In an extensive conversation with IndieWire, the actor explained the impulse behind his new docuseries “The Last Movie Stars” and his uneasy relationship to fame.
At 51, Ethan Hawke has lived many creative lives. “Dead Poet’s Society” made him a star at 18; at 24 he became a Gen X icon with “Reality Bites.” He was 25 when “Before Sunrise” kicked off the iconic romantic trilogy that would follow him for the next 18 years and make him a screenwriter with “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.”
He became a director a long time ago — he made “Chelsea Walls” in 2001 — and two decades later, his identity lies in being a creator as much as an actor. Showtime series “The Good Lord Bird” made Hawke a showrunner in 2020 and in his new HBO Max docuseries, “The Last Movie Stars,” Hawke turns his focus to the elusive careers and romance of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward — although the subject may as well be himself.
“I’ve definitely made the turn from being an old young person to being a young old person,” he told IndieWire. “But it’s the beginning of it, you know?”
“The Last Movie Stars” utilizes transcripts from an old project that Newman commissioned late in life, when writer Stewart Stern interviewed the actor and his many friends and family for a memoir that never happened. Newman eventually had the tapes destroyed, but transcripts remain, and Hawke uses them to cobble together new voiceovers (including George Clooney voicing Newman) in addition to Zoom-based interviews in a quest to understand how the relationship between the two stars informed every aspect of their lives.
Hawke prefers to describe his 380-minute production as a single movie, but the streamer presents it as a six-part series. However defined, the result is the most touching and sensitive work that Hawke has made behind the camera, one that doubles as a meditation on his own complicated relationship to fame and artistic desire.
Hawke is the sort of amiable New York presence who settles into his environment even when he gets noticed. On a recent afternoon, when I walked into a restaurant to meet him near his home in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boerum Hill, he was already engaged in deep conversation with a waiter about legendary 1970s actors. Later, a homeless man walked by who Hawke knew from around the neighborhood, and he reached into his wallet to hand over a 20-dollar bill. “I’ve got this for you,” he said, and muttered, “I like that guy. I can’t help myself.” The waiter, an aspiring actor, walked over with two beers on the house before ending his shift and heading out. “I enjoyed that conversation,” Hawke said. “To be continued!”
Then he returned to our interview, reflecting on the impulses that drove him to scrutinize Newman and Woodward’s career, his recent work, and the creative challenges that continue to inform his career.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: This documentary confronts the challenge serious actors face when they become famous. How much can you relate to that?
Ethan Hawke: This was really personal to me. I spent the first year working on it and wondering, “Why is this falling into my lap? There are better documentary filmmakers. What can I add?” Well, I am an actor and I do know that it’s so hard to make one good movie. If you love and want that feeling again, it’s incredibly stress-inducing and competitive. You know, Newman won Best Actor at Cannes in the ‘50s and Best Actor at Berlin in the ‘90s. That’s a big career. There isn’t a bad period beyond maybe two and a half years.
You seem keen on celebrating some of his less-respected performances, including “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.”
If want to understand the life of an artist, you have to understand the failures. That’s a great performance. It was really valuable to me to take time and watch “Judge Roy Bean.” It’s brilliant and it was universally panned. Some movies that are universally panned and deserve it; others don’t.
What was that movie for you?
Oh, “Gattaca” didn’t deserve to be panned. I walked around with [director] Andrew Niccol the day after it came out. We walked all up and down Manhattan reading papers. We couldn’t find a quote to put above the ad. There wasn’t one good quote. That movie utterly confused people when it came out. Then a decade later people started to write about it differently as they revisited it.
How do you contend with the need to feel validation in the moment when some work can only be appreciated over time?
I’m always telling this to my daughter Maya: It’s not just about this job. It’s about this ability to express yourself. It’s like a spider web. There’s this job, there’s that job, and that job. You step back 15 years later and there starts to be a career. When you look at the breadth of Newman’s career, it’s staggering to look at each individual performance. I can’t pick the performance that I think is the best. Newman’s genius is his consistency over 50 years and his ability to be excellent for so long. I found that inspiring — and intimidating.
Like Newman, you also dealt with a divorce that played out in public and was treated like a scandal. In retrospect, what helped you get through that?
The answer is always work. If you’re worried everybody has superficial interests, then you have to give them something substantive to talk about. In the years after my divorce, I doubled down on the life of an actor. I did “Hurly Burly,” I did “The Coast of Utopia,” I did “The Bridge Project” and took Chekhov and Shakespeare around the world for a year. I just decided that no amount of bad press will turn me into a bad actor if I don’t let it.
But at some point you must have worried that people weren’t taking you seriously.
I always look back at the periods that I perceived as the hardest as being the ones with the most growth. It seems funny, but there was a period right before “Training Day” where I couldn’t get a fucking job because I was the Gen-X poster boy and everyone thought they knew me. I was supposed to be washed out to sea with that fad. I remember I wanted to get an audition for “Saving Private Ryan” and I couldn’t fucking get it. Everyone knew who I was and they didn’t want me. I’m sure if you talk to Matt Dillon or DiCaprio — anybody who’s had young success — they’ll acknowledge that you hit these walls where people think they’ve figured you out and then they’re done with you. You have to be willing to be humble enough to keep getting up to the plate.
Newman also struggled with the pressure to do commercial work. In the documentary, you include an awkward interview he did when “The Towering Inferno” came out, a movie that didn’t exactly play to his strengths.
It’s really hard to see that. He was resisting becoming a brand at the same time that the industry was telling him that you’ve gotta pay to play. If you don’t make people money, you don’t have creative freedom. We can make fun of “Towering Inferno” now, but that was the biggest movie of the year. He got 10 years of creative freedom because of that movie. He was smart to do it, even if it isn’t a movie that’s worth talking about in the legacy of his work.
Earlier you noted that Newman won multiple awards throughout his career. But how much stock do you put in awards as a metric for success? You’ve been nominated for four Oscars but never won, and “The Good Lord Bird” was shut out of the Emmy race last year.
John Coltrane never won a prize. There are benchmarks that society likes, but they can’t be benchmarks for the artist because then you’re just lost. Sometimes I wonder if Tom Cruise won the Oscar for “Magnolia,” would it have changed the trajectory of his career? It kind of seems like he gave up on chasing approval from the industry and just did his own thing. That’s probably a good thing for him, but sometimes I wish they gave him more prizes for “Magnolia” so that he had done it again. Then again, I find these things so mysterious. If Gwyneth hadn’t won the Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love,” would we have gotten 50 more better performances? Sometimes the yearning gets satiated and sometimes it doesn’t.
In Cruise’s case, it leads to a different kind of work ethic.
The guy’s clearly working his ass off. I find Newman inspiring because on one level I could make a strong case for “Slapshot,” “Judge Roy Bean,” and “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” as three of his most revelatory performances. He didn’t win any awards for those performances aside from “Buffalo Bill” winning at Berlin. I only cite those things because I know they mean things to other people. The actor in me watches “Judge Roy Bean” and I’m proud of him. It’s hard to put yourself out on the line like that. It was harder for him than it is for me.
The transcripts you uncover in the documentary reveal that Newman often wasn’t confident in his own abilities.
There’s an honesty in those transcripts, and not only when he says he’s a sexual being created by Joanne. He writes about being insecure or nervous around Scorsese or Malkovich. I find that so fascinating.
Do you keep a diary like that?
If somebody exhumes my 25 years of emails with Richard Linklater, they might find some interesting personal truths to us. If I had the foreknowledge to record all of Linklater’s voicemails that he left me over the last 25 years, I think it would be really interesting. He used to leave me, like, half-hour voicemails. When we were younger and in different time zones he would be like, “Hey, I know you’re probably asleep in Spain, but listen to this…”
These were ideas for projects?
Or thoughts on a political moment. Just whimsy or bullshit or something like, “I met so-and-so at a party. What an asshole!” I wish it was in letter form, particularly for something like “Boyhood” where you can really see the evolution of that idea.
You and Linklater navigated a lot of pushback from studios on your collaborations. What was the worst experience you went through together?
People had a huge problem with the end of “Before Sunset.” If I’ve felt sure about one thing I’ve done in my life, it’s the end of “Before Sunset.” That was Warner Bros. They wanted us to reshoot that. It was amazing.
How did Linklater get around it?
Rick is cagey and when he wants to be, he’s an immovable object, but he never squares off with anybody. He lets their own energy defeat them. He’ll talk about it until they get bored of talking about it. He just runs out the clock. You don’t have to do their notes, just listen to them, because they’re saying it for a reason. Scorsese says that, too.
Speaking of Scorsese, you must have figured out your own way to address the whole “Scorsese vs. the MCU” narrative while promoting “Moon Knight” this year.
If people like Scorsese and Coppola don’t come out to tell their truth about how there are more important things than making money, who’s going to?
Well, they’ve made plenty of money, too…
It’s easy for them, but it needs to be somebody in the community saying, “Hey, everybody, this is not ‘Fanny and Alexander.’” If you keep reviewing these movies that are basically made for 14-year-olds like they’re “Fanny and Alexander” or “Winter Light,” then who the hell’s going to get to make “Winter Light”? I appreciate the elder statesmen of the community reminding people not to set the bar too low. I know it makes some people think they’re stuck up, but they’re not stuck up.
OK, so you’re on the other side of the “Moon Knight” experience. What was the process like for you to decide to take that on?
Maya would say to me, “Why are you sitting on the outside and telling everyone their sandbox is bad? Why don’t you go into their sandbox, play with them, and show them what you have to offer?” I said to Oscar Isaac, “We’ve got to go play in Marvel’s sandbox and try to do what we do. We don’t have to change Marvel. We just want to show them what we’re capable of doing and see if they find it interesting.” So we had a lot of rehearsals and worked on things a lot. We had a really good experience.
How much freedom did you have to bring your own skills to that show?
That group of people is extremely actor-friendly. They might not be director-friendly, and that could be what Scorsese and Coppola are talking about. But they love actors. I think Kevin Feige had a great thing happen with Robert Downey Jr. and he understood that Downey’s passion was a large part of the success. When actors are excited by a part, audiences get excited about watching them. Feige understood the algorithm there, so they’re extremely respectful toward the process. The best thing about “Moon Knight” for me was Oscar’s performance. It’s a gonzo thing that happens to have a giant budget — a pretty out-there performance.
Did you ever worry that you might get sucked into the MCU for a longer period of time?
I’m not supposed to talk about it. I had to sign an NDA about dealing with them, but I’m not interested in long-term commitments. I protected myself because I didn’t know what it was going to be. I just wanted to know what that sandbox was like. And it’s what young people are watching, so why are we going to sit there and tell them it’s not good?
Sipa USA via AP
Speaking of which, how are you processing Maya’s popularity on “Stranger Things”?
I’m so proud of her. I feel strangely connected to that show because that whole episode with the first kid getting sucked into the Upside Down happens on what was my 13th birthday in 1983, which was the year I made “Explorers,” so I’m in the universe. Also, I think Maya does a great job on it and show’s so fun. I have one episode left.
The two-and-a-half hour finale. I just can’t get over that length.
The confidence of it is astounding.
Still, it must be a challenge for you to confront the changing landscape of binge-viewing content when you come from a background of theater and theatrical movies.
When Phil Hoffman and I were working with Sidney Lumet on “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” Sidney was like, “When I started, live TV was the high watermark, then TV became second-tier.” So the nature of life is change. However, there is a difference between content and art. That word “content” to me is Orwellian. There are a certain amount of hours you have to spend at work, and some others you spend with your kids, and then some others you fill with “content.” It feels like, “We’ll waste time for you.” You don’t finish watching “Raging Bull” feeling like you’ve wasted two hours.
How has your own relationship to TV evolved?
You can make great television. For me, “Good Lord Bird” as a movie would have been lesser. You would have to reduce the story to such a degree that the epic nature would be lost. Anytime somebody sets out to make a feature-length film of “Anna Karenina,” they’ve lost it because the genius of that novel is the scope, the size of the canvas.
What about “Great Expectations,” which you acted in?
Right, we could never have matched what Dickens did. It doesn’t matter if you have Alfonso Cuarón directing it. You’re doing a charcoal sketch of the oil painting that was Dickens. It was so much deeper.
I wanted to ask you about Peter Weir, since he’s receiving an honorary Oscar this year and since you worked with him at the age of 18 on “Dead Poet’s Society,” he played a big role in kickstarting your career. Why do you think he hasn’t made a movie since 2010?
I think he lost interest in movies. He really enjoyed that work when he didn’t have actors giving him a hard time. Russell Crowe and Johnny Depp broke him. He’s someone so rare these days, a popular artist. He makes mainstream movies that are artistic. To have the budget to do “The Truman Show” or “Master and Commander,” you need a Jim Carrey or Russell Crowe. I think Harrison Ford and Gerard Depardieu were his sort of actors. They were director-friendly and didn’t see themselves as important.
When did you start to develop a business acumen about your own work? You work closely with Jason Blum on low-budget movies like “Sinister” and “The Black Phone,” which pay very little upfront but make you more money on the backend.
I was never like, “Where’s my paycheck?” Until I had four older kids, I was always allergic to that materialistic way of thinking. But Jason is extremely fiscally savvy and one of the things I love about him is that he’s extremely interested in coloring outside the lines of the way things are supposed to be done. You feel like you beat the system when you make “Sinister” or “The Black Phone,” when you make a hit movie on a shoestring budget. It’s like you broke the computer. There’s no reason this movie should make this much money. It’s really strange. Yeah, “Top Gun” made hundreds of millions in theaters, but they spend that on it. I bet we made “Black Phone” for the craft services cost of “Top Gun.” There’s a part of Jason that reminds me of Tom Sawyer in that he gets other people to paint his fence, but they enjoy it. For me, there’s a dance involved in how to be creative and not humiliate myself while being fiscally responsible for my partners.
In the final episode of the documentary, you show us the way the media processes Newman’s death. Do you ever think about how your own career will be discussed when you’re gone?
I do have a weird pathological thing with this. Every now and then, when I’m doing a movie and I see a shot that I think is really good, I wonder if this will be the shot they’ll play at the in memoriam.
What’s the moment you think should be included?
There’s my character’s entrance in “The Magnificent Seven.” Antoine Fuqua knows how to introduce someone. I’m not saying I would want it. I’m saying it’s worthy of it. I like Westerns, I love Antoine, I love that movie. I’d pick something from the “Before” trilogy. Those are really personal to me. There is a secret worm inside the back of all our minds that makes us wonder, “What is our imprint — what are we scratching on the wall of the cave? Is there anything relevant about what I’m doing?”
Do you feel like you’re working against the clock?
I’ve definitely made the turn from being an old young person to being a young old person. I prefer this. I feel like playing John Brown in “The Good Lord Bird” was that for me: the beginning of my “old man” career, the beginning of my last act. But it’s the beginning of it, you know? I definitely find myself looking over a filmography and thinking about which ones I could’ve cut out because I only have so much time left. I know I only have so many movies left. You have an awareness of time. When I was younger, I was like, “I’ll do this, I’ll do that, that’ll be a good learning experience, and then I’ll try this,” thinking I had all the time in the world. Now, I’m like, “I didn’t learn anything from that one or that one, and that one would’ve been better spent in three months with my family.”
What’s your sense of the way the craft of acting is seen among younger generations?
The tide comes in and goes out. Some of the things it carries out, we wish it didn’t. When Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were going to the Actors Studio and the Neighborhood Playhouse, there were famous acting teachers. Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler: There’s not a famous acting teacher on the planet right now. So what does that tell us about the respect for acting?
“The Last Movie Stars” is a six-part documentary from CNN Films and HBO Max that starts streaming on HBO Max on Thursday, July 21.