For Ethan Hawke, one particularly productive decade yields: A 100% Certified Fresh documentary debut (Seymour: An Introduction), a full embrace of steady genre work (The Purge, Sinister), and a Best Picture nod alongside longtime pal Richard Linklater (Boyhood).
But look at the year before this past decade: 2007, when Hawke was directed by Sidney Lumet in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It’d take until now before Hawke worked with another bona fide, old guard legend: Paul Schrader, who directs Hawke in the dramatic thriller First Reformed. Schrader wrote Taxi Driver and has directed nearly two dozen films since, and now he directs Hawke as a minister deep in secret despair, as a parishoner (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her radical enviromentalist husband, setting them on a course towards redemptive fire and brimstone.
Hawke on working with Schrader: “You feel this wisdom gained from a life lived after a massive amount of experience, and a mind that is still open and curious and wild. It makes you excited about getting old because the possibility is there that you could actually become wise. It’s like being around to watch a lion roar.”
Throughout our chat on Schrader and First Reformed (out this Friday) and his Five Favorite Films (see below), I mentioned Rotten Tomatoes editors were currently in the middle of compiling 140 Essential ’90s Movies, and that three of his were on the short list: Before Sunrise, Reality Bites, and Gattaca. I ask: If he could choose only one…?
It’s impossible to answer, Hawke responds, while revealing he autographs more memorabilia for those three than any other movies he’s done. Then he offers an observation: “The Before Sunrise fans are the most passionate and literary, the Reality Bites fans are the loudest and funniest, and Gattaca fans are the quietest and most sincere.”
As we wait for someone to turn that last bit into an internet personality quiz (“Which ’90s Ethan Hawke Movie Fan Are YOU?”), he goes in on his Five Favorite Films.
Warren Beatty directed, about the life of John Reed. Jack Nicholson is Eugene O’Neill, one of his greatest performances. It combines everything I love about movies: great acting, unbelievable romance, and politics. Sondheim did the music, Elaine May helped write it.
It’s kind of the bar. I just think of what cinema can accomplish. It’s like a great, great novel, only better. And with one of the great endings of all time. Just so beautiful.
I’ll continue the Jack Nicholson theme and go to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Of its era, the great American novel. R.P. McMurphy is probably the defining Jack Nicholson character, if you had to pick one. It’s actually the first film I ever saw. I don’t remember it, but I was a little baby and my mom took me. It’s one of those movies I’ll watch whenever I’m feeling lost or alone in the universe. Something about McMurphy and the Chief throwing the sink through the window makes life worth living.
[Director] Milos Forman was a really incredible storyteller. He knew how to tell a big story where the characters feel… Part of it has to do with the level of supporting acting. He creates a full world. Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito and Louise Fletcher and Brad Dourif — it’s just such an incredible cast. The world feels so real. That’s what so many epic movies get wrong. They feel important in the way that it’s in italics. They just feel like they’re about the director, and not about the characters.
Today, I’m gonna have to go with The Bridge On the River Kwai. You see that movie on the big screen and Alec Guinness is so proud of his bridge, then he drops this little stick he carries with him the whole time into the water and you start…
I think for a guy my age, you start to realize there’s something very profound about the movie, about how we all get so self-important about what our lives are. But really all any of us are doing is building sand castles. There’s something much bigger at work in the universe than anything any one of us can do alone.
The truth is, it’s the “five” part [in Five Favorite Films] that’s a joke, you know? I probably have a good 100 favorite movies of all time. I mean, like, my brain is rifling. Am I really not gonna include A Woman Under the Influence? Am I really not gonna include Nashville? Am I really not gonna include Synecdoche, New York? I could do my five favorite films with terrible cinematography. I could do my five favorite films about love affairs.
You could pick A Woman Under the Influence.
Okay, I will. I will. I’ll do A Woman Under the Influence.
Gena Rowlands. This is one of my favorite performances of all time. It’s exciting watching a husband and wife [Rowlands and John Cassavettes] work together. There’s something at its core that’s just rock and roll. The birth of true American independent cinema.
I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say Apocalypse Now. It’s like Godfather, Citizen Kane. Those are the kind of ones that get thrown away all the time. But if you go to a real proper movie theater, I even love… I’ll pick Apocalypse Now Redux. If you see that last release version up on a big screen, you crank up the music, that is a life-changing experience.
“I think I watched Commando 49 times,” Hawke laughs, “I don’t know why. We rented Commando when I was young and nobody returned it and I just watched it a million times.”
Now that you said Commando, do you know what’s the other movie I watched a ton? I feel like I want to change one of my answers.
The Year of Living Dangerously. We had that VHS. I saw it the first time, actually, when it came out in the theater. It had Mel Gibson in it, so I thought it was gonna be an action movie. I was really disappointed. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I got the VHS and I started watching it. There’s something about Linda Hunt’s performance, you know? “What then must we do?” Travel and mysticism and romance is at the heart of that movie. And there are images in that movie that will stay with you your whole life.