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5 January 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:16pm

Ethan Hawke on working with River Phoenix: “I never felt more ordinary in my life”

The smart, insightful and oddly underrated US actor Ethan Hawke on first meeting River Phoenix, the Sony hacking crisis and “the beauty of censorship”.

By Ryan Gilbey

To Bafta just before Christmas for a career retrospective event with the smart, insightful and oddly undervalued Ethan Hawke. In a steely blue-grey suit, striped black-and-grey tie and sawn-off flat-top, he looked like an overgrown soldier out to impress the parents of his latest squeeze—but not quite able to conceal the roister-doister beneath the slick get-up.

The 44-year-old actor ranged across the entirety of his career, from his stage debut aged 12 in a production of Saint Joan (I remember just sitting there going, “This is a job?! You can do this for a living?”) to his most recent work as an initially unreliable father in Boyhood, his seventh collaboration with the director Richard Linklater. (After seeing the finished version of Boyhood, Hawke told his wife: “I feel like my friend Rick wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. I have a friend who did something magnificent.”) I say “recent” but the film began shooting 12 years ago and has only this year seen the light of day, comprised of scripted material accumulated over a shooting schedule of unprecedented length. When the project was first suggested to Hawke, his first thought was that it must have been attempted before. “I couldn’t believe that some weird Czech guy hadn’t done it in 1962,” he laughed.

Of course, Hawke has another similar project under his belt, also made with Linklater: the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), which called in on a pair of accidental sweethearts, Celine and Jesse, at nine-yearly intervals. But the initial film only spawned its sequels after Boyhood had begun shooting; the further adventures of Celine and Jesse emerged from the excitement of the Boyhood idea, even though they beat Boyhood to the screen. Hawke has found his greatest creative outlet in his work with Linklater. “A lot of great directors … tell you exactly where to look and exactly what to see and they impress their vision on you. And Richard has never been that type of person, he really asks his actors to have vision, and he kind of curates, a little bit like perhaps Mike Leigh might do, he curates a grander vision by actually asking other people to have vision, and it’s really exciting.”

Hawke highlighted the improvisatory feel of the Before series, which belies the fact that none of those movies started shooting without every word in place on the page:

All three of these scripts would have been kicked out of every decent screenwriting class in America for sure you know? Because there’s just, there’s no attempt at plot, but it hinges, it can work if there’s no attempt at drama. Because as soon as you have drama you want plot. But if you’re actually just holding a mirror up then something else becomes fascinating … Rick used to say, he’d say like, ‘If people see you acting at all, then they’ll notice that there’s no plot,’ right. He’s like, ‘It has to, the whole movie hinges on the idea that we think you’re making this shit up,’ you know?

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It was an evening of great insights, sparkling anecdotes and a hefty dose of poignancy, not least when Hawke reflected on working with the late River Phoenix on the science-fiction comedy Explorers in 1985:

I never felt more ordinary in my life. You know, oddly enough I saw the movie Amadeus while we were filming Explorers, and I fell apart in tears watching that movie as a 14-year-old because I felt so much like Salieri … I remember the first time we were staying at like a little motel while we were filming, and I looked out the window and there was this 13-year-old boy practicing his walk, he would walk one way and he would walk the other way, and I thought, ‘oh I bet that’s the kid who’s playing Wolfgang’, you know. And I walked out to him and asked him what he was doing, and he said he was trying to figure out how Wolfgang walked, and from that moment forward he was always ahead of me. ‘What do you mean how does he walk?’ ‘Well he doesn’t have to walk like me, he could walk like someone else.’ And I’d never had the thought.

He recounting wryly the arrival of Jude Law at the auditions for the 1997 science-fiction drama Gattaca, for which Hawke’s friend, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, had also auditioned.

“I just thought Phil was the best you know … And then Jude came in, and he was so beautiful, he was like, I had to call Phil and say, ‘Hey, it’s over pal,’ you know what I mean? ‘This kid is gorgeous. It’s like Peter O’Toole walked in you know?’”

He recalled the phone-call he received from Denzel Washington after they were both Oscar-nominated for playing cops in Training Day:

I felt, when I read the script, I thought if I do my job well Denzel will win the Oscar. That was my goal you know. And then when the nominations came out Denzel called me up and he said, ‘You know why I’m so happy that you’re nominated?’ And I said, ‘Why Denzel, why?’ ‘Because if you got nominated, that means people saw the movie, and if people saw the movie, I’m gonna win.’

Hawke’s sharpest commentary was saved, though, for the Sony hacking crisis and the attempted stifling of the Seth Rogen comedy The Interview:

The great thing about being censored is you make writing important, do you know? The second these terrorists say they’re gonna kill somebody … wow you just made that piece of art important you know, and there’s something awesome about that. And now everybody in the world wants to see that movie. It’s [like] this beautiful, beautiful speech that Tom Stoppard puts in Vladimir Belinsky’s mouth in his play Coast of Utopia, about the beauty of censorship, about it inspires people to really take ideas seriously. Because it lets you know that there’s a war…

There’s always people in this world that are trying to shut ideas down, and sometimes they’re totally invisible. And two things are to blame for that censorship, the weakness of Sony, and the scumbags who are threatening people. And it creates an interesting dialogue for us to say hey, what do we think about this? So in a way I’m grateful to it.