Few match-ups of this Broadway season seemed more right from the get-go than the Roundabout Theatre Company’s True West, director James Macdonald’s staging of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play starring Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano. The two actors not only stand among the finest of their generations, but each has, for better or worse, been tagged as somehow representative, Dano, the thoughtful, broody iconoclast of an uncertain new century, Hawke stamped early as a Gen X signifier. Both seem to take their work unabashedly seriously, modern variations of the old- school Actors Studio types willing to risk seeming, well, unabashedly serious. Shepard’s earthy, cowboy lyricism was virtually inevitable. True West, in particular, is very nearly a rite of passage – Peter Coyote, Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, the Quaids, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, et. al. – its tale of two estranged brothers re-meeting in the new old west to taunt, threaten and battle over that ultimate American dream: a Hollywood deal.
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Hawke knows the turf. From Dead Poets Society, the Sunrise trilogy and Boyhood through last year’s acclaimed, he-was-robbed performance in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed and his own direction of Blaze, Hawke has established a film career that might well be considered a prototype for every Paul Dano that’s come after, a career that, not incidentally, includes regular forays to the stage.
Deadline spoke to Hawke recently, shortly after the limited engagement of True West concluded its Broadway run. He spoke about the play’s grueling demands, the pressures of sharing a stage with a friend, the ghosts of True Wests past, and his recently-confirmed Showtime series Good Lord Bird, which he’ll star in, co-write and executive produce.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Deadline: How did True West come into your life?
Ethan Hawke: Well, it’s kind of fascinating. I knew Sam wasn’t feeling well, and that he wanted to do a Broadway revival of True West sooner rather than later. Sam had strong feelings about really loving this director [James Mcdonald] and wanting him to direct True West. James’ one marching order was to kind of reclaim the play’s identity. Ever since Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and John C. Reilly did that remarkable production where they traded roles each night, there’s been this idea that the characters Austin and Lee are the same person, and Sam had really grown over the years to resent that. He wanted us to do it the way it was written, where Lee was in his 40s and there was at least a decade apart between him and Austin, who is in his 30s.
So I got this call saying that Sam wanted me to meet James Macdonald about this production, and from the time I got that call to the time the meeting happened, six days or something, Sam died. When James and I finally met, it was the day after Sam had passed and we felt like, I don’t know, we just had a wonderful meeting. I asked him who his dream Austin was, and he said Paul Dano, and I said, well, I’m friends with him, and I can text him right now. So, I texted Paul, and it seemed like we were all on a mission to do this play again, to revive it.
But did it ever feel like a burden, to do the play the way that he had envisioned it?
My thinking going into it, in truth, was that I was intimidated by the ghosts around this play, not just the ghost of the playwright but the ghosts of Phil Hoffman and of Malkovich’s performance. They just loomed large. I think if Sam hadn’t asked, I would have never even thought to do this play. I loved John C. and Phil’s performances so much, and Gary’s and Malkovich’s was one of the reasons why I became an actor, and I had no desire to revisit it on my own. But the sign of a really great play is that, no sooner do you start working on it, it invites you in. Pretty soon, I didn’t think about those guys or those past productions.
It’s an overused expression, but True West is just a work of genius. In nine scenes, Sam marches you through this kind of O’Neill-like realism into a Beckett-like absurdism, and you never see it happening. The play descends through these tiers of hell, and it ended up being one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. I remember Phil telling me that if you don’t do it full tilt, you’re not doing it. It’s just one of those things where the gas pedal has to be hitting the floor the whole time, or it doesn’t work. It’s exhausting.
It has the reputation of being a play for a certain type of actor that in the old days might have been called Method.
It’s begging you to do that, and the truth is there are a lot of pitfalls in there. I had the good fortune of working with Paul [Dano], who’s kind of allergic to knee-jerk macho acting or any kind of histrionics that aren’t earned. There are a lot of traps for indulgence, but [the play] also kind of sets you free, like a good piece of jazz or something. It’s the discipline that makes it interesting, and finding the compassion, trying to mine the play for what it’s really about, not just an excuse to jam. That’s the trick. It invites you to lose your mind, but if you actually do lose your mind then it’s all for naught.
What was difficult for you? Can you point out specifics?
It’s mentally and physically exhausting. I’ve done big, difficult plays – Macbeth, Coast of Utopia, Henry IV, whatever – but with a huge ensemble, no individual carries too much weight, and even if you’re playing the title role, there’s so many shoulders that are carrying the stage. But with such a small cast and such a ferocious play…And if you’re going to play the music of it right, you have to find the anger and sadness and disappointment and self-loathing. Meditating on what that play is about eight times a week, and Paul will tell you, it is grueling.
But it’s funny. I say all that, and now that it’s closed, I have this overwhelming sense of pride for having worked on it. I don’t miss the two-show days – two-show days when we’re throwing beer cans at each other and I felt lucky to come out with my life. I really did, you know. Paul and I…you have to be at each other’s throats the whole play, and yet you can’t actually kill one another.
Were there nights when you came a little too close?
Oh, you know, any good production, you always want to dance right up to the line. A good theater performance is like a good rock show – you’ve got to think that somebody’s losing his mind a little bit. The goal is to give people a creative act and not some reheated performance, so we tried to create it new every night and experience it new every night, and we did. We took care of each other, all of us, but you need to dance right up to the line.
I remember one time. Throughout the play, I’d poke Paul or kick Paul or punch him or tweak his ear, and one time I knew I had gone too far. He just turned around and kicked me, and it kind of did feel like play fighting with your brothers. Play fighting always ends in one of two ways, either your mom comes in or you end up in a real fight because somebody punches somebody too hard, and then the other person really punches them back.
You said you were friends with Paul, so I assume it helped having a friendly face to square off against every night.
I don’t know. Paul and I met when he came in to audition for a play I was directing called Things We Want, that one of my best friends had written, and I knew the second Paul left the audition room that I didn’t want to do the play without him. Paul’s such a remarkable young actor and we’ve been friends for the 10 years since, and I’ve watched his career, from Love and Mercy to Swiss Army Man. I mean, he’s just chalking up a beautiful, beautiful career, and he’s so smart and kind, so I knew that aspect of it would be enjoyable.
But one of the things I do find is that it is challenging sometimes to work with someone you know well. If you’re just meeting somebody, I don’t know, the lines and the boundaries are real clear, and you’re not putting a friendship at risk, you have permission to get mad at them or to not get along. Paul said it too. I was sometimes more nervous acting with Paul than I would have been with somebody else because he knows when I’m being fake or when I’m not my best self. Ultimately I think the intimacy really helped us get to second and third gear a lot faster than we would have with somebody we didn’t know. It made the first day hard, but it made the run really enjoyable. We trusted one another.
I assumed you were going to say it was all so much easier working with a friend.
It’s strangely not. You’re strangely self-conscious in front of a friend, and you have to work through that. You know, if Paul starts working on a different walk for his character…It’s like, I know that’s not the way you walk, why are you doing that? You have to let the other person have their experience, whereas, if you become friends on a job, you kind of just accept them as the character that they were playing when you met them. But we worked through it, and it ended up, I think, being of value.
How do you decide to do something like True West – a play now, then maybe a movie, then maybe a TV show? Is it all thought out, or just about what comes your way?
I don’t think much beyond being in the room with the most talented people I can be in a room with, you know? I don’t think, oh, it’s time to do a play. I kind of wait for a play to reveal itself to me. Certain things I seek out, but it’s kind of just a gut thing. I’m going to do this eight-part adaptation of James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird next, and that’s something I’ve been trying to do since I first read that book in 2014.
What was it about the book that got you?
It attacks one of the most difficult subjects in American history, the great national wound, which is slavery, and it attacks it in such a surprising way, with so much wit and love and humor that there’s something deeply healing about the book. I experienced it that way and I was really moved by McBride’s writing. I’ve been a huge fan of Huck Finn my whole life, and in every decade of my life, I’ve experienced Huck Finn in a different way, and I was actually just jealous of McBride that he wrote a book as good as Huck Finn, and he spun it on its ass. He’s approaching the abolitionist movement through a cross-dressing, mixed race young man who’s riding with John Brown. It’s a hysterical, weird way to approach it, and it’s just so wise, and it knocks you so off balance in the way that comedy can.
This year seems very steeped in Americana for you, with True West and now Good Lord Bird. Do you think about your career in terms of those themes or…
I like where you’re going with this. I directed this film Blaze that’s just afire with Americana, and First Reformed was taking a brutal, hard look at where we all are right now. I have always been interested in that, and maybe it has something to do with when I first started acting everybody kept calling me, you know, all this talk about Gen X. As much as I hated the label – I resisted it, I hated it, I loathed it, I thought it was stupid and meaningless – but it did make me think a lot about what my generation was and how we were different from other generations and where this generation intersected with this country, and what America means now versus what it meant when I was born or what it meant to my grandfather. And so a sense of being American has always been a part of who I am. My father’s always lived in Texas, and my mother’s been an Easterner, and I’ve always felt divided, and that division has created in me, I think, better vision. When you don’t feel that you totally belong in any place but see each one a little bit with the eyes of an insider and the eyes of an outsider, it does help you.
When I read The Good Lord Bird, it intersected with me working on Magnificent Seven and that was so interesting, to work with Denzel, and I was playing a ex-Civil War soldier, and I’d be riding to work and the news was all about Trump, and they were still flying the Confederate flag above the Capitol in North Carolina. Here I was putting on this old Civil War costume and doing these scenes with Denzel in Louisiana, and all this stuff was still alive, you know?
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