Why Ethan Hawke doesn’t worry too much about what other people are thinking

After making his film debut with River Phoenix in 1985’s “Explorers,” Ethan Hawke had his big breakout with “Dead Poets Society” when he was only 19. Since then, his movie career stretches across decades from “White Fang” and “Midnight Clear” to “Reality Bites” and “Before Sunrise” to “Training Day” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and then “The Purge,” “Phone Booth” and “Leave the World Behind.” 

But Hawke has always been after something more. He frequently chooses demanding roles in challenging films – the title role in a modern telling of “Hamlet” or “First Reformed” – but it goes beyond that. He has co-founded a theater company, earned a Tony nomination as an actor and a Drama Desk nomination as a director, moving comfortably from Shakespeare and Chekhov to Tom Stoppard and Sam Shepard. He has written three novels and a graphic novel, not to mention co-writing Oscar-nominated screenplays for “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.” In recent years, Hawke co-created and co-starred in the miniseries, “The Good Lord Bird,” directed the documentary film “Seymour: An Introduction,” and directed the Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward docuseries “The Last Movie Stars.”

Hawke’s latest adventure – aside from his cameo alongside “Dead Poets Society” costar Josh Charles in Taylor Swift’s recent “Fortnight” video – is directing his daughter, Maya Hawke in a film he co-wrote. “Wildcat” is an innovative film about Flannery O’Connor that’s in theaters on May 3; rather than take a biopic route, the film veers from the writer’s daily existence to scenes from her iconic short stories that parallel emotional connections to her life.

Hawke recently spoke by video from his Brooklyn home while noshing on rice balls from a local Japanese restaurant amidst his swirl of press day interviews. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q. O’Connor’s mix of certainty and searching feels linked to “The Good Lord Bird” and “First Reformed.” Did those help you find the mindset to make this film or are you in that mindset and that’s why you choose these projects? 

It’s a combination. The thing about living a little while is you start to get revealed to yourself. None of this was my plan, but you look back and think, “Oh, that makes sense.” I was drawn to this because a lot of previous work brought me to a place where I’d find O’Connor interesting. 

Q. As someone always looking for a challenge, was part of the appeal that O’Connor doesn’t lend herself to a traditional biopic? 

Absolutely. There was this level of difficulty – there’s hardly any drama in her life, she sat in her room and suffered and fed chickens. Where’s the movie? But there was something captivating and so incongruous about the way she looked and lived versus what was happening in her head. So the idea of using her imagination to explore her inner life seemed fitting. 

Our imaginations are real. They affect the way we think and behave and interact with other people. Hers was so vibrant and so wicked and wild while her daily life so ordinary that I knew I could do something interesting, but it definitely felt like a jump off the high dive. 

Q. You’ve noted that there’s been a longstanding debate, which has flared up in recent years, about the racism O’Connor displayed in her private writing. How did that inform your film?

If you want to explore any American in our past, you’re going to deal with America’s wounds and America’s crimes and America’s sins. 

Flannery writes so beautifully about the hypocrisy inside the Southern White Christian and its relationship to race, so I always viewed her as an elevated thinker for the period. But she’s not clean herself. She’s a complicated woman. 

She was born and bred and sustained on the earth soil and water of the Jim Crow South. One scholar said she was a recovering racist. She saw how ugly it was. She wrote about the people doing the oppressing and they all get strangled or gored by a bull or shot in the head. And if she’s good at anything, it’s knowing that her heart is not without barbs and shards of glass – and that none of ours are free of that.

Q. While you take on new challenges, you don’t avoid being the movie star in commercial hits. Is that a conscious choice to toggle back and forth?

It’s just about balance. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “I want to see a movie about Flannery O’Connor.” I like making people happy and doing something that everybody wants to see. But if that’s all you do, it starts to feel like you’re just repeating yourself or having a lowest common denominator conversation. If I keep shaking up my own life, then I stay curious and if I spend a couple of years writing a book, or if I direct a play, then sometimes I just want to act in something and wear a crazy mask and be scary. 

Q. Do you worry about being called a dilettante when you try something new, or can you just block it out? 

I really do like trying new things, but a dilettante implies that you didn’t put maximum effort into it. I took making that Newman-Woodward documentary seriously. And a lot of professional documentary makers would never make that documentary because I didn’t know better. So I was doing a lot of things wrong but they worked. It’s kind of like John Lennon and Paul McCartney – I’m not comparing myself to them, but there was a lot they didn’t know about chord progressions and things like that so they did things they weren’t “allowed” to do because they didn’t know any better. Sometimes you’ve got to protect that kind of innocent part of you. 

I have to be in charge of putting myself in situations that are going to make me learn. People may be irritated by that but I’ll still have done it. If I keep showing up, eventually they’ll understand where I’m coming from. And if you worry too much about what other people are thinking, you won’t do anything because somebody’s always going to have a problem with what you’re doing.

Q. Is it easier to have that outlook at 53 than when you were younger? 

Hell, yeah. All that stuff hurts when you’re young. But I learned that if criticism is going to get you out of the kitchen, then you shouldn’t be in the kitchen. The great learning lesson was the theater – sometimes you’ll do a play and people don’t like it but you still have to do it every night. If you’re doing it because you love the form and you think the attempt has value, then you’ll find your mojo every night. And that builds character. 

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