Legendary American actor, Ethan Hawke, is the director of a new feature film, Wildcat, starring his daughter Maya Thurman Hawke, who plays the brilliant but provocative and troubled Southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor.
His breakthrough role at 18 years old in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989) was the birth of a stellar career which has shaped recent pop culture. He continues to pursue it now from the directorial side taking a personal interest in what it means to be an artist yet not putting acting aside. In fact, Strange Way of Life, Pedro Almodóvar’s short film co-produced with Anthony Vaccarello in which Hawke stars alongside Pedro Pascal, was just released in the United States. We sat down together as he received the Lifetime Achievement Award 2023 at this edition’s Stockholm Film Festival.
We were just informed that the actors’ strike in Hollywood is finally over. What’s your take on it?
I know! It’s extremely relevant in my life because they have been waiting to start the last season of Stranger Things, which was supposed to happen months and months ago. A huge crew of people just waiting, waiting, waiting. For me it’s been strange because I’ve been directing this movie, all for that. It’s actually the longest time period that I haven’t acted, and I’ve been professionally acting since I was sixteen years old. It’s the first year since then that I’ve done a full year without acting, which is unsettling in regards to the profession.
The way films interact with the world is changing dramatically. It echoes the transformative shift the music industry experienced about two decades ago, inundating us with an abundance of content. How movies are marketed and received is undergoing a profound change, significantly impacting the lives of artists. We’re striving to have some agency over that. It’s challenging not to have witnessed the ideal they aimed for through the strike. I can’t speak to the strike’s full success, but it’s a crucial conversation that needs to be had. And I’m not worried about… well, I could say some negative things but I won’t (laughs).
You have a formidable career with countless films that are part of contemporary pop culture. Have you always had a clear path in mind for your career approach?
What’s difficult about being young is that you feel a tremendous pressure to be heard, recognized, and seen. However, as you get older, or at least for me, my perspective has shifted. I now have a broader awareness of our generation as a whole, appreciating our collective contributions to the profession. Reflecting on what I’ve learned over the years, it’s not just about individual growth; it’s about recognizing oneself as part of a collective wave, which connects us with other contemporary artists and audiences, emphasizing the interconnectedness among us.
I think you were just eighteen when you reached your first breakthrough, Dead Poets Society. Now, as an accomplished actor and film director, do you reflect on lessons learned from those early days?
I think the great bulk of us all look back on those formative years form us. My experiences with Peter Weir, I didn’t even know how defining they were. That’s when I think of what a film director is supposed to be – like Peter Weir. I think about the way that he talked to actors, to the DP, and to all the various key positions on a film set… You don’t even know.
I had an incredible experience working on that movie alongside Norman Lloyd, he was old then. He was playing the headmaster, but before that, he had worked with Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin, he’d been part of the Mercury Theatre Company, etc. One casual day on set, I was goofing around and kind of being an idiot. He called me and asked, are you having a good time? I was like yeah, yeah. And he said, you don’t even know the time you’re having – you’re having the time of your life and you’ll be thinking about this forever, so pay attention. Stop joking around so much because you’re going to spend decades trying to get back in a room like this, so be in the room right now. What an intense old guy… (laughs). But indeed, I’ve thought about that all the time, he was a thousand per cent right. God…(laughs).
How was it for you to work with Robin Williams?
He was a comic genius. It was incredibly difficult to be in the same room with him (laughs). If you see him… You can’t imagine, the molecules in his body would be bouncing all around from here to there and we’d all be wetting ourselves. And that’s a heavy burden. He got me my first agent, so forever grateful.
Speaking of those early days. You appear in Joe Dante’s Explorers alongside River Phoenix. You were probably just fifteen, but how do you remember him?
It really breaks my heart that he didn’t get to live. I met him when we were young and I thought there was something… this is going to sound awful, but when you’re young there’s a romance around that expression ‘live fast, die young’, and it’s just such a joke. Living is so amazing, that’s what we’re here to do!
Now that I’m receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, I feel so sorry. I would like him to get the prize, to be hearing the work that he would have done and the relationships he would have had. He was truly the first person of my generation to be a fully actualized artist. The work he did at 21 in My Own Private Idaho is the work of a real actor-artist, and none of us had done that yet.
Reality Bites is still a trendy topic in blogs and podcasts. A story which resonates with today’s youth: not having a job, not selling out. Because times are different, people’s opinion today is that the girl chose the wrong guy. How do you appreciate that?
The idea that you would choose the guy who doesn’t want a job and just wishes to hang out over the guy who’s obviously going to make millions of dollars… It’s interesting. What I think is wonderful about that movie are Winona Ryder and Helen Childress’ script. When people focus on that conversation, they’re missing the point, which is more that she’s on her own journey. I don’t have a lot of hope for a lowliness relationship with Troy’s future; I don’t think that’s going to go very well. And I think the other guy was too superficial anyway, so she’s just there just to have temporary boyfriends. She’s going to have a much better life than either of those knuckleheads. But I don’t know, I find that interesting.
I watched the movie again recently, and the way the world perceives what is good and what is bad is changing – it has changed. I mean, it was such a big deal in the ‘90s about whether or not that band used their song for an advertisement, and they would be looked down upon. Neil Young would be out the spuds for you and making jokes all about that, and now bands don’t have any other opportunity to make money.
Taking this example from the ‘90s. Because people think differently today, do you believe the audience’s minds or consciousness change the way films are made?
I often think another great ‘90s film is Slacker, and I don’t know how it would get released today. He would come out on YouTube and be one of them. It’s not the artist that made the movie that’s important, it’s the audience. The fact that audiences cared about a punk rock movie that was made for sixteen thousand dollars and had incendiary ideas, a movie that didn’t have a beginning, middle and end – that was changing the form. Artists are always doing innovative work whether or not audiences care about it and make it important.
Think of people like John Cage, different people who push music forward. Do we celebrate that? Or do we not celebrate it? In the case of Ben Stiller’s character, now all we celebrate is the accumulation of wealth and status, so it seems silly that she would pick the other path. Nice is overrated (laughs).
You just released Wildcat as a director, and you’ve been working with your daughter, Maya, who plays the character of American writer Flannery O’Connor. What about her did you want to explore?
I had this idea for a movie, and Maya was incredibly passionate about playing the character. She found Ms. O’Connor to be a truly captivating person and was deeply intrigued when we initially discussed the concept. I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to create a film centered on a young woman whose primary relationship is with herself and her work?
While we often witness movies focused on men and their professional lives, stories that center on women frequently revolve around their relationships. The notion of a film deviating from this norm was thrilling. Despite the absence of outward drama, her inner life held tremendous depth. This led me to realize that the only way to truly capture her story on film was to delve into her imagination.
So I tried to read all of her published work within a couple of months, immersing myself in nothing but her writings. As I read more and more and delved deeper into her canon, I started to see her. A kind of portrait of her appeared to me, so I realized that this essence was what the movie should capture. I began identifying stories within her works that held an autobiographical touch, ones where I, as a writer, could understand why she might have written that story. I aimed to weave these tales together like a collage, utilizing her writing to narrate her life story. That was the goal.
I think your daughter was passionate about Flannery O’Connor’s work. Was it intimidating to direct her in this passion of hers?
Engaging in something you truly care about isn’t intimidating, but rather a wonderful experience. Maya had this passion for Flannery O’Connor, and she was getting interested in producing and developing her own work. To me, it was an honor. For people who have kids, when your grown children are interested in you it’s very flattering. They can choose to fly away but they circle back. The fact that Maya chose a subject that meant so much to me, more than anyone else alive, was both exciting and honoring. And so it was a combination of wanting to honor and respect artists that I love.
Flannery O’Connor is a very intimidating presence. She’s a ferocious woman with a very discerning mind and a very disciplined, spiritual thinker. Studying her automatically puts you in a subservient position; her intelligence and pursuit of excellence are on an extraordinary level. It would be very humiliating to make a stupid movie about such an intelligent woman, so that was intimidating. Obviously, I wouldn’t want to let Maya down. But it very quickly felt like ours. The thought of attempting to create something about such an astute woman felt potentially humiliating—it's intimidating to even consider making a movie about her. The last thing I'd want is to disappoint her legacy.
Did you discover anything new from your daughter while working together?
I don’t know if it’s new, but it was wonderful to get to see Maya as a professional adult – she’s been working a lot. She was in school still deciding whether or not to drop out and start pursuing this craft professionally. That was six years ago! And to watch what’s happened to her relationship to the minutiae of filmmaking, the hair and makeup trailer, the ad department, how she relates to other actors… She’s already developed some habits and uses a professional language. It was exciting to see her as a legitimate old artist. But I don’t know if she felt that it was new.
It was thrilling for both of us to be challenged at such a level at the same time. It wasn’t like, oh, Maya was helping dad out with this movie that was really important to him. Or it wasn't like I was helping Maya either. It meant a lot to both of us. I was challenging myself at the highest level I had challenged myself as a maker of films, and Maya was pushing herself as a performer. We were both swimming in the deep end of the pool for ourselves, whatever that means to us, so it wasn’t discovering anything new. Making the movie felt very natural.
“Artists are always doing innovative work whether or not audiences care about it and make it important.”
Due to Maya’s work with Stranger Things, she has reached the mainstream. How do you feel about it?
I think about this more often than I should, but I go to the airport and I see people with Hawkins sweatshirts on and I realize about the cultural impact the show is having on a generation, and how that generation will feel about this moment in time twenty-five years from now.
You debuted as a film director with Chelsea Walls (2001), along with a couple of other documentaries and films. Wildcat is another contribution to your directorial career. How do you prioritize your work as an actor, writer or director?
I feel my primary relationship to the arts is as an actor; I learned about writing and directing through acting. Acting puts me in rooms with great writers, and as a young person I was in the room rehearsing and watching serious writers work in a way that was exhilarating and made it seem like a very substantive profession. Same goes with directors. So my first love is, and always will be, performance.
When I come to direct, I largely like to do it to celebrate actors. That’s largely where my thought process is: how to make a space with all the tension and things that go on with making the movie that is conducive to the actor, because I spent years on sets that make it harder to do a good job. 
The world’s shifting, not just how we consume films but also what people’s interests are today. How do you think that affects filmmaking?
There are several different ways to look at movies, particularly as an art form. Are they helping you waste your time or are they a part of your life? Is it something to help you turn your brain off before going to sleep or is it something that engages your thoughts and enriches your life? People with an interest in their own inner life don’t want to be asleep, I find that very exciting. If we use the phone, are we using the internet to kind of put ourselves to sleep or can we use these tools to bring light into our lives? My relationship to movies and literature – all the arts, really – has been about trying to engage in a more interesting conversation as opposed to less interesting.
One last question. Stranger Way of Life was released last month in the United States. In short, how was your experience working with Pedro Almodóvar?
He is one of the greatest. He was a leader of the queer movement before queer was cool. He wanted to make a film about gay men which didn’t end in tragedy. We were in the desert in Spain on an old Sergio Leone set. I just thought about how much I love making movies and what a unique challenge this was and how much I keep wanting to hunt these kinds of experiences out.