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Living Through Words: Ethan Hawke on His Career, Poetry, and Wildcat

By-the-books biopics are a dime a dozen and often result in a shallow portrait of their subject. But every once in a while you'll get a filmmaker whose film's unconventional form perfectly aligns with the singular talent at its heart. Such is the case with co-writer and director Ethan Hawke's "Wildcat," starring his daughter Maya Hawke as writer Flannery O'Connor, whose sardonic Southern Gothic humor elevated the ordinary lives of the characters in her stories to otherworldly and grotesque heights. 

Best known for her darkly comic novel Wise Blood and short stories like "A Good Man is Hard to Find," Flannery used fiction to consider questions of morality and ethics as defined by her Southern roots and Roman Catholic upbringing. Inspired by both her life and literary output, Hawke's film blends these works of fiction with a semblance of her hard-won reality, often blurring the line between the two. "Wildcat" also explores similar questions about the nature of a life dedicated to art and truth as Hawke did in his docuseries, "The Last Movie Stars," which was as much a portrait of stars Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, as it was a revealing insight into Hawke's own intellectual passions and pursuits. 

The result is a playful, twisted, and deeply spiritual film that examines the limitations and liberation Flannery found on her journey towards intellectual freedom and, ultimately, grace.

Before a sold-out screening of the film at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, spoke to Hawke about discovering the emotional autobiography in Flannery O'Connor's literary works, the influence of Thomas Merton and Peter Weir on his own career, his magnetic connection to the South, the tactility of the human body, and spirituality’s never-ending search.

I saw “Wildcat” at TIFF last year, and I loved it. I was really over the moon when Oscilloscope bought it, because about three years ago, I actually wrote a piece about your filmography for Oscilloscope. 

Oh, you wrote that? 


I saw that. I sent that to my mother. 

Did you really? 

It was so thoughtful. 

I spent many months on that piece.

Thank you so much. It's funny, you wrote that before they even bought this movie.

Yeah, I wrote that quite a while ago.

It was a real honor.

Thank you. During quarantine, I watched a lot of the Q&A's and Instagram Lives you did, and I bought a ticket to a Q&A you did for your book. So all of that was in my head. That's how that piece came out. So, when I was watching “Wildcat,” I couldn't help but think about the same themes I wrote about and the way you use your emotional autobiography in your fiction the same way that Flannery does in the film. Is that something that spoke to you about her work?

I'm figuring out how to answer that question. I learned how to write from being an actor. And I think that's my vantage point. I remember here, this has been on my mind here in Chicago. Years ago, I did a production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child. It was a really fascinating experience because we were sitting around reading the play, and there was a dramaturg, who started talking about the play, and Sam was there. And she started talking about the end of Act Two, there's this moment where Bradley's walking around and he can't find his wooden leg and he's screaming, "I can't find my leg! Where the hell's my wooden leg?!" And this Northwestern scholar was pontificating about the impotence of the American male and what a beautiful metaphor this was. Sam leaned over to me and goes, "That might be true, but I also had an uncle who has a wooden leg, and sometimes he gets really drunk and loses it and it's really funny." It was a funny thing to have whispered in your ear. 

And then I started reading all his plays and seeing the characters appear and reappear. And when I started, when Maya said, "I really want to make a movie about Flannery O'Connor," I was thinking, "what would it be?" And so I read all her short stories. I read some biography, and I felt like, oh, I understood her life a little bit. Then I reread the stories and I started seeing [Flannery’s mother] Regina appearing. The idea of letting a portrait of her arise through her work came from that. I don't know exactly how all writers work, but there are certainly a lot of writers' work with a cast of characters. And they get dressed differently. And they get put in different time periods. And sometimes they get their gender changed, and sometimes this happens, etc., but you can start to see the voices of their lives appear and see how they're struggling with them and making sense out of them and in using them. So it felt like a natural fit to me, but I might be making assumptions about Flannery.

I also enjoy her work because I think there's a lot of herself in it. 

You feel it. And you know, as I started reading the letters, you know, it was amazing. She wrote to a friend, "I went to a party, and I feel like a dog had been trained to speak, but when actually asked to perform my trick, I find myself deaf and mute." I thought, oh, that's Lucynell. That's how she feels. This is her when confronted, she can't speak. I started seeing that all over the place. Some of them were more obvious than others like "Good Country People" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge." 

I read an interview a while back, or it might have been a video interview, where you said that Thomas Merton helped you realize you could be a writer and an actor. Do you …

It's funny to talk with somebody who's actually paid attention.

Do you write every day? Is that something that you practice? 

No. I really feel that the problem with being an actor is that you're only as good as your opportunities. You have a chance to be in a rehearsal room at Steppenwolf with Sam Shepard, then there's nowhere else you really want to be. Working with Linkletter or rehearsing a play with Tom Stoppard, there's nowhere else you want to be. The problem is, a lot of times in the life of a professional actor, there are other places you'd like to be. And from a very young age, I sniffed that out and wanted to take some responsibility for my own art. I was really worried about the life of an actor, about how fickle it is. And, it's comic what I'm about to tell you. I went to the Abbey of Gethsemani on retreat with Steve Zahn, actually, and had a total crisis of character. I said, "I don't want to be an actor. This is all fake and all ridiculous. I want to be Thomas Merton." And Steve, in his absolute wisdom replied, "You don't get to decide that. You're you." Thomas Merton couldn't figure out if he wanted to be a writer or a monk, and what he ended up being was a wonderful monastic writer. I started realizing that there wasn't a choice that had to be made. That there was the illusion of choice. What's comic to me about this story is when I was location scouting for "Wildcat," I was there with Steve Zahn and realized that we were about 100 yards from Gethsemani Abbey. I felt the universe was speaking to me in some strange way. Does that make sense? Thomas Merton, his journals were really helpful about this idea that we get told that we have to pick a personality, pick a lane, pick a brand, pick a thing, and you just don't have to.

I really loved the interview you did for Criterion last summer with Vincent D'Onofrio about the Method. That conversation was really fascinating, and while I was watching "Wildcat,” I couldn't help but think that the project you were working on the last time we talked was "The Last Movie Stars" about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. I finally watched "The Stripper" and the trailer at the beginning of “Wildcat” feels like it could be for "The Stripper." Is that what you were riffing on?


I was trying to do something punk. You know, there's something so mischievous about Flannery O'Connor's writing, and I thought that if somebody did a normal cradle to grave biography or an after school special of Flannery, that they should be put in jail. So I wanted to do something that might knock the audience off balance, and make them say, "Wait, I'm not sure where I am." And I had just been working, you know, re-editing "The Stripper" and it was in my head about the fraudulence of making movies to begin with. There's something I did when I was younger, some Brecht plays, and Brecht really loved to try to remind the audience that they were in a theater, so they would wake up. Because there’s this idea that we're supposed to be this hypnosis where your life stops, and you don't have to be you. We're just going to put you to sleep like an opiate. Brecht really wanted to engage with you. And I thought wow, that's what Flannery is doing. She's so abrasive. So all that was in my mind for sure. I mean, what Maya is doing is a full blown, I mean, that Star Drake is a riff on that for sure.

I think there's a coat in the opening sequence that's almost the exact same coat Joanne wears in the film.

It is almost the exact same coat. One of the things because, you know, Maya is also my daughter and my friend, and I found while working on the documentary, Joanne Woodward's ability to shape change, she's almost unrecognizable from part to part without trying very hard. I was showing Maya that in regards to these different characters that she was gonna play. That you can shape change in extremely subtle ways, so it doesn't feel like a stunt. With Joanne's performances it never, never felt like the movie was all about the wig or was all about the makeup job or the costumes. It always seems like "That one's her! No, that one's her!" They all seem like they're really her. That was the challenge for Maya, to channel that. Laura Linney was a great key for that, because Laura Linney is my generation's Joanne.

How did you choose which shorts and the order you used them? Because they're from different collections, some are from our early work, some of his from her later work.

It was pretty much dictated to me. Once I had the idea of looking for Regina. She doesn't appear in all the short stories, so more than half of them are thrown out right there, whether I love them or not. Then I was looking for ones that have a Flannery surrogate and a Regina surrogate. So then another half were thrown out. Then I tried to work them in such a way that they might create an evolution of her psychic landscape. 

For example, the last one "Good Country People," has a Regina surrogate and is her most autobiographical. It goes right after the scene where Liam Neeson as the priest says, "Now for a proper confession." I took her most confessional story. She's playing a character who doesn't believe in God. She's playing a character who looks down on other people, who thinks she can play everybody, who changed her name from Joy to Hulga. I thought, "Oh, this is a proper confession." So I arranged them in that way. When she's warring with her mother, we had "Revelation” and "Everything That Rises Must Converge." When she's missing Cal, we have "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." I tried to arrange them in that way.

I read, I hope this is correct, that you were raised Episcopalian. 


I was also raised Episcopalian. 

We're Catholic lite. 

Catholic lite, yeah. Obviously, with your work with Schrader there's a lot of the Calvinism in "First Reformed," and in this movie Catholicism, which is so much darker. 

And in "The Good Lord Bird," John Brown. 

Yeah, there's some of that in Episcopalianism. A little of the pomp, but I'm interested in how that upbringing as an Episcopalian, where you get some of it, colors when you start learning about these other facets of Christianity that are so mystical. 

My mother was an aspiring Catholic. She was always giving me Dorothy Day and Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy. There's a mysticism and poetry to Catholicism, in the discipline that my mother really admired. My stepfather was Catholic. She married him when I was 10. So that was in our house. They ran our youth group when I was growing up and everything.

That's intense. 

Yeah, it was pretty intense.

There's one of her short stories that is not in the film, but it fits nicely with the themes you pulled. It's the baptism one.

"The River"?

Yeah, where the preacher says to him "Now you count." Which, what a horrible thing to say to a kid.

In my dream scenario, I opened with that one.



I mean, it's bleak.

It's super bleak. I was gonna open with that, but I couldn’t afford it. A kid in the water. It just was a different budget level. So I improvised and combined "The Violent Bear It Away," "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," and Wise Blood into that opening image.

Wise Blood is fascinating too. I think what I love about her writing is, I'm an atheist, but I had a lot of religious upbringing. My mom is very spiritual. She's very religious. And so I'm always fighting the spirituality in me even though I don't know, you know what I mean?

I also think that you can be an atheist and be extremely spiritual. An atheist to me, what's Flannery's line about, "Only God is an atheist," and the joke in that is that even if you say you don't believe that only an all knowing power could know that there wasn't. So anybody who says they're an atheist is saying, "I don't know."

And I choose to go with the not.

Yeah, I could choose to go with the not knowing. Another way to say that, that I love is there are some people who I love who talk about the power of not having any beliefs. It's like Simone Weil's thing about not belonging to a political party. That the problem with a political party is that as soon as I say I'm a member of this party, there's a whole group of people who think I don't like them. And we haven't even spoken. So we don't know what ideas we agree and disagree with, but we've just agreed that we're not speaking. That's the frightening aspect of belonging. I think some of the true mystics, even like Thomas Merton, for example, when he met the Dalai Lama felt he had more in common with the Dalai Lama than he did with Christian laypeople. That they both had taken different disciplines to point at the moon, what they're both talking about was the moon, not, you know, the dogma and the rituals.

It's not what matters. 

Exactly, It's not what matters. It can be a helpful tool to guide the brain. But that's all it is. It's not the answer in and of itself.

I was wondering, I had not seen "Wise Blood" when I read your book. 

John Huston's movie?

Yeah. I've only seen it now. But I hadn't seen it when I read your book, A Bright Ray of Darkness,  but after I watched his film, I couldn't help but notice the connection between your book and "Wise Blood” and "First Reformed," with the internal bleeding. I guess I'm fascinated with that theme of self flagellation through all the works.

It's about the body. The body is so tactile. It's this thing that's constantly reminding you that you're a human being and you're in nature. Flannery does that all the time. People without legs. People without arms. People who are blind. People who hurt themselves. It's a very useful tool to make something tactile and get you out of your head. It invites a great question, because if you're not your body, what are you? And that's an interesting question that a lot of good literature is trying to explore. You can lose your hand and still be you. Lose your sight or lose your memory, and you're still you. So what are you?

Yeah. I had a pacemaker put in when I was 14. I almost died. And it's a very bleak experience to almost die at 14. Part of the reason I guess I haven't abandoned all the religious stuff is that when you almost die, you think could I have seen a God? I don't know! And what do people see? And did I get close? I don't know. It feels similar to her characters who have those reminders. I always have a pacemaker, so I'm always aware of my body and my mortality.

It's like being slapped across the face, right? She had that at 24, You had it at 14. You know, where you realized you are mortal.

Yeah, you know you're going to die at some point because you almost did. 

I had a really traumatic experience when I was 19. And being in the hospital … 

It's very transformative. 

It's very transformative because you can forget about the experience but it's a cold glass of water and I think if you are awake at all, it changes you. Some people just immediately go back into their routine.

It reminds me of the line from one of her stories where someone talks about how there are people who can see everything and other people who can't. Clearly, Flannery was one of those people who saw everything and had to write it, had to explore it. When I read that it made me think of the line in "Before Midnight,” where Celine goes "Not knowing is not so bad. The point is always to be looking, to be searching." Flannery's writing really does that. 

It's like what you said about being an atheist. It's all right. You're thinking about it because you're looking. And it is true, we see some very heavyweight people who follow these paths. But there's also some heavyweight people who don't. You have to find your own way. I love that line. Celine's. She gets a lot of good lines. She also has a line in "Before Sunrise" about "if there's any kind of God, it's in the space between us."

I love that. I love that line. I think those are just such beautiful conversations. I watched those movies a lot. I love "Before Midnight" best. I always loved "Before Sunset," but as I've gotten older, I feel like “Before Midnight" is just really honest. I love the other two, they're very romantic, but "Before Midnight" is so honest.

We felt that way. The first two are romantic projections. And the third one is an answer to that.

I wanted to ask you about the South, because you are from Austin and you have a distant relation to Tennessee Williams, one of the great writers of the South. Do you consider yourself a Southern artist? You've had these films like "Blaze" or "The Good Lord Bird,” which are both about the South. Do you feel an affinity to the writers of the South? The stories from the South? 

Definitely. There's something … We all have these fault lines in ourselves, these places that are a little broken. My parents split up when I was young, and my dad lived in Texas and my mom went North. And I just felt incredibly torn between those two elements. Like any child of divorce, you love both your parents. And you want to understand and you want to be like each of them. My mother had a tremendous, particularly when she was younger, had a tremendous anger towards the South. And my father was very much a Texan. And I would vacillate, you know, just completely vacillate between the two. And I think that's part of why John Brown interested me so much, because when I was young, one person would tell you, John Brown was a lunatic and one person would tell you he was a hero. Which one is he, you know?

A little of all of it.

It's amazing to me when I think about it. “The Hottest State" is all about dreaming about Texas and "Ash Wednesday" is about driving back to Texas. And "The Good Lord Bird,” "Blaze," and Flannery O'Connor’s work, is like the symbol of the South. So I'm clearly, magnetically drawn to it.

I think you're such a natural storyteller. Do you think some of it is because, I think, the South is the best storytelling region? 

They're the best storytelling region. They're the best talkers. 

I lived in Atlanta for several years and it's just amazing. 

I think part of why I loved making "Blaze" was Ben Dickey just has this slow Southern way of speaking, that I find so charismatic and so interesting. And there's a depth and a soul to it and a lack of virtue signaling. What's it like … you're in Chicago now? Have you always been from there?

No. I'm from California, from the middle of nowhere, like up in the woods.

I think, as Americans, we're always all trying to figure out what this weird divide is in our country.

I get that. I've lived in every region except the Northeast Coast, like the New York area. I've not lived there yet. 

It's coming.

Every time I go to New York, I always love half of it and hate half of it. But it seems like people love it, and New York is another great storytelling region.

New York has some good ones. I love Flannery's period in New York. I loved imagining her in New York. She hated it. She struggled. 

I also love that this film got people to look up Robert Lowell. I think people didn't know who he was.

He's amazing.

For the Union Dead is so good. They both have some of the great orator voice when you hear them reading their work.

I haven't heard him read his work.

Oh, there is a really great recording of For the Union Dead that sounds a bit like, why am I forgetting his name? 

Dylan Thomas?

Dylan Thomas, yes! That deep elocution.

I so loved working with Philip Ettinger and I really wanted to do Robert Lowell right. I thought Maya and Philip were so good together. Their dynamic is so wonderful. I could make a whole movie just about that. 

The last thing I wanted to ask you, because they're about to come get you, is about that great TEDTalk you did called "Give Yourself Permission To Be Creative." In it, you have this line about poetry and why poetry matters. When I put it on Twitter it blew up. It got 10,000 retweets. 


Because people love that quote. It really touches on what people love about poetry. Robert Lowell was a poet, Flannery's a poet in her own way. What is your relationship with poetry today? 

It's funny. What I've been realizing at this moment in my life is what a powerful psychic hit "Dead Poets Society" was on me. That's the origin of my path in this profession. Peter Weir, who really was, as far as making this intersection of populist art, he was so good at it. He made movies that could play in the mall that were quite profound. He was a deep person to be around. I mean, he was really inspirational. Then Robin Williams was a comic genius. I mean, he was just, he was not a normal person. And I was, at 18 years old, sitting there listening to Robin Williams recite Thoreau and Whitman and Emerson. I think what I didn't realize is, because of that, I've always taken poetry incredibly seriously. And it's been a real tool for me. I can't tell you how often I think about "I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world," you know? I don't know if I would have been the same person without that experience. It's unknowable, what kind of person I would have been. I got an email the other day from Peter Weir, and I hadn't heard from him in a while, and my spine lit with joy. I realized this person made a huge impact on my life, and when it was happening, I didn't really quite understand what was happening. When people ask about that TedTalk, I realize that TedTalk was a "Dead Poets Society" riff.

It kind of is, but it's beautiful.

I didn't know that while I was doing it. 

Because it came from you.

Yeah, it was just in me. I've had the benefit that it's not just words I learned; It's now words I've lived, and they've been really helpful to me, and so it's easy to talk about.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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