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The Present and Future: Ethan Hawke on “The Before Trilogy”

The Criterion Collection releases one of the Blu-ray box sets of the year today as they issue Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” in a gorgeous package, loaded with special features (click here for more information). Many years from now, even with the dozens of other films he makes seemingly every year, Ethan Hawke will hold a place in film history with these masterpieces, three of the best films about human connection ever made. In a sense, we’ve been able to watch Hawke’s career development through his work as Jesse. There’s the young man coming off films like “Dead Poets Society” and “Reality Bites” in the first film. There’s a more confident Hawke in the second film, an actor who took risks with adaptations of “Great Expectations” and “Hamlet,” and even became a writer himself. And by the third film, Hawke has ascended to that status of one of the best of his generation, and he’s approaching the character with the air of not just an experienced actor but the gravity of life experience. Hawke and I spoke via telephone yesterday, discussing the importance of “Moonlight,” why we’re still talking about the “Before” movies, and the passion to prove himself that fuels all of his acting. I can’t wait to have the chance to speak to him again.

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Im still trying to process last night like a lot of other people in my profession, but other than that Im pretty good. How are you doing?

It’s funny, I haven’t actually sat down and watched the Oscars in years. And for some reason I did last night, and I’m trying to process it too. We realize how rarely, I think that should happen more. It’s so strange that it happened on the biggest prize of the night—why didn’t it happen with sound engineering? It’s the one moment where all eyes are turned on it, and you know the one thing is, I will say there are a couple positives out of it, which is that I’m so glad it wasn’t reversed.

That would have been horrible, that would have been absolutely breathtakingly horrible.

Yeah, for some reason, you know like the smaller movie having to deal with race would have been awful. And then the other positive is that I was impressed with the generosity of spirit of the “La La Land” guy. I feel like it should be a spiritual exercise for like, they give you an award in front of a lot of people and then immediately take it away [laughs].

It also tragically fits with the themes of the movie, the end of La La Land.Its the what could have been montage at the end of La La Land.

Yeah, you’re right. And the other thing is, fucking “Moonlight” is a much better film!

And a big deal that it won.

And here’s the thing. When we were doing “Boyhood,” it’s like, do you know how long it’s been since a movie of that budget and scale ever won?

I think its the lowest budget ever.

I remember that if “Boyhood” had won we were going to be the smallest budget ever.

Moonlightwas a million-and-a-half, you were more than that.

Yeah, and that’s amazing.

Im still processing all of it.

Me too.

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But were here to talk about the Beforemovies which are coming on Criterion. So, the first question is a real simple one: When you made Before Sunrise20 years ago, did you know that you would still be talking about it in 2017?

Well, it’s a funny question to answer because my belief in Richard Linklater at the time was so strong that I don’t think it would have surprised me, to be honest. I know that the humble answer is that you’re supposed to say, “No, I couldn’t believe it,” but, honestly, I had done “Dead Poets Society” when I was 18 with Peter Weir, who was clearly a master of this profession, you know? Peter is a really special person to be around, and when you work for him there’s a sense of purpose and sense of being involved in something higher than yourself, and just a grace to the whole operation that’s very exciting to be near. But it spoiled me, because every job that I had after “Dead Poets Society” was so pathetic and mealy-mouthed and disappointing, you know?

And then I met Richard Linklater, and all of the sudden it was even more interesting, because here was someone of my generation who was already a fully-formed artist, and had a sense of purpose. He’s so educated in the history of film, and you know Julie [Delpy] was just remarkable. You just didn’t meet someone like her every day. This woman had been in a Godard film, a Kieslowski film, and she just wrapped a Volker Schlondorff, and was writing her own music, and she was giving me crazy books. You know, I was used to my friends talking about “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and these guys were really, really interesting people, Rick and Julie.

So, I did have a feeling of like, “Well, this is special.” Now, did I think there would be sequels? No. It’s interesting, we like to joke that when we were making “Before Sunset,” “Before Sunrise” is the lowest-grossing film to ever spawn a sequel. There were about three people who wanted a sequel to “Before Sunrise,” and it was Rick, Julie and myself. But we did it because we loved it, honestly … to say we loved it is weird, because it wasn’t exactly fun, it was a lot of work. But we felt charged to do it in one way, and I guess it’s not that I expected to be talking about it 20 years later, but I’m grateful that I am because it makes me believe that my own gut isn’t so crazy.

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Im struck by the idea that you were so inspired by your collaborators, like Richard and Julie and that kind of changed the way you looked at things. Did that change how you approached roles?

Well, not how I picked roles—it changed the agency in myself that I took responsibility for. That’s more like, I mean I started writing after that, it’s not that I started but I had always been writing, but Rick he believed in Julie and I. That belief is like having a coach that that believes in you. It actually inspires you to play at a harder level. And that was how I left that experience: changed. It was no coincidence that Julie and I started writing and directing our own films after that, because somehow we left that experience with permission. That’s sometimes the biggest trick in life—to give yourself that permission to do what you really want to be doing, and that’s the thing that Rick does.

There was a great moment when we were rehearsing “Before Sunrise,” where Julie turned to Rick and said, “No one’s going to care about this movie.” And he’s like, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, it’s not funny, we need more jokes. It’s just two people talking, who the hell is going to care?” And Rick said, “I’ve been in a rehearsal room with you for three weeks, and for 16 hours a day, and not one minute of it has been boring. And if someone can’t watch you for an hour-and-a-half then I don’t care about that. We’re not making this movie for them. We don’t have to tell any jokes, we don’t have to be interesting. You guys don’t even have to act.” He really wanted to make a film about the power of connection.

You know, you watch all of these films with things blowing up and espionage and zombies, things like that, and you can walk out of “Avatar” or “Harry Potter” and as much as you liked the movie, thinking that your own life is kind of a bore. And you walk out of a Richard Linklater film and you think, “You know, my life is pretty interesting!” You know? He used to say that the most dramatic thing that had happened to him was connecting to another person, and his challenge to Julie and I was could we make a movie where that happened. Where what the movie is about is actually connecting with another human being. And for that to happen, he needed Julie and I to have agency in this project and actually join him in writing and conceiving this movie.

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It strikes me that theres no eager to please aspect with this movie. If he likes it

Oh, that’s awesome.

With all of this, how it changed your career and how you look at these three films and its somewhat personal, maybe Jesse is a lot more like you in the other roles that youve played, do you have a more personal connection to these films than the others youve made?

Well, of course, I’m a co-writer on them. It’s a whole different … not only is it some of the most challenging acting that I’ve ever done, because there’s a kind of … you know when you first get interested in acting or you’re paying attention to it, things that are extremely showy are more interesting to you. You have people having nervous breakdowns, or people having multiple personalities, the mental disorders or whatever. The kind of ‘Acting’ with a capital-A. And as you get deeper in love with it, there’s a draw to a more truthful portrait of humanity, for lack of a better word.

As a student of acting, I have always been a student of Chekhov and Stanislavski. As soon as you fall in love with Marlon Brando, you’re like, “Who are Marlon Brando’s influences? Ah, OK!” This is part of a line. Brando didn’t happen on his own, Brando happened in connection with the generations before him, and so that’s where we find us, where our generation is. And Rick was presenting us with this really exciting challenge, which was to not act, to really blur the line between character and actor so much that there was no performance. And that’s a really exciting thing. He used to say, “If I can see you act, then I’ll know there’s no story. And when I see there’s no story, I’m disinterested.” Because there’s really kind of no plot in these movies, and plot is this artifice that writers have come up throughout millenniums to get you to care about a story. And we’re kind of doing something a little slier than that, and it requires more of a challenge to an actor which is unique and interesting.

And so, is it more personal to me? Yeah, it’s personal to me, even if it was just an acting job. But it wasn’t just an acting job, it was a place where I could put everything that I was thinking and feeling as writer as well. So, to get to make three films is pretty epic, you know? To follow Jesse and Celine for 20 years, it’s a little bit, one of our models is the Updike trilogy, the Rabbit series. But it’s been done before—or Antoine Doinel, where you explore a character over years—but there was something cool, what’s the right word, there’s something very interesting about usually when you see a romance it’s a woman’s picture or it’s from a male’s point of view, like “When Harry Met Sally,” which is designed for a female audience, or “Sleepless in Seattle.” And there’s a kind-of female point-of-view or a female gaze that sometimes can be off-putting to a male audience member. They feel underrepresented, or “That’s not how I would go about it.” And there’s something kind of unique about what Rick has done, to really challenge Julie and I as co-writers, to really come at this thing and write this thing together which creates a non-gendered gaze on the movie. In the DNA of the movie is not really, and obviously Rick is male, and he might say this too if you talk to him, part of “Before Sunrise” was coming off of “Dazed and Confused,” which he had been a little disappointed in himself, because it ended up being so male-centered. His hope for that movie was more omniscient authors, you know? And so he really got out of the way and encouraged Julie and I to step forward, and I think what ended up happening is that you have a romance that’s not isn’t a guy who is taking pictures of hot chicks on top of Trans Ams, and a girl’s point-of-view where a guy’s clean-shaven and saying exactly the right thing.

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They feel like real people. People talk about knowing or recognizing Jesse or Celine. You dont get that out of many movies.

That’s the trick of those movies. Jesse and Celine are very, we put a thing in “Before Midnight,” someone asked me to sign a book in “Before Midnight,” which is a little nod to Julie, Rick and I, because the fans of these movies are very special people. Throughout our lives we’ve had people come to us and talk about getting married after they saw it, or having profound experiences around the movie and we’re just kind of tipping our hat to those fans, because it’s obviously bigger than us.

Why do you think Jesse and Celine mean so much to people? People really love these movies.

I think it has to do with what I was talking about before, that it feels unmanipulative, and most romances have a male or a female manipulation. And something about the combination of those elements in the project has created something that seems three-dimensional to people. You know, because Julie’s always sitting there working on Jesse, and I’ve always been working on Celine, and of course Julie’s working on Celine and I’m working on Jesse and Rick is working on both. If you can make a trinity working together, if it can work, because it’s hard, but if it can work it’s really great because the best ideas lead forward. Rick will pose something to Julie and I and we’ll say, “That’s terrible, what are you crazy?” And then we’ll be like, “Oh yeah, you’re right.”’ And then I’ll pose something and Julie and Rick will say, “That’s terrible! What about this?” And what happens is, we polish each other’s ideas and put each other’s best foot forward. Something special comes out of that.

Does the Criterion label mean something special to you?

The branding is meaningful to me because of the people who really care about cinema, perhaps a dying breed, and it’s important to the legacy of the movie. And that’s important. But you know, even more important is that as we wrote these things—and of course we didn’t conceive it like this—but as we wrote them, we would hold the other films in our brain. And it’s the first time that it’s been sold as being able to be viewed as one entity, a living art form. If you do watch them all together, there’s something very powerful. What we hoped to work is working, which is that at the beginning of “Before Sunrise” it starts with a couple fighting on their train, a couple in their 40s, fighting. And at the end of “Before Midnight,” we’ve kind of become that couple. It has a feel to it to me, that it ends with this line about the space-time continuum joke, but it’s also kind of true, you know? And so the films speak to each other, and are seen in their best light as a whole, and so for me it’s just rewarding. I had always dreamed when we were writing “Before Midnight”—“Before Midnight” was written to complete these first two films. They’re real romantic projections, and the third is a more complicated answer but I’m very happy with how they work as a trilogy, and to be packaged as a trilogy and seen that way is meaningful to me.

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You mention full circle, and I have to ask as a follow-up, does that mean that these are over? Is there any part of you that sees yourself going back to it?

I don’t know. We had a deal that when we finished “Before Sunrise,” Rick asked Julie and I to participate in this kind of dream film of “Waking Life,” to do this scene in “Waking Life.” He didn’t know what he wanted the scene to be; he wanted to visit Jesse and Celine in his dreams. And so he asked us to come up with these scenes. So, he, Julie and I met in a hotel room for three days and kind of wrote this scene and we filmed it. And it’s so much fun that we started talking at dinner afterwards, like “Where are Jesse and Celine now? What happened? What would they be doing?” And then the next question was obviously, “Well, where are we as individuals? What’s happening to us?” It started dialogue that became “Before Sunset,” which was really meaningful to us.

So, what we did with “Before Midnight” is that we waited five years until after “Before Sunset” and we decided, “OK, we’re not going to think about whether we’re going to revisit this in five years. And we’re going to have dinner in five years, and we’re going to talk about it.” And then in my apartment in New York because Julie was filming something there and Rick was there and we met and said, “What do you think?” And to our great surprise, all three of us wanted to write the same movie; we had the same idea as to what the third film should be. And it was so clear that it was what we were supposed to be writing.

So, we’re not at five years yet, but I will say that I do feel like the “Before” trilogy is over. I feel like if we were to make another film, it would be, starting a new beginning so-to-speak. It would be the “After Sunrise” period or something. We would start a new project together. And it might involve Jesse and Celine, I’m not saying that, but I have a feeling we would shift in some dramatic way.

I read a quote from you in New York magazine where you said you do at least one creative thing every day. I was wondering if that was still true?

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Well, it’s kind of like saying you want to get exercise every day, and I think what I meant when I said that is that I like to take time each day to remember that it should be a part of my life. That can take shapes in a lot of ways. I know that what’s cool about that philosophy is that I’m 46 years old now, and I think because I started so young I have a fear inside of me that when I was younger that this would be taken away. I got to the party before I earned a right to be there. And you know a lot of people who start in their teens—it’s a long list of casualties there. And I think partly a healthy work ethic and partly an unhealthy restlessness and fear of not being able to contribute, and I love doing this and the idea that I get to keep working is really exciting to me. One of my first or second movies I worked with Jack Lemmon, and I remember listening to him and he was much older at the time when I worked with him. To my mind, I was thinking, this guy had won two Oscars, he’s got it made, and to listen to him he’s always so obsessed with doing a good job on this movie as if his career would end if it went badly. And it took me a little long [to realize] but that’s always how it feels. You don’t draw much personal satisfaction from staring at the past, you know? It’s the present and the future that interest us all so much. It keeps me driven.

Youre still trying to prove something.

Well, but also let’s face it, you see great work and it’s so inspiring. I was just so inspired … speaking of “Moonlight,” just to talk about it. Whenever that happens, it’s so good for the industry, for a small, personal … I mean that is a full-blown art film. And people are always trying to tell you that art films aren’t commercial, and nobody wants to hear anything about gay people or hear anything about black people, but actually, you know what, write it really well, have something interesting to say and do something great and they will. And I think it’s good for the business and all the artists to see. Everybody’s just trying to lower the bar.

And you cant worry too much about people seeing stuff. I loved you in Born to be Blue,and not a lot of people saw the film, to be honest. And I wish more people did.

And that’s the game. You know, sometimes you get heaps of praise for something you see. And I impaled myself on that character, but it doesn’t find an audience.

Does that hurt? Does that make you doubt things?

What I like to say is that it’s a great reminder that it’s not just true of me. Every year there’s people impaling themselves and doing great work that for some reason doesn’t find an audience. There’s a lot of great actors who didn’t even get to play Chet Baker in a movie. That was such a blessing, I don’t need a pat on the back, but you still … you do these films because you want people to see them, because it’s so much fun to talk to you about a movie that I made 20 years ago and have somebody care about it. It’s so rewarding because it says to you that it matters and that people do notice. Sometimes it’s like, “It doesn’t matter,” and you can get to that despondent place. And then there’s that other wave of energy, where it’s like, no, these cool people at the Criterion Collection are going to put out the movie and celebrate it, and you’re going to take time to write about it, and it’s like, “No, actually, it does matter. People do notice.” And hey, you never know. You saw “Born to be Blue,” so I’m happy about that.

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And to go back again to last night, to think about a gay black kid whos thinking about writing a screenplay and now realizing how far that can go.

And even more than writing a screenplay, a lot of young people feel threatened by their own sexuality that they take their own life. And that’s the other thing, that sense of self-loathing. That people who are successful and have all of the reasons in the world to love themselves struggle with self-loathing. So, if your person is being hated in public, that self-loathing is being supported by society, that hatred can really blossom to something toxic and poisonous. “Moonlight” can become an incredibly healing thing, and over the years people who need that movie are going to find that movie like water.

To order your Criterion Blu-ray copy of "The Before Trilogy," click here.


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