The Tribeca Film Festival’s “Storytellers” series got underway Thursday afternoon with Ethan Hawke on hand to interview Patti Smith about the creative process or something equally ponderous. Instead they agreed to share duties as subject and interlocutor, crisscrossing stories about their lives in front of audiences as actors, rock stars, writers and in private as well.
“Let’s neither of us moderate,” Smith said to muffled cheers from the audience at the SVA Theater in Chelsea. “Let’s just be ourselves.” The rocker/poet/National Book Award-winning memoirist connected early with praise for Hawke’s portrait of ravaged jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in the just-released Born to Be Blue:
“I love this film,” Smith said. “It moves like methadone. Although I’ve never done methadone, I know a lot of people who have.” The film, she explained to the somewhat bemused Hawke, unfolds “like it’s in real time.” Smith added that the final song on her seminal 1975 album Horses, “Elegie” was a tribute to Jimi Hendrix.
“I thought it would be cool to have trumpets playing,” she said. “I wanted Chet Baker.” She tracked him down and asked if he would come to the recording session. He agreed but didn’t show up for days — by which time “his agent somehow got involved and he demanded $5,000. I was working at the Strand Bookstore making around $2,000 a year, and we had a budget of $20,000 for the whole album. So when you listen to the last song on Horses, throw on some Chet Baker” in the background and you’ll get the intended effect.
“Ever won one?” Philip Seymour Hoffman asked Hawke about a big award. “No,” Hawke replied. “It’s confusing,” Hoffman said. “It’s really confusing.”
Hawke and Smith quickly found common ground talking about fame, rock music and theater; if there were gods eavesdropping on the session, they would have been Sam Shepard and Tom Stoppard. When they were young and out of their minds, Smith and the married Shepard had a fiery affair that resulted in the collaborative rock/theater piece Cowboy Mouth, which was essentially a “swan song,” she said, to the romance and was mostly ad libbed to a rock beat. “Sam was the North Star,” she said. “With Sam I learned how to improvise, and it was one of the greatest lessons I ever got.”
Hawke lamented he often felt that “somehow I got to the party too late.” Nevertheless he, too, had seen some of the great Shepard plays, notably an early production of True West with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. In addition to his active film career, Hawke regularly returns to the stage; his notable performances include Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia and an update of Bertolt Brecht’s contemplation of fame and its consequences, Baal in which he played a dissolute rock star. And speaking of Brecht, Smith said she’d always dreamed of playing the title role in Mother Courage — until she saw Meryl Streep in the role in a production adapted by Tony Kushner in Central Park.
In the department of self-revelation, Hawke told the story of being in a film commissary “talking trash about Al Pacino” with his Oscar and many other awards and his cockiness when Philip Seymour Hoffman called him over and asked, “Ever won one?”
“No,” Hawke replied, to which the late actor had responded: “It’s confusing. It’s really confusing.” Hawke went on to say that he too had found success a slippery thing.”Sometimes people get success and they’re failing inside, and sometimes people think they’re failing and they’re growing.”
Well, whatever, Smith responded. “Someone wants to give me a medal, I’m real happy.”