Celebrity interviews seldom yield good journalistic product.
Usually, they're simply public relations. A reporter spends 10 or 15 minutes in the presence of a movie star and gets to ask a few questions (with a publicist hovering nearby, ready to break in if uncomfortable or off-topic material is introduced) about the star's current project, the one he and the people who signed his most recent check are most interested in promoting at the moment.
If the reporter is crafty, he might be able to fashion a reasonable story from this encounter, but basically he'll repeat the talking points the star is offering because that's all that ends up in his notebook and everybody understands the transactional nature of the exchange going in. To get access to the star, which confers on the reporter (and his publication) a certain prestige (in that you seem to be a big enough deal to warrant an audience with the famous actor), the reporter must tacitly agree to the terms. Which usually means having a brief and supervised encounter where you're fed the talking points the star (and his sponsors) wants you to hear.
But you try. So when a publicist contacts me and asks if I want to meet with Ethan Hawke about his movie Blaze when I'm in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival, I say sure. I have seen Blaze -- it's my favorite 2018 film. Hawke co-wrote and directed it. It might be interesting to talk to him. My expectations are not high.
And come the morning I'm supposed to make my way from lower Manhattan to Brooklyn to meet Hawke at a coffee shop near his home, I wish I'd declined. Because I know how these things go. I expect to show up and wait in line for my few minutes with Hawke, to ask my questions, get my answers and be sent on my way. There will be a sign-in sheet; there will be handlers. Hawke will be charming because, being a movie star and all, that's one of the things he's very good at. And I'll have a story that says just about what every other interview with Ethan Hawke that comes out this season says. I'll be complicit in the promotion of a movie. (A very good movie, but still.)
I wish I could just stay in Chelsea and watch movies.
But I get to the coffee shop, and there's no one there. No obvious movie people anyway.
So I sit at the bar and ask the barista if there's a backroom, and if anyone's back there waiting for a guy with a notebook. No backroom. No sign-in sheet. I order a cup of coffee. And a couple of minutes later, an unshaven middle-aged guy who looks a little like Ethan Hawke walks in alone, grins and shakes my hand. I ask if it's OK to record our conversation on my iPad.
Of course, he says. (You can hear about 45 raw and unedited minutes of our conversation on blooddirtangels.com.)
Blaze is a bio-pic about an Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter named Blaze Foley, who was born Michael David Fuller in Malvern in 1949. His life was, by most measures, short and sad. He had polio as a child, which left him with a vestigial limp, and was troubled by mental illness. Though he made a few recordings and signed a record deal, he never had any meaningful success during his life, cut short when he was shot to death in the early morning of Feb. 1, 1989. He was 39 years old.
His killer was acquitted; he admitted the shooting but the defense painted a picture of the 6-foot-2, 280-pound Foley as a raging bully who'd intervened in an argument between father and son. Even Foley's friends might have entertained some reasonable doubt.
But if Foley was a self-saboteur who often disappointed his friends and fans, he was also beloved by the music community of Austin, and after his death two of our best songwriters wrote tunes about him. His friend, mentor and substance abuse buddy Townes Van Zandt wrote "Blaze's Blues." Lucinda Williams, who for a time was roommates with one of Foley's girlfriends, wrote "Drunken Angel," where she portrayed him as "[s]ome kind of savior singing the blues/A derelict in your duct tape shoes."
Foley was never a star. In death, he apothesized into a legend. But Hawke's Blaze is more about what it's like to live as an artist.
In a way, Blaze reminds me of Richard Linklater's Waking Life, a 2001 movie set in Austin that, starred among others (including political provocateur Alex Jones, then a local Texas crank) Ethan Hawke. Waking Life is a rotoscoped experiment that explicitly worries esoteric problems of philosophy some find exhilarating and others dismiss as pretentious navel-gazing. Hawke sees the connection. He talks about going to a screening of Waking Life and overhearing an argument after the show.
"One guy said to the other guy, 'Oh, God, it's like freshman college [stuff]," Hawke says. "And his friend said, 'You know what the problem with you is? You've lost that college freshman. Like why did you stop being interested in ... why we're alive?'"
Hawke is 47. At 14, he starred with River Phoenix in Joe Dante's sci-fi adventure Explorers. He entered our collective imagination at 20, playing opposite Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. (Even then, he resisted Williams' improvised attempts to crack him up on set. Hawke had read Stanislavsky. He wanted to stay in character. He wanted to be a great actor. How pretentious.)
Ethan Hawke has written novels, started theater companies, played his own version of Hamlet. Taken a lot of critical lumps. He has never let go of that college freshman, capable of awe and wonder and wanting to make good art. Bless him for that.
A few months after I talked to Hawke, Taffy Brodresser-Akner published a long story in The New York Times headlined: "Ethan Hawke is still taking himself extremely seriously," which stole a lot of the thunder I'd intended to unleash here.
"He never forgot that it was entirely possible that people wouldn't appreciate your work while you were doing it," Brodresser-Akner wrote. "That they might appreciate it only long after you were dead. Or maybe even never! But that didn't mean you shouldn't do it. The critics -- the ones who called him pretentious and too earnest and too overly serious for a movie star -- became a force he worked in contrast to, a dark shadow that rode alongside him. He learned to defy them, if not ignore them. He learned to let them remind him what he was supposed to be, which is an artist, which is someone who tells the truth, not just a puppet who dances to please his audience in a series of films that resemble the one he just did."
So maybe I got suckered, maybe I'm spouting the party line; I thought I was directing the flow of our conversation when Hawke was really staying on message. Still, Blaze is a movie about the cost of becoming an artist.
Ben Dickey, a singer-songwriter and Little Rock native, plays Blaze Foley in the movie.
And he's excellent, with a bearish charisma and a hint of unhinged menace flashing occasionally in his eyes. He has been Hawke's friend for a while -- his girlfriend is best friends with Hawke's wife, Ryan Shawhughes -- and he says the idea of him starring as Foley goes as far back as 2006, when the couples took a road trip across Canada, listening to Townes Van Zandt and a burned CD copy of a few of Blaze's songs. Playfully, they batted around the idea of doing a movie that drew on the characters present in songwriting circles in Austin in the '80s.
"Really, I thought he was just being a good friend, you know?" Dickey says from the farm north of Shreveport ("eight miles from Leadbelly's grave") where he lives. "That he was telling me I could do something like that."
But on New Year's Eve 2015, Dickey says, " I watched this notion hit him."
Dickey was visiting Hawke in Brooklyn at the time, and they'd gone out.
"We had a big guitar pull," Dickey says. "We were passing guitars around and being stupid drunk and singing songs and when we went home that night he was completely obsessed, saying, 'I'm going to make this movie.' And it was a little bit overwhelming, I'll be honest with you. The next morning -- he wouldn't let me sleep -- we went on a long walk and he said, 'I've never been more sure about anything ever.'"
So Dickey put his songwriting and a planned tour behind, a record release on hold, took acting classes, and immersed himself in Foley's music. And at first, Hawke toyed with the notion of playing Townes Van Zandt himself. But after reading Sybil Rosen's memoir of her time with Foley, Living in the Woods in a Tree (Rosen co-wrote the Blaze script with Hawke), they decided to bring in Charlie Sexton, an Austin guitar legend and sometime actor (he had a small role in Richard Linklater's Boyhood, where he met Hawke) to play Van Zandt and serve as a de facto consultant.
Sexton, who was a musical child prodigy and had a major label recording deal and a hit record at 16, knew both Van Zandt -- who died on New Year's Day 1997 -- and Foley. (He told the Austin American-Statesman that Foley didn't much like him: "I vividly remember him looking at me and he's like, 'Maybe I should like you but I don't.' I was like exactly the enemy for Blaze ... I had a major-label record deal, and not playing at the folk house or whatever.")
"There was something about Sybil's book that made it inevitable [that Sexton would play Van Zandt]," Dickey says. "The part of Townes had to be so crazy authentic. Not only did Charlie take care of that, but he also brings his representation of Austin ... he knew those people. Blaze loved Charlie's mom. Townes loved Charlie's mom. Once we read the book we knew we had to have him. He just took care of everything, from the standpoint of this is authentic and this is not."
"The moment the movie became real to me was the moment that Charlie said yes," Hawke says. "The movie is pretty well built around Ben and my's friendship ... I wouldn't have made the movie without Ben. It's not like I had the idea to make Blaze then looked around and found Ben."
And Blaze Foley is certainly within Dickey's range -- he has the musicality and the raw talent, the ability to be unself-conscious on camera and to take on some of the trouble and worry of his character. He's probably a better musician than Foley was. More people will likely hear him sing Foley's songs than ever heard Foley sing them.
But Blaze is anything but a conventional bio-pic. Foley's arc isn't the traditional one of overcoming and achieving. You could even make the argument that Foley doesn't change much. He persists until he doesn't -- he didn't leave anything behind except a handful of songs and a guitar he left to Townes Van Zandt, who allegedly wrote "Marie" on it after Foley died; which makes Sexton as Van Zandt's staggeringly painful rendition of it in the movie anachronistic. But then Blaze is a work of art, not of journalism.
"Every ... music bio-pic is about some famous musician," Hawke says. "And it almost sub-texturally says to you that you are of value if you are famous. Your story is worth telling if you make it. And if you never get that record contract, then your story isn't valuable. It's a subtle lie that permeates our culture -- and it's exacerbated by a lot of things going on right now.
"I saw an interview with Paul Newman near the end of his life ... and [the interviewer] was giving him all this credit for being humble. And he said, 'Stop giving me credit for being humble. It's actually insulting ... I'm intelligent and every intelligent person knows that a big part of why I've earned millions of dollars from acting is the color of my eyes. So if I walk around like I'm more special than somebody else because I'm more photogenic then I'm a moron. I'm not humble. I'm intelligent.'"
Hawke pauses. It's like he decides something.
"Commerciality isn't a barometer of talent, it's a barometer of what is popular right now."
Hawke has been commercial; he's been in popular movies. He could have been, and maybe he is still, a movie star. But he's intelligent, not humble. And just because you know his name and what he looks like, that has nothing to do with what he means to be. I believe him when he says that.
Maybe he's a really good actor, someone who makes his living stealing your empathy.
Maybe I'm his accomplice, abetting his public relations campaign.
Anyway, he left his wallet somewhere. I pay for coffee. So he owes me.
MovieStyle on 09/28/2018
Print Headline: Blazing his own trail: Ethan Hawke is a successful actor, writer and director, but he’s still a college freshman at heart