Coffee Talk with Ethan Hawke: On ‘Boyhood,’ Jennifer Lawrence, and Bill Clinton’s Urinal Exchange

The Oscar-nominated actor sat down for coffee in Brooklyn to discuss his wild year with Boyhood, losing a good pal in Philip Seymour Hoffman, and making a living in Hollywood.

Filip Van Roe/eyevine/Redux

Ethan Hawke chose this coffee shop. It’s a cozy spot in his Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, populated by modish wives, aspiring screenwriters hammering away on their laptops, and bowl-o-cinos. After a few minutes of staring blankly at my phone, I look up and spot the 44-year-old actor entering in a flat cap and leather jacket.

It’s been a wild year for Hawke.

Boyhood, his 12-years-in-the-making experimental film project with pal Richard Linklater was finally released to unanimous praise, and named “Best Film” by the film critics’ bodies in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago. Hawke, meanwhile, has received Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe and SAG nods for his turn as the titular boy’s father. He also starred as a conflicted drone pilot in the excellent war drama Good Kill, which premiered earlier this year at the Venice Film Festival and hits theaters in May. And back in February, he lost a close pal in Philip Seymour Hoffman. The two starred as warring brothers in the criminally overlooked Sidney Lumet film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and have been friends for years through their work in the New York theater.

After exchanging the usual pleasantries, I point out Hawke’s bizarre crew cut—which he says is for a role he’s currently filming as jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in the biopic Born to Be Blue. At his behest, I order the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich (he gets the scramble), and over the next hour-plus, we engage in a sprawling conversation reminiscent of, well, a Linklater film.

Hawke, ever the charmer, kicks things off with a compliment: I really like you guys. How do you like working at The Daily Beast?

It’s pretty fun. There’s a lot of freedom to speak your mind, because we don’t really kowtow to the studios like a lot of other outlets that cover entertainment.

So, Linklater just won Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle. And that’s awesome. But the first time I ever went there was to introduce Rick when they gave him some dubious sidebar honor for Waking Life, and Altman won Best Director that year. For years, I’ve been championing Linklater as the “Great American Filmmaker.” People are always championing Wes Anderson or Alexander Payne as the heir apparent to Altman, but I’ve always said, “Wait a minute… Linklater’s made 19 movies!” So I remember when Altman won the prize, he went up and said some version of, “Too little, too late.” And what he went on to talk about is how much he wished the press would champion people they really believed in, as opposed to seeing themselves as police of the studios. You don’t need to go out there and put Batman on the cover of The New York Times. Warner Brothers will be fine. Put something on the cover you believe in! The press is so quick to take some independent film to task for being pretentious, while it’s so quick to laud some mediocre studio comedy as brilliant.

No argument here. So you think it’s too little, too late for Linklater? No, not for Rick. The reason why I brought that up is because I remember how happy Rick and I were when Altman said that. We’re in a really fortunate position. I never expected this. I knew Boyhood would be cool and I’d be proud of it, but I thought it would have a life like Waking Life or the Before trilogy, where people would find it and then come up to me 10 years later and say, “Man, what a cool movie!” I didn’t expect people to get it right away. But in the future, it’s going to put him in an interesting position. What’s your stance when you’re no longer in the “underdog” stance?

No longer the “Slacker.”

No longer the “Slacker.” But Rich is 54 years old, so it’s not going to screw up his trajectory. Success screws people up when it happens too young. I got to meet Mike Nichols once, and he used to talk about how he had so much success so young that it screwed up his sense of what’s “appropriate.” I feel sorry for a young actress like Jennifer Lawrence who gets so much success out of the gate, because how are you suppose to develop an appropriate work ethic? How do you push yourself to be better when you get an Oscar for buying breakfast in the morning? It’s the kind of thing one wants to really work for. Tennessee Williams wrote this great essay called The Catastrophe of Success about how failure and success can both be miserable experiences, but failure can at least be fuel to inspire you to be better, while success can just drown you.

Every nerd in Silicon Valley didn’t get girls during their formative years, which fueled them, and now they’re winning at life.

Yup. Or look at Quentin [Tarantino]. I don’t think he probably had a date before he directed a movie, and now he can do whatever he wants!

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With Rick, I think the culture just lags behind great artists much of the time, and it takes time for it to catch up. It’s particularly true of war films. Critics tend to crap on war movies because the culture isn’t ready to digest it yet. Look at Ebert’s pan of Full Metal Jacket or Frank Rich’s pan of Apocalypse Now—which is crazy, because that is a masterpiece.

Apocalypse is a full-blown masterpiece. When I saw The Messenger, I thought it was our Coming Home. It’s a great film. And I’ve been a longtime Woody Harrelson fan, and it’s been amazing for me to watch him turn into Gene Hackman. He’s turning into one of those ferocious older guys. I would have never predicted when I saw Cheers that Woody Harrelson was going to be one of the great actors of this generation. The culture often decides when something is brilliant—even when it’s not. One example would be how fascinating it must be to be Martin Scorsese and have an Oscar at home for The Departed.

It sucks. It’s a solid film, but not even as good as the original, Infernal Affairs. And he just got fucked over so many times—for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull

…They fucked him for Goodfellas. And look at last year. A lot of people made a big deal over American Hustle, and that is a very good imitation Scorsese movie, but we had an actual Scorsese movie that came out that same year! The Wolf of Wall Street is a dangerous, incendiary work of art. You leave the theater thinking, “Wait a second… I was just force-fed misogyny and awful behavior for three hours, but I’m very unsure of things.” Right. That movie’s stayed with me. A lot of people viewed it as hero worship, when what it was really trying to do was flip the script on the audience and say, “Oh, you’re getting seduced by this asshole? What does that say about you, and about our culture?”

Right! “This is really playing with my head.” That movie’s haunted me for a year. Another movie I saw this year that no one is talking about is Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight. I ran into Wallace Shawn a few months ago at Kinko’s and I had just seen Radio Days again, which is a brilliant movie. Wally said, “One day, Woody Allen will pass, and people will wonder if he really lived.”

Like the Shakespeare authorship debate. It’s crazy that he’s been making a movie a year for… 50 years?

Exactly. And his worst work is better than the stuff everyone else is doing. There’s brilliant shit in Magic in the Moonlight. You just hold him to such a higher bar. With great artists, I feel the first 3-5 things will always be your favorites. So with Woody, his first 3-5 films will be your favorites, or your first 3-5 Sam Shepard plays will be your favorites. Right now, Magic in the Moonlight is lost because it’s being compared to his greatest hits and it’s not as good but in 10 years, people will appreciate it. Take Casino. That’s considered second-tier to Goodfellas, when in reality, it’s second to none; it’s a great movie. In a way, it’s De Niro’s last fully conceived dramatic performance.

I enjoyed him in Silver Linings, too. But you’re right, Woody’s work ethic is astounding.

Seriously. People compliment me on Boyhood sometimes, and I think, “Well, it better have been good!” We put so much effort into it that if it wasn’t any good, we suck. We put so much work and love into it. We’d spend a year daydreaming about three scenes. Rick lives in Austin which is an hour earlier, so one of the ways we got the most work done on Boyhood was when I’d be walking my dog at night and call him, and we’d talk about fatherhood, being a son, and he could tell me what was happening with Patricia and Ellar. We wrote Before Sunset and Before Midnight while we were working on Boyhood, and all those films are all about time. One is time in romantic relationships, and one is time in family. Rick has replaced plot with time. But most movies are sprints, like how Woody Allen does it, so sometimes when you’re watching his movies, you think, “Man, this is great, but if he did a second draft it would be a classic.” With Boyhood, it had 12 drafts. Rick would cut together five years worth of work, add the sixth, then recut six years worth of work, add the seventh, and so on. It got sanded down.

It seems like you had to make the Before trilogy first in order to achieve something like Boyhood.

In some ways, a lot of the stuff we were doing in the Before trilogy is done better in Boyhood. That shot of Ellar and the young girl with the bike walking down the alley is fucking magnificent. It’s as good as anything Julie and I ever did. Nobody else is doing work like that but Rick. When you look at most film directors, it’s hard to imagine they really like people. They cut people apart and reveal the ugliest parts, but Rick doesn’t do that.

I can see that. I find Rick’s work to be more celebratory and not very cynical, and most filmmakers are very cynical.

They either have a tendency to hyperbolize and make life much more glamorous and titillating than it is, or the other way. Even my favorite actor of my generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman, if he had a fault, it was his tendency to, at times, focus too much on the blackness. Sean Penn does that, too. But Sean Penn’s best performances are when he’s both good and bad, like in Mystic River. But I respect Sean because he has balls for days. He’s one of the only actors today who would’ve really thrived in the ‘70s. He goes for broke, but the director rarely matches him.

Has this been a strange year for you? You’ve experienced such highs with Boyhood, but you mentioned Hoffman…

I will never have another experience like having a movie I worked on over 12 years with one of my closest friends come out and be received this way. You don’t make these things to do anything but connect with people, and with Boyhood, we went all-in on this movie, and to have it work out, it feels like the world’s not supposed to be so kind. That movie is such an epic of minutiae that it makes me feel like people must like their own lives more than they’re letting on, because it’s just about our own lives. But you know, I had only one other hero in my life acting and that was River [Phoenix].

You two were in your very first movie together, Explorers, right?

Yeah. And to have Phil die this year… River was my young friend and my peer, and Phil was my peer, but very rarely do you have a peer who you just openly admire. River was a leader. When My Own Private Idaho came out, that was the first time somebody from our generation was contributing. He said, “Hey man, I don’t care what my agent says. I have something to say, and I’m going to play a gay character in a Gus Van Sant movie.” This was true outsider art. And Phil was a leader—in theater, and in movies. A lot of actors are good, but Phil was a fully developed artist.

I’d been a big fan of his since Boogie Nights, but I took my little sister to see him in Death of a Salesman on Broadway, and we were blown away.

As soon as he puts his bags down, you just started crying. And Mike Nichols was a person who was a champion of mine when things weren’t good. I had some scary years where I thought I’d be a washed-up teen star. He’d send me an email when I’d get a poor review and say, “You’re the real thing. Just keep your eye on the prize.” But for me, I don’t think I’ll be able to process Phil for a year. It’s tragic.

What are some of your favorite films this year? Most of mine have been independents, like Boyhood. I really enjoyed Starred Up, this gritty prison drama starring the young British actor Jack O’Connell from Unbroken. It’s a ferocious performance—and film. Haven’t seen that one, but I love me a good prison drama. Have you seen A Prophet? That film was amazing.

Oh, man. That scene where he’s practicing popping the straight razor out of his mouth? Big fan of that director, Jacques Audiard. I’m actually surprised the studios haven’t snatched him up yet to helm a film—not that it’s a good idea, given how many excellent French directors have been swallowed up and spit out by the studios.

In my experience, what the studios are really looking for is somebody who’s innovative with the camera who will do exactly what they want from a story point-of-view. They don’t mind creativity as far as camera movements, but as far as the story goes, all these executives studied screenwriting in college and they think they know exactly what the audience wants. That’s why so many of these films feel like they’re trying to sell you something—because they are. And [Audiard] isn’t trying to sell you anything.

Have you seen Read My Lips? Love Vincent Cassel. La Haine is a favorite of mine.

Yup. He was great in Mesrine, too. I had a chance to work with Jean-François Richet, who directed Mesrine. That’s just a cool, old school gangster film. It could really show on a double-bill with Goodfellas.

I’m a bit in love with the actress in that film, Ludivine Sagnier—the one from Swimming Pool and all those Francois Ozon flicks. Yeah. But I’m also still in love with that one from Blue is the Warmest Color, Lea Seydoux.

Lea Seydoux has these amazing bored eyes that are basically saying, “I couldn’t be less interested in talking to you right now.” And it really makes you want to try harder.

Just unreadable. Why do us boys find that so attractive? But both those girls in that film were amazing. That was as good a break-up scene as has ever been filmed.

In retrospect, I feel a bit guilty when it comes to that film because I did the first interview with the two actresses where they spoke out against the director for being abusive on set. It cast this pall over the movie, which was one of my favorites of last year.

It really was. It’s extremely rare to get that kind of emotional work onscreen. It’s so old-fashioned. It’s strange that that behavior actually works. Here’s the thing, though: I’ll be curious to think what those women feel about the film in 5 years, because it’s very difficult to create a great work of art like that. It really is. And you can do it while having a good time, or you can do it while having a bad time. And it sounds like they had a bad time. It is a shame that a lot of people know that story that haven’t seen the movie. Allen Ginsberg once said that more people paid attention to his interviews than read his poetry, so I try to put a lot of thought into my interviews.

By the way, I saw Good Kill at Venice and really enjoyed it.

Andrew Niccol’s a smart guy. Enjoyed Lord of War and Gattaca, too. Gattaca is a very underrated film.

I think that movie is the real deal. Speaking of weird New York moments like Wally Shawn, I was waiting in line to pee at Shakespeare in the Park and was standing behind Bill Clinton—which was already weird, waiting in line to pee behind Bill Clinton. So, we go to the urinals and he leans over to me and whispers, “I loved Gattaca.” How crazy is that!? The strange thing about Good Kill is it feels like a sci-fi movie like Gattaca, but all the drone warfare stuff is 100 percent accurate. If you were sitting there in 1954 trying to come up with a sci-fi story about the future of war, you might come up with something like Good Kill where guys are gonna sit in a metal box and laser-execute people, basically. And they’re going to sit there in the most decadent place in the universe, Las Vegas, where people are vomiting money, and they’re going to be staring at the poorest of the poor and deciding whether they’re going to live, or die. So, what happens to the nature of warfare when one side isn’t even in danger?

Drones are nuts. It almost reminds me of—do you remember the ‘80s video game Patriot Command? Where these laser-like missiles are falling out of the sky onto a city and you have to stop each of them from hitting the targets?

Yeah! It’s exactly like that. I used to play that game. Good Kill really makes you think. What’s dated about a lot of American war movies is that this technology is taking over everything and what it’s going to do for the coming generations and the history of war is unknown. But Good Kill was really hard to get made. With Boyhood, IFC’s goal was to have another studio distribute it. But all the studios like Paramount that do art house films passed on it.

Even Sony Pictures Classics, who distributed the Before trilogy? Yup, them too. Even after Sundance. Nobody said it wasn’t brilliant, but they just felt America wouldn’t go see the movie. It just goes to show you how much corporate America only thinks about the business side of it.

You do an interesting mix of films—the tiny indies with Rick, the medium-sized indies with Andrew, and the occasional genre film like Sinister.

I’ve tried to finance my child support and my kids’ school and all my bills with independent cinema as well, but my experiment with movies like The Purge and Sinister and Predestination is to try and make exciting genre films that are substantive, and make them cheaply enough so you actually see some back-end, as opposed to doing a Marvel movie or something. I think this way is a little more dangerous.

Is it hard to make a living doing just indie films? It’s pretty hard. I don’t get paid to do Boyhood or the Before trilogy or to do Macbeth at Lincoln Center. I gotta figure out a way to pay my bills somehow! I wanted to be Warren Beatty when I was young and make one movie every three years and have it be brilliant, but the rules of the game are changing. I just feel incredibly fortunate to have met someone like Richard Linklater back in ’93 who had the same ethos as me, and wanted to make the same kind of art. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis or Sean Penn or these “third-person” actors who can really shape-change themselves, I’ve just tried to put myself in different kinds of material to push myself to change so that I can give different kinds of performances.