Actor, writer, and director Ethan Hawke talks to C&I about his movie, Blaze, and his upcoming project, The Kid.
Cowboys & Indians: In your movie Blaze, you focus on the late Blaze Foley, a relatively obscure yet enduringly influential Texas country music singer-songwriter. What made you want to direct a movie about this particular artist?
Ethan Hawke: When I was young, after I started getting cast in movies, my stepfather got a new motorcycle and went to Nashville, because he’d always dreamed of being a songwriter. But he never made it. And he struggled very much with depression. And whenever success came to me, I would think about him and how much he taught me about art, and how much he wanted to be an artist. I mean, he lost everything for that dream of being a songwriter in Nashville, while I was getting cast in Reality Bites and getting paid lots of money to act. So that informed me. And when I heard the story of Blaze Foley, I thought about my own perceived success, and how it juxtaposed with so many artists who are met with indifference and hostility because of the luck of some weird dice. Maybe it was a reflection or a residue of guilt. That’s the negative way of looking at it. But I prefer to think of Blaze as an expression of love and wondering and respect for all the people who I’ve seen who didn’t have the easy path that Dead Poets Society created for me.
C&I: Early in your career, you costarred with the great Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer in White Fang. After he directed his first movie, he stated that he wanted to write a letter of apology to every director he’d ever worked with. Blaze isn’t your first rodeo. Do you ever find yourself thinking, Oh, man, I wish I had been more considerate of directors in the past when I worked with them.
Ethan: [Laughs.] I totally hear everything that you’re saying. But here’s the thing: I did my first movie when I was 13. Some other kid down the street from me went on big casting calls in New York. So I did it, and I got cast in this movie Explorers. And for about six months — I thought I was really fabulous. Everybody in my school was like, “He’s gonna be the next Henry Thomas.” And in my little 13-year-old’s head, I became important. Then the movie was a huge bomb and I became the subject of ridicule in the class.
Ethan: Yeah, it was even worse than being a loser. It was like, “You’re a loser who, last semester, thought he was great.” And that’s even lower on the totem pole. So, from that moment on, I had no trust in the profession of acting. I got really interested in writing. And I got really interested in the idea of directing. ... I directed my first short when I was about 20. And I learned right then to apologize. I was really interested in the team aspect of filmmaking from the get-go. For actors that start directing later in life, maybe it’s more difficult.
C&I: In the past two years, you’ve written Indeh, a graphic novel about the Apache Wars; signed on to star in a Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s True West; picked up a passel of awards for your excellent performance in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed; directed and co-written Blaze; and acted in eight other movies. Nine movies, really, if you count your cameo in Blaze. If you’re trying to make the rest of us feel like slackers, you’re doing a great job.
Ethan: [Laughs.] What can I say? I’m an extremely restless person. But I started feeling better about it after I read The Tao of Willie, a book by Willie Nelson. In it, he talks about how his friends and his agents and his managers get mad at him because all he does is play and record music. And they keep saying, “It’s gotta be packaged right.” And he says: “I recorded too much music, and so they’re mad at me. But it’s all I know how to do. And I just have to do it.” That’s what he wants to do, right? And that made me feel a lot better because, really, I just like to create. I love to do it.
C&I: You cast Ben Dickey, a musician who’d never acted before, as Blaze Foley. That gamble certainly paid off. And now you’ll soon be seen as costars in The Kid, a western starring Dane DeHaan as Billy the Kid.
Ethan: [W]hen I was making Blaze, the guy I asked to teach Ben acting was my favorite acting teacher, Vincent D’Onofrio. He did this little whammy on Ben, like he’s done whammies on me before. He’s kind of a wizard when it comes to working with people like that. So later, I showed [Vincent] the first cut of Blaze, and said, “OK, how did we do?” And he said, “I want to cast Ben Dickey in a movie.” He was getting ready to direct The Kid, so he cast Ben as my deputy and me as Pat Garrett.
Illustration: Jonathan Fehr
From the February/March 2019 issue.