Ethan Hawke Embraces the Passage of Time in Relationships From the 'Before' Trilogy to 'The Last Movie Stars'

'I used to feel like a really old young person. Now, on the other side of making this movie, I feel like a really young old person,' Ethan Hawke says.
by Danielle Turchiano — 

Ethan Hawke

Samir Hussein / Getty Images

Ethan Hawke seems to have mastered making the most out of time.

The prolific actor, writer, director, and producer has certainly done so with his own years in Hollywood thus far, spending almost four decades devoting himself to bringing to life iconic characters in modern classic films, from Dead Poets Society, to Reality Bites, Training Day, and Richard Linklater's Before... trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), the latter of which had almost a decade in between each installment.

Being in front of the camera is only one piece of the complex artistic puzzle that is Hawke, though. In the early 1990s he began multitasking behind the camera with a short film titled Straight to One and then went on to work on the screenplay for, as well as star in, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, earning him two Oscar nominations in the Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay category. (He has four Oscar noms thus far overall, with the other two being in the Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role category for Training Day and Boyhood.)

As the industry evolved, and actors who were primarily seen as film stars began to increasingly embrace television, Hawke began to split time between the mediums, too, including creating and running Showtime's adaptation of The Good Lord Bird and joining Marvel Studios' Disney+ dramatic roster with Moon Knight. And those are only a few high-profile titles.

"I spent a large portion of my life experimenting, wearing different hats, whether it was making a graphic novel or writing a book or directing plays or running a theatre company," Hawke tells Metacritic. "I put in the hours as an actor — I had 30 years of experience with it — but then there was the writing, the team building, the leadership skills required to be involved with a big company and how to really empower other people and help build a collective imagination."

In many ways, that it all prepared him for his latest venture, the six-part documentary series The Last Movie Stars, chronicling the lives and careers of, and love between, actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. At one point in his life, Newman thought he would publish his own memoir, but he abandoned the project. Now, working with his family members, Hawke's docuseries serves as that tribute. (Though, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group is planning to release a book based on documents Newman left behind.)

"I think part of what even made me want to make this is if you do a portrait of a lot of artists, it's obvious what period you're going to focus on because this is a period of their life that has the most drama or when their art was most essential. But what's revelatory about Paul and Joanne is the expanse of time with which they produced meaningful art, and it's in its entirety that it becomes so remarkable," Hawke says. "And so, I knew that The Last Movie Stars was going to be about time, in a way, because we're revisiting 50 years of cinema history, a 50 a love affair."

In The Last Movie Stars, Hawke combines transcripts of interviews and conversations, as read by his Hollywood friends and collaborators, including George Clooney as Newman and Laura Linney as Woodward, with archival footage of television interviews and event coverage with the actor couple, scenes from their films, and recent interviews with those who knew and loved them. The result is a sprawling ode to acting giants who used their platform for a greater good but had a scandalous start. (Newman was married to Jackie Witte when he met Woodward.) The project highlights their great triumphs (including his 1987 Oscar win and her 1985 Emmy win for Do You Remember Love?) as well as their struggles (his alcoholism, the death of Scott Newman). But it also celebrates the smaller, quieter moments of their relationship and family, especially through discussions with their grandchildren who knew them years after some of their biggest projects had come and gone.

"We live in a culture that loves to tell people the value of your life is when you're 25 and how insulting that is to all of us; it completely discredits experience, education, wisdom, maturity, grace — all these things that come to you as you get older. I'm learning humanity is way more important than accomplishments or the accumulation of wealth and status. What matters is how we live our life with the people we love, and that's our legacy," Hawke says.

Here, Hawke talks to Metacritic about how his experience on such previous vast stories as the Before... trilogy and The Good Lord Bird helped prepare him for The Last Movie Stars, how the docuseries makes him think about his own legacy, and how the passing of time has affected him most in this industry and as a man.

First, set the scene on how long you have been working on The Last Movie Stars because there was so much material to become familiar with when it came to the movies and transcripts, but you've been steadily working on other projects for years.

It took about two and a half years of hard work. Oscar Isaac would tell you I was sitting in Budapest watching Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward movies. This has been the passion underneath my life. My wife produced it with me, my kids talk about Paul and Joanne like they know them because we talked so much in the household and built the cuts together. It's been a quiet obsession for a couple of years.

It seemed like a really smart choice to use actors reading interview transcripts as over clips of the real Newman and Woodward so the audience would always be immersed in their stories, rather than be distracted by George Clooney being on screen, for example. Was that always the plan, or did the COVID-19 pandemic force you into shifting to Zoom recordings?

There was no plan. This felt like literally jumping off a high dive without knowing where the ground was. There were days where I was like, "Maybe I should just make this about the '50s and the Actors Studio and that's all it should be" or "Maybe I should just focus on Newman's Own and philanthropy." There were days where I was utterly lost about how to tell this story, and there were times where the pandemic seemed like a terrible obstacle because I couldn't get interviews, I couldn't go visit people; it was like being handcuffed. And then I started realizing this obstacle might be creating the lane for me — that we should use the actual time we're in. "Why should people revisit this story now? Why 2022?" It made everything come together in the context of why my generation of actors have this response to Paul and Joanne and how that might be relevant to younger people [and] what that might mean for older people. It just gave me an origin point, which is what I needed.


Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman


Spending two and a half years on one project might feel like a lot to some people, but the Before... trilogy literally spanned decades, so it feels like there were probably a lot of lessons to be taken from that project about snapshotting relationships and capturing the essence, even while condensing so many moments. 

I thought a lot about both the Before... trilogy and Boyhood because the tie for the characters of those four films is time. It really is the main theme. One is time and growing up and the other is time and romantic love, and so, I even, in one early cut of the [docuseries] used pieces of Before Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight in talking about my own relationship with time. But obviously because I kept thinking about it so much, I realized that was way too self-referential and I cut it out.

I could intercut a scene of [Paul and Joanne] acting and kissing together in their 60s with one of them in their 20s. I could intercut Mr. & Mrs. Bridge with Long Hot Summer, and it provokes the same kind of thoughts in the audience that you experienced in watching Boyhood because you're not seeing the person in isolation of a moment; you see the space between them as well. And one of the things that's interesting, I think, about the Before... trilogy is these nine years that are between each film: The space between the films almost fuels the next film.

Why did you think the Before... clips were too self-referential even though you put yourself in the docuseries as an interviewer?

I had to see the director of the movie like a character. I would even call the shots with me in them [by saying], "And then we should cut to the director." You need a point of view, and yet the point of view can't obscure what you're looking at. I think good filmmaking is personal filmmaking, and if things don't feel personal to the people making it that it doesn't feel relevant to the audience. That energy creates a propulsive effect that makes you want to listen because it's human and real and authentic. But the true answer to that question is my wife [produced Ryan Hawke] saw that and said, "Ethan, that's ridiculous." She's my barometer of good judgement.

Going back to Before... for a second, how has the time that has passed since making it affected the way you think about the character at the points you got to inhabit him?

There's a scene in Before Sunrise where we see a kind-of unlikeable quality in Jesse, who confesses to Céline that sometimes he'd really rather be excellent at something then have a family — like when he thinks about it, a great dream of his life isn't just to like be a dad; he really wants to excel in some way. And I think that that's true for a lot of how young young people think, but it's not polite to say out loud because we're told that you don't sound like a serious person. When you get older, you kind of cringe when you hear that, because what we achieved but how we achieved with our lives that important. And when I was getting to the end of the documentary, I was thinking about my relationship to that line, and what's so beautiful about Paul and Joanne is it's not what they've achieved but how they did it: They did it with love and care, and the way they did fail and the way they recovered. That's where the beauty lives and that's the kind of thing Jesse at 23, 24 can't quite grasp.


Julie Delpy, Richard Linklater, and Ethan Hawke on the set of 'Before Sunrise'

Getty Images

Did you have a similar experience after immersing yourself so fully in The Good Lord Bird

That project meant so much to me, I wasn't sure what to do with myself after it was over. I really felt like part of me died. I loved it so much and it was everything I want to do with my life in the way that it addresses really, really hard truths with wit and love and humor. Everything felt small compared to the energy that I put into that.

I was trying to put myself together after playing John Brown and that's when I got offered this job. And I thought, "Well, maybe this would be an interesting thing to really just focus on. How did Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward do it? How did they keep staying curious, how did they keep fighting the good fight, how did not give into bitterness or ego?" Success or failure both can ruin you; you can turn in to a blowhard asshole or you can turn into a bitter creep. But it just felt like maybe this was what I was supposed to do. I was 49, really looking at 50 and feeling time in a way that I've never felt it before. There's something amazing about having adult children that's so powerful, but it does make you realize that you're not on the front line anymore. I have a different role to play now, so adjusting to that role is part of it. 

I had never made anything as long as The Good Lord Bird, and so, I think had I not done that, I would have been terrified of the scope of this. The unhealthy intimidation of, "It's too scary, I won't try." I used to feel like a really old young person. Now, on the other side of making this movie, I feel like a really young old person.


Ethan Hawke on the set of 'The Good Lord Bird'

William Gray / Showtime

The sense of closure all of these projects provides for the stories they tell is fascinating in that they don't shy away from tragedies, but there seems to be some real insistence on not lingering on the hardship. Jesse literally comments on the reality of relationships at the end of Before Midnight, John Brown dies but his final words talk about the potential for beauty within the country in The Good Lord Bird, and although Newman passed away years ago and Woodward has been living with Alzheimer's for 15 years, you end The Last Movie Stars on a romantic moment between the two in their younger years. Why are do you gravitate towards those kinds of endings?

All of our stories end in sickness and death, that's just the truth. And it's a sad thing for us to look at, and I didn't want to make a movie about that; I wanted to make a movie about life and about living it. I end on a shot them in the middle of their life — about 47 [years old], kissing in the water. We always hear that wolves mate for life, and to me, they kind of look like full-grown, adult wolves. I wanted to end the movie right in the middle of their lives, but I also wanted to explore what happened afterwards.

Joanne has been living with Alzheimer's for a long time and that presents a lot of challenges, and I found it absolutely breathtaking when I realized that she lived with the fear for a long time. They had taken care of her mother for 20-plus of her life with Alzheimer's, and so, she knew exactly what this disease was, and so did Paul. And when she got the diagnosis, nine days later, he got the cancer diagnosis, and he really didn't fight it. I think he really felt like his trip was done. One of the daughters said he kind of just tapped out; if he wasn't going to get to share with Joanne his joy of life, it wasn't what it had been. I found that really tragic and interesting, but I felt that it was really important that that was not the end of their story because their story is their whole life, which is really amazing. So the last episode, I start with the end and work our way back to the middle, which was a fun thing to discover in the editing room.

We are still alive in the people we touch and they're alive in us. The news is full of disappointing leaders, disappointing heroes, and documentary as a form, especially artistic profiles, are rife with stories of self-destruction. My son [Levon Roan Thurman-Hawke] is 20 and my daughter [Maya Hawke] is 24 and they both love the arts, and we watch these documentaries on artists and so many of them are stories of self-abuse. And I really wanted to tell a story of people who not only survive, but thrive, and so, their life is continued in all the people they touched. I wanted it to vibrate with that

How do you think about how you want your story to be told someday? Are you inspired to tell it yourself or leave notes and tapes for your kids or other filmmakers?

I just can't imagine a world in which my story would be interesting at all. I feel like the best aspects of the work that I've been involved with is reflected in the work. And that's how I feel Paul would say it: "Go watch [The Life and Times of] Judge Roy Bean, that's what I made." I think the reason why Paul threw away this whole memoir project is because I think he really got bored with the celebration of the individual ego. I do think as you get older, you get much more interested in other people and you start to see yourself as a player in the incredibly complex ecosystem of souls and spirits in the world and you understand that your own place is very small. And not to sound corny, but I've always been fascinated with looking at the stars or looking at the ocean. There's a freedom and a a joy you get when you realize that we're on a planet in space and you look at this vast ocean. It gives you energy. And understanding your place — that you are essential and important just like everyone else — is a great feeling to me. I do have a daydream, though: I would love at the end of my life to write a tell-all because I've been in some fun rooms and met some interesting people. If you're interested in performing arts, I've had some cool experiences. I'd love to just let it rip and publish it after I died. I would love to just tell the truth, completely. But the idea that somebody else would be interested, I don't know, I can't let my brain even think like that, it's not healthy.