Although they’re both from Texas, actor Ethan Hawke and writer-director Richard Linklater met in New York. It was in the early-1990s, and the director had come to see a play featuring an actor (not Hawke) he’d cast in his movie Dazed and Confused. Hawke and Linklater clicked, and a few years later, the director approached the former child actor (Explorers, Dead Poet’s Society) with the idea for a movie about romantic love called Before Sunrise. And so began a collaboration which would span eight movies and 20 years, and would follow Hawke’s own journey through adulthood. In the three Before movies, Hawke plays the same guy over the course of two decades. Now, in Boyhood, which Linklater shot over a dozen years, Hawke – playing the father to a child we observe become a man – grows old before our eyes again.
You’ve got to have a lot of faith in a filmmaker to commit to a project you know is going to take 12 years to complete. And there’s no other director you’ve worked with as often as Linklater. What’s the appeal?
He’s a humanist. I happen to be incredibly lucky to have a friendship and a relationship with one of the very few filmmakers working today who is really interested in people. Our ethos is the same. So I find being in his movies incredibly rewarding because he’s interested in the exact style of acting that I’m most interested in. I mean, I’ll do other things as a professional person, that’s my job, but what Rick’s going after as a filmmaker is what I want to do with my life. That’s why I find it really interesting.
Do you remember how he approached you for Boyhood? What he had in mind?
It was really clear. There are a lot of movies about growing up, but they all try to kind of condense the experience of childhood into one moment. And Rick had this theory that childhood was more like a long string of firecracker moments that shape and define you. So he had this idea of hiring a six-year-old boy, and writing a movie in very much the same process that we did with Before Sunset, which involved letting Julie Delpy and I participate in the writing. He really wanted to do the same thing for the young actor. What the Before trilogy is to romantic love, Boyhood does for growing up and family. I knew exactly what he was thinking about.
How does that process actually work?
It’s incredibly strange and unlike any other. It works like this: Rick has a basic structure. We knew that we were going to see these characters, the boy’s mother and father, from the children’s point of view. Rick and I were both interested in the way that parents slowly change. For this father, we wanted to create a portrait of a guy who at the beginning of the movie doesn’t really know how to be a dad. And he slowly kind of figures it out, to the point where he’s probably actually a much more successful parent to his second family than he was to his first.
As well as acting, you’ve written a couple of novels and now you’re completing a documentary about the piano teacher Seymour Bernstein. Has working with Linklater inspired your own creative process?
How could it not? I’ve spent years of my life standing next to him, even the point when I even had the idea to do this documentary. I’ve always been really interested in mentorship and just how lacking I think it is in a lot of our adult lives. Most of us have a real longing to grow wiser and make use of these experiences that we start to collect, but a lot of us don’t have the tools to do it. Sometimes a certain kind of professor or teacher can push your thinking forward. A lot of us just don’t have mentors in our lives.
Linklater is also one of the most experimental of American filmmakers. He seems to pursue ideas no matter what the risk. Did that inspire your own artistic direction?
Yeah, although I didn’t really need inspiration to do that. I needed permission. One of the great experiences of my life was Before Sunrise. Because Rick kind of gives himself permission to do all those interesting things that a lot of people don’t do. It’s no coincidence that after Before Sunrise, I wrote my first novel. I had never met someone of my own generation who was letting himself be the person he wanted to be without worrying where the chips fell, or what people thought about it. When you try to combine the arts with your livelihood, it’s a tricky endeavour. A lot of people really do get lost, and I’ve always really admired the way that Rick’s brain works. We all like to be near people who are living the life they want to lead.
This interview has been condensed and edited.