Actor-Writer-Director Ethan Hawke, In What Might Be His Biggest Year Yet

Sep 19, 2018

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Ethan Hawke on his new film about singer-songwriter Blaze Foley.

Guest

Ethan Hawke, actor, writer, director. He’s the writer, director and producer of the new film “Blaze,” a biopic of country musician Blaze Foley.

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Interview Highlights

On how he learned the story of Blaze Foley

“Funnily enough, my knowledge of Blaze Foley is totally integrated with my friendship with Ben Dickey, who plays Blaze in the movie. Our respective partners, Beth and Ryan, were best friends from the second grade. So when I was falling in love with Ryan, I had to pass through the Beth and Ben Test. I had to have dinner with Beth and Ben and get approval. I met Ben about 13 years ago, and we just became fast friends. He’s from Arkansas; I’m from Texas. We love talking about music, and sports, and art, and jokes, and Steve Martin, and all things that interested us. And I fell in love with his music. I started watching his band — he had this band the Blood Feathers in Philly, and they were amazing and I believed in them, and I would go see their shows. I was just really moved by Ben’s relationship to music, and I always thought that he should be an actor. I was always trying to talk him into being one of my plays or something, but he just would have none of it.

“And finally one night, New Year’s Eve of 2015, his band had just finally broken up and they’d been beaten up by the music industry and spit out. And it was over and he was pretty close to despondent about it. And I said to him that night, ‘Remember Blaze Foley?’ Because he had taught me about Blaze five, eight years earlier. Because John Prine had released ‘Clay Pigeons’ — was one of Blaze’s songs — and I had said to Ben, ‘That’s my favorite John Prine song ever.’ He said, ‘No, no, that’s a Blaze Foley song. And we’re like, ‘Oh, boy.’ Lucinda Williams wrote ‘Drunken Angel’ about Blaze Foley, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered ‘If I Could Only Fly.’ And we’re like, ‘Who is this weird Blaze Foley?’ Rumors were he was best friends of Townes Van Zandt, and we just used to geek out about him.

“Slowly, over the years, we discovered — when the internet started happening you could find more of Blaze’s music — and we would share his music. So when Ben was blue that night, I was like, ‘Well, remember Blaze.’ There’s so many artists in the world who are singing beautiful songs, who are contributing, that don’t find a way in the commercial marketplace — and that’s the fault of the marketplace. I really wanted him to keep believing in himself. And he picked up my guitar, and he started playing ‘Clay Pigeons’ and imitating Blaze. And I said, goofily, out loud, ‘You should play Blaze Foley in a movie.’ And the idea just kind of charged me and I started pursuing it. And that’s how I ended up finding Sybil Rosen’s book and started writing this movie for Ben.”

On Blaze Foley’s demons

“Depression, No. 1. I think, as I studied him and studied his relationship to creativity, it reminded me of so many of my friends who struggle with depression, just flat out, whatever you want to call it, the ‘black cat blues.’ I mean, it’s hard to wrangle.

“But I think, in truth, he had an allergy to the necessary phoniness required to sell yourself. I mean, even me on the show, right? I have to kind of put on this voice like I’m somebody worth listening to and that I made a good film, and that you should pay attention — something a little phony about it. Whenever you’re out there selling yourself. Tolstoy had a great line, he said that his brother was definitely the great artist of the family, he just lacked the necessary negative attributes to excel. And Blaze had opportunities in his life to have recording deals, and people approached him, and he usually torpedoed his own fleet — mostly due to an anger that he had for the people who had the money and the power to make his dreams come true. And I’ve seen that from so many artists. When met with someone who can make their dreams come true, their reaction is to punch them in the face. It doesn’t make sense, and you can call it authenticity or you can call it self-sabotage. But why people sabotage themselves, I really don’t know and it’s very interesting to me.”

On making “Boyhood” with Richard Linklater

“It’s using time as clay. Rick and I did the ‘Before’ triology together, too — ‘Before Sunrise,’ ‘Before Sunset,’ ‘Before Midnight’ — and in a way all four of these films are time as the main character. That’s a very interesting thing. For ‘Boyhood,’ particularly, I was also being asked to do a portrait of fatherhood that was really interesting to me. I’m a child of divorce, and I’ve parented from the position of a divorced father, too. And so it’s kind of a lion in my psyche, and something that I think a lot about and had a lot to say about. And it was really fun to put that somewhere — to have this weird project where I could use pieces of my own life, my own parenting, my own childhood, my own father. Rick and I are both from Texas, both our fathers are in the insurance business. We have a lot in common. So when he approached me to do this, it’s unlike any job I’ve ever — can you imagine? Like, you know, ‘Hey, you want to make a movie for a week a year for the next 12 years?’ It’s a very bizarre ask, but it was very exciting because I felt like the first actor ever to be asked to do something like this. It was really, really unique.”

On how he feels about this moment in his career

“Awareness of how other people see you is such a dangerous thing to even let yourself think about. I’ve been putting one foot in front of the other for basically 30 years. We were filming ‘Dead Poets Society’ about 30 years ago today, and I’ve just been trying to keep my head up. I’ve felt it. You know, when when ‘Reality Bites’ came out, you feel that the zeitgeist moving toward you. Even when I was 18 and ‘Dead Poets Society’ — you feel it. There’s some weird psychic pull. When ‘Training Day’ came out, you feel it. When ‘Boyhood’ came out, you feel it. And there is an accumulation factor, it seems. My wife really notices it. I’ve made a lot of movies now, and different ones are different people’s favorite. There’s certain people that love horror films, and that’s all they want to talk to me about, is ‘Sinister’ or ‘The Purge.’ Or there’s people that see the ‘Before’ trilogy and Criterion Collection as everything that matters. There’s a lot of people that don’t know I’ve ever done anything besides ‘Training Day.’ There’s still certain people that want to talk to me about ‘Gattaca’ all night long. I’ve accumulated a lot of work. So it does feel like an interesting moment for me, because I’ve been studying this thing since I was a kid. I took some of my ‘Dead Poets Society’ money and made a short film. And this is the first time I’ve really made a movie that audiences really connect with and that feels — to be totally corny with you — amazing.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “Ethan Hawke Is Still Taking Ethan Hawke Extremely Seriously” — “‘Blaze’ started playing festivals this year. The early reviews are truly golden: ‘”Blaze” is more affecting than most other live-hard/die-ugly music biopics,’ wrote The Hollywood Reporter. ‘Hands down the best movie of its kind since “Inside Llewyn Davis,”‘ wrote RogerEbert.com. No one was saying that he was taking himself too seriously this time; no one was asking why an actor had such outsized ambition.

“Over the years, he’d somehow worn his critics down with his earnestness and his dedication and his sincerity — the same things that caused the ridicule in the first place. Then there was the patronizing surprise that the acting, the directing, the writing wasn’t as bad as one would imagine. And now — now! Now here he was, a nearly 100 percent surefire Oscar contender for his performance as a pastor in this spring’s ‘First Reformed,’ the kind of role he would never even dream of asking to audition for 10 years ago. ‘Blaze’ is entering theaters attached to early reviews that offer no qualifiers when they mention their admiration for it and its director.

“By the time he sat down with me in July at a restaurant in Brooklyn, near his home, he didn’t even have to appear in his own movie to get it into festivals. His pursuits had become markedly unchallenged. He was able to do the work he wanted to do without any resistance. The battle that defined the first part of his life was won. And Mr. Hawke, with no tide to fight against, found himself happy and satisfied. Maybe. O.K., not truly. Because if he was honest, well, now what?”

Associated Press: “Ethan Hawke spotlights a little-known legend in ‘Blaze’” — “Ethan Hawke had long been enchanted by the songs of mysterious singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. Foley wrote songs like ‘If I Could Only Fly,’ that Willie Nelson covered and would go on to become a Merle Haggard hit, and ‘Clay Pigeons,’ which John Prine covered. Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams wrote songs about him after his death at age 39 — he was shot in 1989. And yet his is a name that few outside of the Austin music scene would know.

“This could change with the release of ‘Blaze,’ now playing in limited release, which Hawke directed and co-wrote and appears in briefly as a radio journalist discovering the legend of Foley along with the audience. It would take Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black to really help Hawke crack the story.

“Black asked Hawke if he had read Foley’s wife’s book.

“Hawke responded: ‘Blaze had a wife?'”

“Ethan Hawke had long been enchanted by the songs of mysterious singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. Foley wrote songs like ‘If I Could Only Fly,’ that Willie Nelson covered and would go on to become a Merle Haggard hit, and ‘Clay Pigeons,’ which John Prine covered. Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams wrote songs about him after his death at age 39 — he was shot in 1989. And yet his is a name that few outside of the Austin music scene would know.

“This could change with the release of ‘Blaze,’ now playing in limited release, which Hawke directed and co-wrote and appears in briefly as a radio journalist discovering the legend of Foley along with the audience. It would take Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black to really help Hawke crack the story.

“Black asked Hawke if he had read Foley’s wife’s book.

“Hawke responded: ‘Blaze had a wife?'”

Variety: “Ethan Hawke Gets Candid on Fame, Filmmaking and What He Learned From ‘Reality Bites’” — “When Ethan Hawke was 24, he became a Gen X pinup thanks to ‘Reality Bites.’

“As Troy Dyer, a good-looking slacker and aspiring musician with a wisp of a Van Dyke beard and a duffel bag full of unearned wisdom about life and materialism, Hawke defined the fears and hopes of young adults in the MTV era. But fame had a stultifying quality for the actor, who says he had trouble coming to terms with the success of the 1994 romantic comedy-drama.

“‘When you’re in your early 20s and you’re still struggling to find out who you are, it pours gasoline on the fire of confusion,’ says Hawke. ‘You don’t know north or south, east or west. Some people hated the [“Reality Bites”] character and they hated me, or they loved the character and they loved me. I didn’t know enough about acting then to understand what was going on.’

“The concept of fame, both its irresistible allure and the scorpion sting it can deliver to those who achieve it, drives the action in Hawke’s two upcoming films, ‘Blaze’ and ‘Juliet, Naked.’ It’s easy to see the movies as part of a larger effort by the 47-year-old actor to make sense of his own celebrity. ‘Juliet, Naked’ finds him playing a middle-aged rocker named Tucker Crowe who turned his back on the klieg lights and is now living in relative obscurity. Crowe reminds Hawke of Dyer two decades after the events of ‘Reality Bites.’ “

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