Interview: Actor Ethan Hawke

If you are a romantic, a film lover or both, chances are that you know who Jesse and Celine are. More than two decades ago, two youngsters who walked the streets of Vienna, talking about love, life and everything in between made a lasting impression on our minds. Richard Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise was that small film in which nothing much happens, but it redefined the idea of romance for generations to come. Riding on the huge love for the film, two more instalments titled Before Sunset and Before Midnight followed. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy became stand-ins for a whole generation of creative, confused, commitment-phobic, yet hopelessly romantic youngsters. This was the film that became a turning point in actor-writer-director Hawke’s career.

His frequent collaborator, Linklater, says that Hawke may have not had the same kind of success that his contemporaries have had because he wasn’t into ‘that star-making machinery thing’. “He would never say that he wouldn’t do a film just because he was being cast with another actor nor would he do mindless genre films just for the sake of it,” said Linklater in a recent interview. “He just does what he feels compelled to do.”

Four-time Academy Award nominee—twice for best adapted screenplay and twice for best supporting actor—Hawke, 45, had a good few years with titles like Before Midnight, the hugely-applauded Boyhood, the sci-fi thriller Predestination, the festival favourite drama Good Kill, the loaded biopic of American jazz legend Chet Baker, Born To Be Blue and the sports drama The Phenom to name a few. Earlier this month, he also received the San Sebastian Film Festival’s highest honour—the Donostia Award for career achievement.


In his latest outing, the American Western film, The Magnificent Seven that hit Indian screens last Friday, he appears as the former Confederate soldier and “Sharpshooter” Goodnight Robicheaux, one of the six gunslingers recruited by the bounty hunter played by Denzel Washington to help save a mining village from the hands of a tyrannical industrialist. In an exclusive email interview with THE WEEK, Hawke talks about the film, sharing the screen with Washington again and what he loves about being an actor. Excerpts:

We have heard that you almost forced your way into this film. Is it true?

Pretty much, I would say. I threatened Antoine [Fuqua, the director] that if he didn’t cast me, we would not be friends anymore. But jokes apart, I found the project very exciting. Here we have an old-fashioned Hollywood western with Denzel Washington in the lead. We have a multi-cultural cast, not white guys pretending to be Mexican or Indian. It was a good story being retold in a more authentic way for a new generation and I felt I wanted to be a part of it. I did reach out to Antoine because we share that equation.

What are your thoughts about the finished film?

I’ve seen the whole film and I’m super proud of it. It’s a scary, daunting task to try to remake The Magnificent Seven and Antoine just goes for it full blast. I’m as excited to share this movie with the world as I have been with any other movie I’ve ever made. It’s just about as much fun as a movie is allowed to be and I’m looking forward to people seeing it.

In the film, your character Robicheaux is not just a sharp shooter. He has many layers to him. He’s haunted, mature and maybe even a tad bit under-confident. Was this what attracted you to the role?

I was on board before even I knew what role I would play. So, I wouldn’t say that it was what attracted me to the film. But it was definitely what made it a more worthwhile experience. Look, if you do all the Civil War reading, you realise that when the soldiers came back from war, there are a lot of shattered men. So, here we have this guy who is a former Confederate soldier who has now partnered with this bounty hunter.  So, my thought was that if I was going to play this former Civil War soldier, wouldn’t it be interesting if he was broken inside and kind of destroyed by what he had been through. It makes it interesting and that’s what Antoine and I loved about it. He wanted me to draw from Christopher Walken’s character in The Deer Hunter.

You’ve worked with Antoine and Denzel before in Training Day. What was it like getting back together?

For me, Training Day is one of the high bar watermarks of my professional life. Not only was it a great experience and not only am I proud of the movie, working with Antoine and Denzel was a pleasure.  For me, Denzel had long been one of the few true blue movie stars who is also a world-class actor. You know, I’d seen him in Julius Caesar and I love the way he carries himself in the world and how he studies acting. I was 30 or 31 years old when I did Training Day and I was just becoming an adult actor and it was a huge thrill getting to work with him and it had a big impact on me. And, it was wonderful to work with them again. Denzel and I are playing old friends in The Magnificent Seven and I just so enjoyed that dynamic. You know, the subconscious of a film supports the narrative.

A Western is not an easy ride. The performance is more physical and outwardly than others. How was the experience of shooting it? We have read that you are a good horseman. Are you?

No. I’ve ridden since I was a kid but never well. You know, I can ride around and stuff. But one of my favourite things was getting to ride. And, you know this was the longest shoot I’ve had in decades—we shot that movie forever. And, I really got to ride horses all summer. But there were other times when it wasn’t all fun.

There were days when it was about 104 degrees and raining and it was miserable. We were all dressed in wool and blowing things up with terrified horses and worrying people were going to get hurt and the combination of the heat and the rain made it very difficult. We were shooting in Louisiana and it’s all over the news right now how bad the flooding is and last summer the rain was torrential as well and so it was very hard. No scene was simple—every scene involved lots of extras and action. It was just really intense. That’s why I was so happy when I saw how the movie turned out because there were definitely moments when we weren’t sure.

How was it when the seven of you got together with all the costumes on for the first time?

It was pretty amazing. The first time all seven of us appeared in costume on the set Antoine had brought out these speakers and actually was blasting out the soundtrack to [the original] The Magnificent Seven. He was blasting out the music as we came riding into town. It was fun.


You are an actor who balances out both mainstream and independent films. how do you do this?

I don’t know how. I just love all kinds of films. I like anything that has been made with thought and effort. My first love is independent films, but as it makes little or no money, I also do films which people want to go and watch just for the thrills.

What is that you love about being an actor?

The fact that I am always learning something new. For Born To Be Blue, I learnt how to play a trumpet. My workday sometimes involves riding a horse, pretending to be saving lives or romancing beautiful women. I have no complaints and I have come to appreciate how lucky I am. Even if at times I do have to work with some jerk on a film, I know it’s not going to be forever and that once I am done with that movie I wouldn’t have to see his face for a long time to come. I have that luxury of having a job like this. People who have a ‘normal’ job—like my parents did—can’t just quit and walk out or work with new people and be new people with every new project they take up. So, I’m just happy being able to make a living doing what I like.

(All images via Google Images)


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