Inside the head of Ethan Hawke

We take a stroll with the actor to chat about his new graphic novel, Indeh, and how to follow your art in Hollywood

Photograph: Jake Chessum

How Ethan Hawke is able to schedule our interview is a miracle. “Do you want to talk while we walk to my apartment,” he asks, quickly pulling up directions from Fort Greene to his Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, brownstone. To say the actor’s busy is an understatement. Since 2015, the 45-year-old Boyhood star has played Chet Baker in the biopic Born to Be Blue, released a documentary on pianist Seymour Bernstein, Seymour: An Introduction, and published a book—his third—Rules for a Knight. And that’s just a sampling. His screwball comedy Maggie’s Plan just came out in theaters. And then there’s the business of the Magnificent Seven remake, the action movie which reteams Hawke with his Training Day costar Denzel Washington. Why, then, are we talking about comics? Because between all those obligations, Hawke was cowriting a graphic novel, Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars, with artist Greg Ruth, delving deep into a conflict that’s largely glossed over. (You’ll know the name Geronimo, but the rest? Not so much.) “It’s a dark and unsettled wound that we haven’t quite healed from yet,” says Ruth about bringing the battles to life—over a six-year period. Hawke, though, is accustomed to delayed gratification: Boyhood and Richard Linklater’s “Before” series were both shot over the course of a decade or more. And it’s clear the father of four—who’s stopped on the street three times by fans during our discussion—thrives with a full plate of work in front of him. At the end of our walk, he tells me he’s off to midtown. For what? The New York Public Library, where he’s joining the board of trustees. Why not, right?

Is it tough to juggle all these projects at once?
It is tough. One of the things that’s really hard about acting is the inconsistency of it, the ups and downs. You have a lot of work, you don’t have any work. Giving myself long-term projects that I really believe in—getting the opportunity to work with Greg—it’s making myself a student again. And I’ve had a lot of long-term projects come to an end in a short period of time. It’s a weird moment in my life, shedding these skins, so to speak.

You’re playing the long game.
One thing I’ve learned is the great lesson of Boyhood: the value of patience. There’s no finish line, really. There’s no race to be won. The slower and longer I tend to work on things, the better they turn out. You can’t control everything. And Indeh is a great example. It was kind of like I cowrote and produced a movie. And Greg Ruth directed it, starred in it, did the costumes, the cinematography and the music. He was in control of so much. And I had to give over to that and embrace it and learn from him.

Why a graphic novel?
I had been trying to make this a movie and really kind of gave up. And I was in Forbidden Planet here in the city with my son, and all of a sudden, it occurred to me that maybe the story would be better served as a graphic novel. There were a lot of things that were going to be very difficult in the film.

Still, even this ended up taking years. Longer than most films, even.
If you told me when Greg and I first met that we were gonna be six years away from completing, I would have been like, “What the?” I wouldn’t have believed it.

One of the things that’s most interesting about you is the way you’re able to mix these kind of low-budget projects with blockbusters.
It really is funny. You know, I’ll tell you what: I’ve got The Magnificent Seven coming out later this year, and it’s definitely the biggest-budget Hollywood movie I’ve ever been a part of. And you know what? I saw it. It’s awesome. I’m so proud of it. And that doesn’t mean I’m not insanely proud of the Chet Baker movie, [which] we made on a shoestring dime.

What other irons do you have in the fire?
Linklater and I have a few other projects we planted the seed for a couple years ago that hopefully we’ll make. I’m really longing to get back on the New York theater [scene].

What kind of theater are you itching to do?
A new play. Something I can’t predict. A couple years ago, I did [Bertolt] Brecht’s first play, [Anton] Chekhov’s first play and Macbeth, so it was a huge learning experience for me. There’s something beautiful about pinning yourself against the greats and trying to work on masters. But I think I long for getting to play for an audience a piece they’ve never heard before. You know, where they’re not constantly going, “Well I saw David Bowie do this,” “Well I saw Patrick Stewart do that.”

How have you seen the theater landscape change in New York?
What Hamilton has done for the whole theater community—it’s like a defibrillator or something. It’s one of the best things to happen in a long time, and there’s no hyperbole here. Theater at its best is a rock show. It’s a live work; it’s not a microwaved performance. What Lin-Manuel [Miranda] is doing is injecting everybody with the fervor of this incredible art. We’re right at a moment where all that everyone cares about is what everyone is downloading, and they’re watching The Godfather on their phone. And everything feels small and like you can buy it. All of a sudden, nobody can get into Hamilton.

Is there anything about the scene that you miss, though?
I miss the kind of avant-garde punk-rock theater scene from when I first showed up in New York. I was really chasing, you know, the Eric Bogosians and Patti Smiths of the world. The counterculture.

Speaking of New York, I loved that in Rules for a Knight, the first rule is solitude. How do you deal with finding that in this city?
I bet I wouldn’t have put it first if I didn’t live here. If we lived in Nova Scotia, [Canada,] I probably wouldn’t have to work at cultivating solitude as much as I do here. But for my kids, I really wanted to impress upon them the idea that going to a movie by yourself, having dinner by yourself, going for a walk by yourself, is not something to be embarrassed about; it’s something to cherish. I’m constantly engaging with people. It can be a massive distraction. And so being alone is really great.

I read an interview with your Born to be Blue costar Carmen Ejogo about how she found your approach so unjaded even though you’ve been in show business for most of your life.
I just learned what a waste of time artifice is. Not that I don’t have my share of it. I try to approach this incredibly uncynically. You know, I think to a fault I’ve been unironic and earnest about all this stuff my whole life. Some people find it really irritating, and I understand why. But I don’t really know any other way, and I feel that if you want to be serious in the arts, you just have to risk falling on your ass all the time.

Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars is out Tuesday, June 7, 2016.

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