something that you would ever see yourself really investing your consciousness in. How do you feel now with Obama and stuff? Has he given you more optimism towards the political realm at all?
— It gives me optimism – the term before, if somebody told me that guy was going to get elected president, I would say there was no way this country was ready for it. I guarantee I would have laughed. I remember I was in South Africa making a movie years ago and getting to listen to people talk about Nelson Mandela, he was the president at the time, how much they loved him and how just a few years before that he would be president was unimaginable. I love it because it lets you know that the unimaginable is always happening. It’s always possible and we really don’t know. It does make me optimistic, you know, America’s a weird country but it seems like it operates like a sailboat a little bit. We never go one direction; we never go straight anywhere. We kind of go a little bit over here and then a little bit over there. But hopefully we’re moving forward. I’m optimistic in that he seems like a real leader and a real person and I’m impressed that somebody like this could exist in this environment and that he’s been elected president. I think it would be a huge mistake to expect him to be Jesus and make everyone happy. I’ve got a bunch of leftie friends that are incredibly disappointed in him already. And I’ve got a bunch of rightie friends who are so quickly talking about, “See, he’s a failure. He’s a failure.” It’s so disappointing to me to see people almost seeming to want it to be a failure.
— I guess, the media, that’s what they live off.
— Oh, they just create it. They just create it. They want a story and so at first the story is he’s Jesus. He’s going to save us all. Actually, he’s a big fat liar. Neither is true.
— I feel as a Canadian that the shift from Bush to Obama was a kind of cleansing in a way.
— It’s something that makes you think anything could happen. It makes you keep an open mind and an open heart. I’ve spent a lot of time in Canada over the years and I think Canada’s an amazing place. Where in Canada are you from?
— I’m in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, about an hour and a half ferry ride from Vancouver.
— Are you there right now?
— Yeah, I’m in Victoria right now.
— And what time is it there?
— It is now twenty-five after nine in the morning.
— Oh, wow. Well, thanks for speaking to me so early in the morning.
— Yeah, no problem. It’s a bit of a shift because I’m morning time, you’re afternoon time.
— I find it very difficult, you know, I have a whole new compassion in my heart for being interviewed because [of] interviewing Kristofferson. It’s very difficult to get an interesting interview, get people talking their best. And it would be very hard to do it over the phone at eight o’clock in the morning so I’m impressed.
— Well, I’m more than impressed and I really can’t thank you enough for being so forthcoming.
— A good interview, for me, I feel like ‘this is what it would be like to meet that person.’
— Exactly, yeah.
— ‘Cause, you know, it’s always a little bit of a lie, whenever you read a profile on anybody, that there is any narrative to any of our lives. As a writer when you’re writing the profile you have to kind of create a narrative. “He was born in Austin and then he did this and then he was in Dead Poets Society and then he was in Training Day and then he got married and then he got divorced and now he’s in London.” And you make it like there’s a beginning, middle and an end when, of course, life’s never really happened that way.
— So you’re going to be in London until the 15th of August and then you return to New York City?
— Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. On the 15th we leave here and we close. For two nights we do the plays in Epidaurus, Greece at the oldest theatre on the planet Earth and I’m really looking forward to it. It starts at ten o’clock at night because it’s so hot there and we do it just like the Greeks did. Just with candles.
— Oh, brilliant.
— Oh, it should be so much fun. It’s for ten thousand people. They apparently designed the theatre in such a way that it’s the best acoustics in the world. Everyone can hear you. You can whisper on the stage and they can hear you in the back row, or so I’m told. I’ll tell you more about it later but I’m really looking forward to it.
— And when’s that going to be? Right at the end of August?
— Yeah, August, that’s when we finish. We perform at Epidaurus on the 21st and 22nd and then I head back to New York City and I’m going to direct a Sam Shepard play this winter. Aside from that, I don’t know what I’m going to do.
— Well, that sounds like a good move doing some Sam Shepard.
— Yeah. I enjoy it and there’s a play I’ve always loved of his called The Lie of the Mind. I think I read it when I was about twenty-two. I loved it so much and I feel like I’m finally old enough to direct it. So I’m going to do that and hopefully I’ll probably do another.
— All right.
— All right, well, I’ve enjoyed talking to you.
— It’s just been a total pleasure talking to you.
— Okay, all right. See you, man.
— Okay, Ethan, cheers.