Ethan Hawke is having one hell of a year. The Texas-born actor, novelist and filmmaker received some of the best reviews of his career this spring when he starred as a hard-drinking pastor suffering a crisis of faith in First Reformed. Next, he played a ’90s alt-rocker who re-emerges decades later in Juliet, Naked, and the four-time Oscar nominee recently released Blaze, a passion project he directed and co-wrote about late country music outlaw Blaze Foley. We caught up with Hawke during the biopic’s sold-out opening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.
After the dark turn you took in First Reformed, was it a relief to lighten up for Juliet, Naked? You know what’s funny? When I started acting, I thought that I would do a lot more comedy. To be totally honest, I was in love with John Cusack and Warren Beatty. I really wanted to do movies like Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait. Then Dead Poets Society put me into this Serious Actor mode.
That’s ironic, since you acted alongside Robin Williams in that film, and he was a comic genius. It’s a little bit like this: I play guitar and I love to sing. When I was doing Blaze, and hanging out with [musicians] Charlie Sexton and Ben Dickey, I lost my desire to play the guitar, because they’re so good.
It doesn’t push you to play better? It could, except I’m 47. I started to think, “You know? What I want to do is make movies,” and it was a little bit that way with Robin when I was younger. Watching him throw himself at comedy the way that he did and the insane trial-and-error? The difference between something that is so irreverent that it is hysterical and something that’s irreverent and stupid. … I mean, not to quote Spinal Tap, but it’s a razor’s edge between clever and stupid. Anyway, that turned me off comedy a little bit. But still, even after Dead Poets Society, that’s really the direction I saw my career going in—and it’s just never gone that way. And one of the things I was so happy about with Juliet, Naked was that it was the first time I’d gotten to do a romantic comedy pretty much since Reality Bites—and audiences love it.
It must have been refreshing. It was a great break from making First Reformed and Blaze, which were kind of like a left and right hook to the chin … and then I put myself back together in Juliet, Naked. Blaze helped me a lot, I think. It was a fascinating time in my life because I threw myself at Blaze. I wrote the script so fast, you wouldn’t believe it. It was really intense. I had this other movie I was going to direct. I’d worked on its script for five years and I was going to go to Cuba to shoot it, but then an actor dropped out, and the money fell apart. All of a sudden, I didn’t have a job from September through late February, when I was going to do First Reformed , and I was just colossally depressed. But then my wife, who’s my producer, was like, “What about the movie you wanted to write about Blaze Foley? You keep talking about that. Why don’t you write that?” But no matter how fast I write it, I can’t shoot it this fall, and she was like, “Why not? Take two weeks and write the script.” And I was like, “I can’t do that.” And she said, “Sure you can. Try.” And so I wrote a 38-page short story about Blaze Foley, we shot it and here we are!
Audiences seemed to love Juliet, Naked, but studios have just about abandoned making romantic comedies. I know. But [co-star] Rose Byrne is just a delightful comedian. She really is. And that’s a difficult thing to do: to have integrity and be in ridiculous situations and carry them off. She’s special, and I really liked making that movie. It was a great break from making making First Reformed and Blaze, which were kind of like a left and right hook to the chin…and then I put myself back together in Juliet, Naked. It was fun, too, to get to spend all this time working with musicians, then edit a movie about music, and then go back to play a musician. Blaze helped me a lot, I think. It was a fascinating time in my life, because I threw myself at Blaze. My wife was a producer. It was like a bomb went off in our house. We started prep in early September and finished shooting in early February. I wrote the script so fast, you wouldn’t believe it. It was really intense. Not to be corny, but—to walk you through it—I had this movie I was going to direct. I’d worked on its script for five years and I was going to go to Cuba to shoot it, but then an actor dropped out, and then the money fell apart. I love to work. I’m a restless person, right? All of a sudden, I didn’t have a job, from September through late February, when I was going to do First Reformed, and I was just colossally depressed. But then my wife was like, “What about the movie you wanted to write about Blaze Foley? You keep talking about that. Why don’t you write that?” But no matter how fast I write it, I can’t shoot it this fall, and she was like, “Why not?” She said, “Why don’t you just take two weeks? Take two weeks and write the script.” And I was like, “I can’t do that.” And she said, “Sure you can. Try.” And so I wrote a 38-page short story about Blaze Foley. And it had the whole architecture of the time in it. I just kind of used everything I already knew, ripping from Sybil Rosen’s memoir…and I really liked it. So I sent it to Sybil, and she really liked it.
How long had you known Sybil at this point? Well, now we’re going back in time. It’s New Year’s Eve. I had the idea to make the movie. I didn’t know what the movie was. All I knew was that I wanted Ben Dickey to play Blaze Foley.
How did you happen upon Ben for the role? Well, I’d been watching him play music for about 12 years, and he was one of my heroes. I just loved him. I loved going to see him play. He’s an incredibly soulful and intelligent person, and I felt like I knew a young Neil Young, like I just thought, any minute, he’s going to break. And his band kept almost breaking, it kept almost breaking, it kept almost breaking—and then they broke up! And Ben was despondent. So I told him to remember Blaze Foley, and we got good and drunk together. He had taught me about Blaze over the years, and he started playing “Clay Pigeons” on my living room couch, and I said “You know? You should play Blaze Foley in a movie!” And I started thinking that was a really good idea—but I didn’t know what the movie was! So I went down to Austin to try to pick up the scent, and that’s when I came across Sybil’s book. Lewis Black is a journalist down in Austin who had covered all of Blaze and Townes Van Zandt’s shows, and I said to him, “What’s the movie? I’ve got the actor, I just don’t have the movie.” And he said, “Well, have you read his wife’s book?” And I was like, “That crazy fuck had a wife?” So I read it. It’s called “Living in the Woods in a Tree.” I fell in love with it. I was like, “OK, this is the movie!” And so, my wife and I had Sybil over for dinner. She lives in Georgia now, and she came up and we talked a lot about what the movie would be, but I was still planning to make it after I made this other movie. I told Ben it was in the five-year-plan. But then, all of a sudden, I call him one day and I said, “What if I told you it’s in the five-week-plan?” Really, it was more like 16 weeks, but…
And he’d never acted before? He’d never acted before. But he came down anyway. I got him this little apartment in Louisiana, and he learned every Blaze Foley song. There’s probably about eighty in the canon that you can find. And by the first day of shooting, he could have played any one of seventy like that [snaps fingers]! But the point is, I had this 30-or-40-page short-story, and I used that to raise the money to start building the film and start casting, and then Sybil and the actors came together and it slooowly took shape as it started taking shape in my mind…but I wasn’t really finished writing it until we finished shooting. In a lot of ways, it was a perfect scenario; to have a 40-page script with two non-actors as your leads—Charlie Sexton playing Townes, Ben playing Blaze. I’d met Charlie when he had a little part in Boyhood. I had met him many years before. I met him at the Continental Club, probably at around the time I made Before Sunrise, back in ’95. So he made a lot of sense as Townes to me. And when Charlie believed in Ben, that whole thing started to happen. It started to feel real to me. And then I could write the parts. In a lot of ways, I saw the movie as slightly different from the memoir, in that the movie is a story of two loves: it’s the love of Sybil Rosen and the love of Townes Van Zandt. What is creativity? And what are the wells that it gets drawn from? And how do they intersect? And how do they heal? And how do they destroy? I call it our gonzo country western opera. When I was a kid, I was in Alaska with Seymour Cassel; I had the privilege of watching the John Cassavetes canon on VHS in a hotel room with one of the people who worked on Cassavetes’ films, and I wanted the experience of making a movie that way, with people you love, for people you love, with no gameplan of stealing a million dollars. It was simply some kind of mad attempt to communicate something that was true for the people making it. You know?
I adored Before Midnight, and I kept dragging friends to see it. Unexpectedly, though, each of them came out of the film depressed; like me, they’d lived with the memories of Jesse and Celine for the better part of two decades, but they were uncomfortable seeing cracks that had developed in the couple’s relationship as life moved on. To me, though, this felt… Real. You’re right. At a certain point, it has to stop being romantic projection and start being reality. I don’t find the movie to be depressing, I find it to be very beautiful, and I find that their fighting is a sign of their love, and their commitment to chasing their dreams. You know, they’re not going quietly into the night, they’re living—and it’s hard to live! I’ll tell you a funny story about the third one. We were shooting a scene in it, really early on, where I’m sitting outside, talking to Julie, and a young woman walks by…and I checked out her ass. And the cameraman, after Rick yelled cut, said “You can’t do that!” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You love Celine.” And I said “Yeah—and that girl has an amazing ass, right?” And he says, “No, you can’t do it! You can’t do it!” So I went to Rick and said, “Hey, buddy. This is what we’re up against. There are going to be people who love Jesse and Celine so much that they don’t want them to be human beings. They’re not going to want them to have a problem and a fight. So our goal that we set was to make the most romantic movie about a couple that’s been together for 10 years that is possible, without telling one lie. Like, we can’t lie even one time, and it has to be as romantic as we can make it. And that’s what we did.