Back in April, SF Weekly interviewed Ethan Hawke in his downtown hotel suite, struck by the kind and nonchalant attitude permeating from his tweed blazer/baseball cap ensemble.
He was in town for the San Francisco Film Festival, where he was honored with a special tribute in the form of an on-stage interview preceding the screening of his newest film, Maudie, which opens in Los Angeles and New York on June 16. Directed by Aisling Walsh and co-starring Sally Hawkins, the film is a biopic set in the early to mid-20th century about Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis and her hermit fisherman husband, Everett — played by Hawke.
SF Weekly: This film seems to be about outsiders finding one another. What was your process of channeling those feelings of isolation in order to play Everett?
Ethan Hawke: I have a cabin up in Nova Scotia and I’ve been going there since 2002. I love it up there and I’ve met a lot of fisherman up there. I’ve seen them down south when I was a kid too, that type of man who prides themselves on their isolation. Sometimes I think that loneliness is a thing that perpetuates itself. The time periods in my life when I’ve felt extreme loneliness you almost start to get more comfortable there. You start wanting to be there, you start enjoying it even though it’s a melancholy, sad feeling. Also, a lot of guys like Everett served in World War I, which was a pretty terrible war, and they saw some things and returned to a rural community and really didn’t want to see anything else. I think that this is a guy who was raised an orphan, went off to war, came back and wanted to finish it out by himself. I can kind of relate to that.
SFW: Prior to Maudie, did you have any connection to Folk or Naive Art?
EH: I love it. The only art I’ve ever bought is Folk Art. I always liked that artist William Hawkins. Do you know him? I just love that stuff so much. Did you see that movie Junebug? Junebug’s about outsider and it’s a beautiful film. So that was in the back of my mind. There’s a book by this writer for the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, [that asks] ‘what is art?’ He takes art from jails and art that kids make [and asks], ‘What is art? What is creativity, and what makes it beautiful and what makes it great?’
I was very moved by Maud’s paintings. There’s something pure about them, like a novel written from jail, it’s just human expression, when it comes shooting out. It’s exciting, ya know?
SFW: How did all of that inform your performance?
EH: One of the things that great acting teachers are all about is preserving that innate thing in you and learning how to channel it. The line I always say is that I try really hard to not be a professional. Ya know? As soon as you’re a professional, some kind of magic is gone. You’ve got to find a way with every performance, any good one, to put a piece of yourself in there because you want to, because you love to, because you have to. You have try to do that. You want to try to capture your own Maud Lewis. Maud didn’t ever see anybody else’s paintings her whole life.
SFW: Everett can be seen as a man who, at his core, is scared of the world. What, in acting, scares you the most?
EH: Being bad.
SFW: Tell us more about that.
EH: Well, it’s a trick because to be good, you have to risk being bad. If you don’t dance near the edge of your ability, you’re never going to push your ability. And if you dance near the edge of your ability, you’re going to fall off. A willingness to fail — it’s what young people have, they play for the sake of playing. They don’t necessarily play to win or get anywhere, and you have to try to cultivate that in yourself. In one of my first movies I did a small part with Jeremy Irons once, and he said that we all have a certain channel in which we can do our best work and your job is to not jump crazy outside of it, but to keep trying to widen that channel. And that’s just what I’m trying to do.
The film will open June 23 in San Francisco.