Ethan Hawke likes to stay busy. This year alone, he has played a Viking king in Robert Egger’s The Northman, a nightmarish kidnapper in Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone, a Marvel supervillain opposite Oscar Isaac on the television series Moon Knight and will be a part of the massive ensemble for Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knights Out Mystery. Within all of this work, and the dozens of other films he has done throughout his career, Hawke is an actor, writer, director, producer who is always searching for more, staying intrigued, and never stopping what he was when he started many years ago, a student of acting and the world of cinema. He’s humble about it, with the right temperament balance of curiosity and wisdom, all while smiling and being grateful for what he has been given.
With this, his latest effort finds him in front and behind the camera as a documentarian looking to tell the unbelievable story of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodard with The Last Movie Stars. Newman and Woodward were two legendary actors whose careers are just as extraordinary as the marriage they had together off screen. Using transcripts from an unpublished, unfinished autobiography about Paul Newman’s life, Hawke used archival footage, as well as zoom recording of the transcripts performed by famous actors of his generation to reflect on the words spoken by Newman and Woodard’s peers and families in the original interviews. Per my review of the docuseries, “it is the best thing he has directed in his career” and with each episode, he proves “he was the right person to tell Newman and Woodward’s romantic, touching love story.” This truly is the crowning achievement of Hawke’s career.
When I had the chance to sit down with Hawke, it was in person at the 2022 SXSW Festival, where the first episode of the series was debuting. He has since premiered multiple episodes at other film festivals around the world. I could tell that while he was still in the editing room for the final five episodes, the passion and respect for this project and his subject matter was on full display. We talked about how he got involved with the project, his feelings on tackling legends within this project and his last directorial film Blaze, and if we will ever have “movie stars” ever again. Ethan Hawke is truly one of the more genuine people you can ever come across in this business and it was an honor speaking to him about The Last Movie Stars.
Ryan McQuade: Well, thank you for your time today.
Ethan Hawke: Thanks for having me.
RM: I wanted to start off asking you, when were you approached for this project, were you nervous at all at first taking this thing on?
EH: (smiles) Are you kidding me? I was trying to figure out a way to say no. The youngest of the Newman’s daughters called me and asked me. They were really looking for somebody to captain the documentary about their mom and dad. And it just felt like we had too much work. And I just was like, “How would you begin?” I don’t know how to do that. And I couldn’t figure out a way to say no, I just couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. And I think I tricked myself, where I was like, “You know what? It’ll be easy.” I didn’t start out thinking, “Oh, I’m going to make this six-hour film about them.” I started thinking, “I’ll make a little 90-minute ditty, it’ll be fine. It’ll be fun.”
And the more I got into it, the more responsibility I felt and the more interesting the story became to me. And the more I shared it with people, I was like, “No, really it is interesting.” And then you start to feel like a huge responsibility that … I’m not going to be able to return to this moment. This is a time to study these people and a time to say something about them. And this is their moment, and I am in charge of it, and I have to honor that responsibility. And so, the work level has just grown and grown and grown.
RM: Yeah, absolutely. So, when did you first sort of have the inkling that you were going to take these transcripts of Paul in these interviews and start calling and getting the actors that you have in the film to start doing that? How early on was that? Were there different ways you were going to do it at first? Or was that always the goal when you thought about it at the end?
EH: It evolved so slowly. When I read Paul’s transcript himself, he was interviewed for his own memoirs. He had his best friend interview him and get his brain going. The things that he said in that interview are so brilliant and insightful and personal that I knew, the second I read them, that I was like, “Okay, this is the movie.” And then I started reading the other ones and started seeing like, “oh wow,” I read the Gore Vidal transcript. And I saw his thesis on why they’re the last movie stars. And I was like, “Wow.” I was like, “That should be the title of the movie.” (laughs)
And so, the transcripts themselves started dictating to me what the movie wanted to be. Later you’ll see, there’s a beautiful interview with the guy who directed Cool Hand Luke, who has all this insight into why that’s such a special performance. And it goes beyond some kind of Criterion Collection talk back or some … What do you call those? What do you call it, where they talk over the movie? What is it?
RM: Oh, like a commentary?
EH: Commentary. That’s the word I was looking for. It’s much beyond that because these are people who have real relationships.
What’s interesting about it is here we are in 2022 and I’m reading an interview from 1987, about 1956. Do you know? So, it’s like these waves through time. And I started seeing that Paul and Joanne’s careers were inexorably connected to their generations, to Redford’s career, to Kazan’s career, to Tennessee Williams, to Sidney Poitier. I’m like, “Oh, these people are all connected.” And I thought, “Oh, this shouldn’t be my take on Paul and Joanne, this should be our generation.” So, I just started Zooming with friends and asking them to help me and asking them what they thought.
RM: What was the most interesting thing you learned through your discovery through making this project that you didn’t know about Paul and Joanne that kind of blew you away?
EH: Really, it’s just over and over again, the humanness. When you see life in the rearview mirror and hindsight, or you see legends like this, you kind of feel like they always were legends. And their lives are an act of becoming, they’re always becoming, they’re always changing. They were full of frailties and silliness and stupid behavior and being insecure and being proud, but then they learned from it. And they all kind of kept growing.
And I think when I started this project, I thought they were just perfect. You know? And nobody’s born that way. The grace and maturity that they arrived with at the end of their life, it’s just awe-inspiring. But it’s hard won. She’s [Joanne Woodward] says, the thing about Paul and their relationship is they grew up together. They were idiots together. They were young and in love and stupid together, but they grew up together. And they wound up in a really …
I had this alternate title for the movie in my head that just would make me laugh is, what’s so funny about grace, maturity, and wisdom? You know that line from Elvis … “What’s so funny about peace, love, understanding?” It’s like, we have so few examples of people that age beautifully and aren’t scared of aging. And it feels good to study that because it gives you hope.
RM: Absolutely. I saw the first episode, and I was blown away by it. My mouth was on the floor halfway through certain times. And what I didn’t know, and I think most people sort of forget, is that the relationship started as an affair. And you’re not afraid at that point to portray what we would perceive these stars as imperfect humans. And so, how important was that to portray the honesty of that relationship rather than a highlight reel?
EH: I just felt it was essential, that if you don’t show their humanness, then you don’t … It’s actually like, it’s too easy to say, “Oh, what a wonderful love affair.” No, they worked hard, and it came at a price and at a heavy cost. And that’s real life. Nobody has a wand, Tinkerbelle hasn’t fallen anybody around, putting magic dust on anybody. And I felt their love affair is actually more inspiring when you realize how difficult it was.
RM: For sure. You mentioned the title of the project and alternative titles to the project. And it’s really fascinating because I think we’re in a time right now, where we don’t have traditional movie stars anymore. We’re driven by existing properties. And so, do you think that we’ll ever get possibly back to a time where we can have Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward?
EH: That’s an interesting question. With what’s happening in the Ukraine right now, you always think, “Where’s Nelson Mandela?” Where are some leaders who could unite people to help push the world to be our best selves? Why does it always seem like the most corrupt and malevolent rule and people get ushered to the points of power? And the same as in the arts.
You can’t go backward. Everything keeps changing. And there was an explosion in technology, that’s when being a celebrity, whether it’s … You still see cardboard cutouts of Paul Newman and James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Brando on the side of storefronts. And they represent an iconography that can’t be repeated when “celebrity” became this world event. And now it’s just different.
Now people have 16 million followers, and they didn’t do anything. The Beatles had people chant their names, but they changed music. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward worked hard for the status of a movie star. They studied acting, they cared about it immensely. They dedicated their lives to it. And they made brilliant work and were recognized for it. That’s a little different than the way it feels now, which is like everybody’s hustling.
We’re always going to have great artists and there’s always going to be the Bob Marleys of the world or the John Lennons of the world, or Newman, Woodward, where people really excel at a high level, give to their arts, give to their community. There’s always going to be those people. And we’re always surprised when they show up.
RM: Yeah, no, for sure. I would hope so because we could have some hope, and maybe people would be less cynical.
EH: Yeah. That’s true. Fighting cynicism is what we have to do.
RM: Between this project and your excellent film Blaze, you are covering these legendary artists. And so, for you, what do you internally take with you, personally and creatively, when you’re trying to tell those stories? How do you feel as a director, as an actor? What do you take with you once you’re done with those experiences?
EH: They’re always with you. Every meaningful film in your life, kind of … There’s a Kazan line I love, which is like, “A good movie, you have to drip a little bit of blood into the mercury of the celluloid.” There’s a little piece of you in there, and there’s enough of us to go around.
But a movie like Blaze stays with you, your whole life. It was an amazing experience. I’d never intended to make a documentary about Paul and Joanne. This turned into a huge event in my house. I was being offered a movie the other day. And I couldn’t decide whether to do it or not. And my youngest daughter is 10. We’re at the dinner table. I’m just talking to my wife about it. “What would you think?” And Indiana just looked up and said, “Well, Dad, what would Paul do?” And it was just to show you how it’s impacted the whole house. You know?
RM: Yeah. (nodding)
EH: And so, it’s going to be a part of us. I’m learning a lot about the … I don’t understand why it happened to me, but the universe plopped this giant meditation on my profession in front of me, like to study two people who did my job better than most. And to study how they did it over such a long period … It’s felt like a giant education in my life. And I hope to be able to give it back to the audience. You know?
RM: Lastly, what do you hope that everyone, when they’ve done seeing your six hours, what do you hope they all take away from their love, from their work, from their craft?
EH: That it can be done. It can be done. You can have a really good time, and you can have love in your life, and you can be responsible, and you can enjoy doing it. Sometimes it just feels like it can’t be done. Like to be successful, you got to be an asshole. Or to be rich, you got to steal from somebody. Or to be good, you got to hurt somebody. Or to promote yourself, you got to put down somebody else. It can be done. It’s difficult. But Paul and Joanne are two white people that were born with a lot. And they did a lot with it. You can be a part of the solution. You don’t have to give into guilt or fear or greed or these things that block us from connecting with other people. I find it inspiring. It actually can be done.
RM: That’s perfect. Well, thank you so much again, sir.
EH: Thank you, see you down the road.
The 6-part docuseries The Last Movie Stars begins streaming July 21 on HBO Max.
Photo: Francois Berthier