Books

11.23.13

Ethan Hawke On His Murderous, Seductive Turn as Macbeth

What’s it take to play Macbeth? Ethan Hawke on the seductive darkness of the mad Scotsman, the Shakespeare mania in New York , and why he loves the theater versus movies.

New York is currently giddy with Shakespeare. Tony and Oliver-winning actor Mark Rylance is going the distance in a Bard biathlon on Broadway, starring in both Twelfth Night (as Olivia) and Richard III (as the king). Orlando Bloom has been mooning under a balcony as Romeo, and Ethan Hawke brings a bold and modern interpretation to the murderous Macbeth. Hawke may be best known for movies, including Before Midnight which opened this summer to rave reviews. But he’s proudest of his position as an accomplished stage actor, and he spoke to me the morning after his Broadway premiere as the Scottish king.

Congratulations on the show which is gripping. But you’re awake early for a man playing Macbeth.

There’s no rest for the wicked. But I have to say this is one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. It’s shockingly fun.

You’re the sexiest Macbeth I’ve ever seen. Tell be about the scene on the sofa where you and Lady Macbeth are plotting while scantily dressed.

When we first started rehearsals, everyone kept warning me what a horrible experience I was about to have, that I’d have nightmares and want to kill myself. I went to [director] Jack O’Brien and asked if there was any way I could avoid destroying my subconscious. He laughed and said ‘They’re all nuts. This is like Vegas--it’s fun to play Macbeth!’ He was joking, but there was a core of seriousness.  People don’t commit sins to be a bad, they do it because it’s fun and feels good at the moment and only hurts in the long run.

We’re all cauldrons of ambition, wanting to be loved and heard and understood, but at the same time being hopelessly insecure.

We were committed to making the power of darkness seductive.

How would you explain the Bard revival in New York right now? Is it a coincidence that there are so many plays going on or something in the zeitgeist?

Whenever I do Shakespeare it seems like everyone else is, too. I think it’s like when you’re expecting a baby and all you see is pregnant people but when you’re not expecting a baby, you don’t see any. The truth is Shakespeare is done a lot because there’s something about these plays that’s extremely comforting. They’re wells that keep giving water to audiences and actors. Like Bible stories, you can always draw meaning and keep reinterpreting them. Someone will be doing a Macbeth next year and set it in a parking garage in Istanbul and it will make perfect sense.

Right now on Broadway, Mark Rylance plays Richard III as a comedic king and Orlando Bloom is Romeo on a motorcycle. How would you like your Macbeth to be remembered?

I don’t think an actor should have an agenda, I don’t want to see somebody’s Hamlet or Lear. It’s the production as a whole. I want to be part of something. I think what Jack [O’Brien] did is make the whole play into a dream or nightmare. The darkness on the set works as a metaphor, not that evil punishes you, but you punish yourself.

The witches generally represent some version of the Fates and make Macbeth believe that life is preordained. They play an unusually large role in your production.

It’s a fascinating scene when Banquo and Macbeth see the witches and Macbeth believes in them. The belief becomes reality. Witches aren’t real, they’re playful, and it’s Macbeth’s belief that makes it real. Jack [O’Brien] was very successful in having the witches  come in and out, so everywhere Macbeth goes he sees witches. And if you’re looking for witches you see them.  It’s like drugs--if you’re looking for them, you find them, and if not you say--really? there were drugs at that party?  The witches have a symbolic power.

When you look at your own life and career, how much was carefully planned and controlled, versus having the witches and fates just bring you to unexpected places?

Very much the latter. It sometimes feel like life is happening to me. I have these things I want to get done, and very little of that happens, but all sorts of other things do. Not much of my life has happened the way I planned it. People say that luck is a residue of design. You have these designs for what you want but ultimately luck takes over in a way that always feels inevitable. Every time I come to a juncture where there’s a big decision to be made, it feels like I have no idea which direction I’m going to go. Then two years later I look back and it seems obvious that I was going to go left.

I hope it’s not too much of a leap, but watching your seductive relationship with Lady Macbeth made me think of your great relationship on screen with Julie Delpy in “Before Midnight.” What’s the power you bring to these pairings?

I have been endlessly fascinated by the male-female dynamic. When I was younger I had an Eastern European cinematographer who said that he tried very hard to get the right framing of a man and woman, because in that was all of creation. Everything I’ve ever written, the books and the “Before” movies (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) all gravitate around romantic love. It’s even true with Macbeth. The interesting aspect of that play to me is that these people love each. They’re not “nice” people, but they have a great love of each other that’s fascinating to me. It’s unusual in Shakespeare because he doesn’t think well of marriage. But with this couple, there’s a connection they have. I think using men to play the witches really helped because a lot of times, Lady Macbeth just seems like another witch.

You’re often referred to as the “movie star” doing theater, but you’ve been brilliant in so many plays from Tom Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia” to “Ivanov.” Most actors do theater once or twice to prove they can, so what’s the lure for you?

People do call me a movie star or actor, but I might have done more plays than films. We live in a culture that deifies movies as glamorous.  I started at 18 and I was 24 when Reality Bites came out, and I was instantly famous wherever I went. But I’ve dedicated a large part of my adult life to theater. I’ve been learning in front of people my whole career, which is an incredible challenge and creates a really interesting life. Cinema is supposed to be immortal, but theater is a shared experience between performer and audience, and it’s exciting to do in a ways that movies aren’t. It’s dangerous and requires a lot more discipline, so I’ve just loved it.

Great performances are immortal, too. Surely more people think they saw you in “Hurlyburly” years ago with Bobby Cannavale and Parker Posey than could ever have fit into that little theater.

Right, and movies really aren’t immortal.  Nobody is lining up to see Tyrone Powell movies, and when you do watch them, they feel dated--the style of acting is dating, the costumes are dated, just the whole thing. But great performances don’t age because they live in your imagination. When people talk about seeing Meryl Streep in the Public Theater back in 1982, they light up and it lives in their minds as new and fresh forever.

Macbeth is a character who mixes ambition with self-doubt. That strikes me as the perfect description of an actor.

Yes. It’s probably why actors love to play this guy. We’re all cauldrons of ambition, wanting to be loved and heard and understood, but at the same time being hopelessly insecure.