The Reel Breakdown

Movie lover Ethan Hawke discusses ‘The Woman in the Fifth,’ ‘Gattaca,’ and lessons learned from Elvis

Photo: ATO Pictures/Everett Collection

Austin native Ethan Hawke, 41, has made a career of hopping from mainstream movies to independents, from "Gattaca" and "Training Day' to 'Before Sunrise' and "Waking Life." And now, with the Paris-set "Woman in the Fifth," directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, Hawke stars opposite Kristen Scott Thomas as a bespectacled, befuddled American novelist, father, and stalky ex-husband trying to regain the trust of his young daughter after an extended absence. The movie is a slow burn with a big payoff that explores parenthood, depression, and sacrifice and features Hawke speaking French for most of the film. Thankfully, he chatted with Yahoo! Movies in his native English.

Thelma Adams: Your latest movie is sophisticated adult fare. Why did the part appeal to you?

Ethan Hawke: One of the things I dislike about most modern movies is that you only need to be 8 or 12 to fully comprehend the intent of the filmmaker. And while I enjoy "Madagascar" and while I did cry when I watched "Up" and "Toy Story 3," it's fun to see a movie that is made for somebody over the age of 15.

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TA: What kind of movies did you watch growing up?

EH: When I was 16 or 17, I was graduating high school in New Jersey and there was an art-house movie theater. I saw "Paris, Texas, "Wings of Desire," and "Blue Velvet." Those movies woke me up to a whole other world of what movies can be. I'd been growing up on "E.T." and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." When I saw director Pawel Pawlikowski's movies, they reminded me of movies that would have shown at that theater. I really wanted to work with him. He worked with a Polish cinematographer, and they were so well educated they could teach about filmmaking at any school in any galaxy.

TA: How did their set differ from your typical Hollywood production?

EH: They weren't worried how the damn film is going to test in this market or that market. They are trying to write a poem, to make something that's beautiful, to express themselves in a way that is beautiful. More and more, I find the film industry is owned and controlled and eaten and consumed by big business. It's kinda nauseating. It was a change to be around people that don't find it pretentious that art is beautiful, that the aspiration is a worthy one and not a pretentious one. In this culture, if you don't put your primary motive is making money, then you're a pretentious a**hole. That said, they thought I was the populist because I wanted the movie to make sense.

TA: It definitely doesn't land squarely and explicably at the end, and that's part of its charm. The final mystery lingers and invites discussion.

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EH: What's so neat about the leap is that different people can land in different places and their own subconscious is at play. If you read a great novel, Nabokov or Joyce, it means different things at different times in your life. That's what Pawel is trying to do.

TA: What did the movie mean to you?

Ethan HawkePhoto by Charles Sykes/Invision/APEH: In a lot of ways, the film is a meditation on depression. One of the things that happens to people in a depression is that they can't see very far. This character's myopia is a manifestation of depression. Even though the movie takes place in Paris, it looks like the back-lot of Pittsburg.

TA: So, how much of what happens in the movie, which includes a theft, a murder, and a child's disappearance, is real, or your character's delusion?

EH: It could be a mystery, or it could be just in the character's head. Pawel thinks it's not interesting to answer that question because it's more interesting to see where people land.

TA: There are a number of parallels between you personally and the character — you've shot a number of films in Paris before, you're a divorced father, and you wrote a novel — was that intentional?

EH: All that stuff probably has to do with why Pawel wanted to cast me. As I've gotten older, I've gotten more interested in blurring the line between character and actor. When Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley or Patti Smith sings a song, you feel like they're singing about themselves. It gets inside me and works on me in a different way when the song doesn't matter to them. So more and more I tried to make things personal to me.

TA: Give me an example.

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EH: Obviously you try to bring yourself to your character, like "Brooklyn's Finest." To be a cop, in this intense lifestyle, but also marry it to something so that it's you, so that it's not a posture or a pose of a cop. It's personal, it's you. Sometimes I get close. Sometimes I miss it. But that's my goal, to express the way that real people are, they can be ethical and hypocritical and self-centered. It's all very much at play in the moment. When I've seen other people do that on screen I love it.

TA: Like?

EH: Al Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon" or Nicholson in "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" or DeNiro in "Taxi Driver": These are the iconic roles where people have really succeeded.

TA: In your career, when have you been most successful at capturing that real moment?

EH: I think "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" are the closest to a three-dimensional character on screen. They're not flamboyant, but those people are recognizable human beings. They're not postures. What I mean is not dramatic but real. You can do it inside any genre. Even Harrison Ford made something personal in the first "Raiders," Robert Shaw in "Jaws," and Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters": You can do it in big drama, and in a little tiny art film, It's just a question of whether or not there's something alive being photographed or something dead. That's the question. I love talking about this stuff. It sounds pretentious, but I really enjoy it. The funny thing about me, I do this for a living, but I'm also a huge fan of movies, studying them, what makes them good and bad.

TA: Do you think it's possible to have a favorite movie, or does a person have many favorite movies based on their moods, where they're at in their lives, whether they've just been dumped, or whether they're raising kids?

EH: To me "Fanny and Alexander" is one of the greatest films of all times. What I love about movies — and literature — is that a lot of it is about the mood you're in. Saturday afternoon or July 4th with my son, it's "Raiders of the Lost Ark." I personally find it incredibly fun with my wife to see "Scenes From a Marriage" and talk afterwards. You want different things from different movies depending on who you are. Sometimes you want your soul to be fed and to believe someone really cares. Do you remember the scene in "Dead Poets Society" where Robin Williams rips the pages out of the book and says there's no right way to write a f**king poem? Well, there's no right way to make a movie. People use money as a barometer to judge a film, but it's really a barometer to judge the advertising department of that film. I'm old enough to see movies get bad reviews and go on to succeed years later. "Casino" was wildly underrated because it came out after "Goodfellas."

TA: Your sci-fi movie "Gattaca" would probably fall in that category.

EH: "Gattaca" could barely find one sentence to put on the quote above the poster. We didn't have one "A" review. And now that movie comes up every day in my life, some art director referencing the design, or some politician at a dinner party talking about cloning. The first two weeks after that movie came out, I thought no one would remember it. It's funny what movies make it at the time and which ones don't and which ones pass the test of time.

TA: What are you reading these days besides scripts?

EH: I just finished Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography of Elvis, "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love." I went down the Elvis Presley rabbit hole. I got obsessed with the guy. I realized I'm the same age as Elvis when he died, and I became obsessed about how to live the second half of your life without blowing up.

TA: What's the big secret?

EH: Don't become a drug addict.