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Film Inside Ethan Hawke’s unexpectedly excellent year

Ethan Hawke at the 10th Annual Governors Awards ceremony in Calif. on Nov. 18, 2018.

MARIO ANZUONI/Reuters

Not that it’s ever been a bad year to be Ethan Hawke, but 2018 has proven to be a particularly good one. The actor’s performance in First Reformed looks like a lock for an Oscar nomination, his easy charm was the best thing about this summer’s romcom Juliet, Naked, he’s currently knocking out Broadway audiences in the revival of Sam Shepard’s True West and his latest directorial effort, Blaze, is enjoying critical acclaim on the indie-film circuit.

The latter project, Hawke's fourth film behind the camera, chronicles the brief ups and many downs of the most influential country musician you've certainly never heard of: Texas's own Blaze Foley (played by musician and first-time actor Ben Dickey).

Ahead of Blaze’s opening in Canadian theatres this Friday – and while en route to a True West rehearsal with co-star Paul Dano – Hawke spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about music, creativity and the false promise of an easy narrative.

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I’m familiar with musicians such as Townes Van Zandt, John Prine … but how have I never heard of Blaze Foley before?

The long answer to that is that there are so many artists in every field that we haven’t heard of. In every biopic you’ve seen before, it centres on someone who becomes famous, so the subtext of that is the only thing that makes them interesting is that they’re famous. But the idea of Blaze is that it’s a movie about creativity, not the deification of one person, but about the majority of artists whose main obstacle is complete and total indifference.

What was your first exposure to Blaze’s work?

This is where the whole thing gets funky. It first happened through Ben Dickey. He’s been a friend of mine for more than a decade, and one time he played some Blaze songs for me. Slowly, we’d see each other and share another Blaze story we heard about, some that were true, some that weren’t – there was this real Snuffleupagus quality to Blaze. And then I had this idea of Ben playing Blaze, of casting a musician as a musician. Ben’s experience with the music industry is so similar, with him being kicked around. Once I found the memoir by Sybil [Rosen, Foley’s ex-wife], it became something I had to do.

What was it like combining amateur performers such as Ben and Charlie Sexton [the singer-songwriter who plays Townes Van Zandt] with professionals such as Alia Shawkat?

Ben and Charlie, they had this crazy thing about beginner’s minds. Their fears of inadequacy drove them to work at extremely high levels. If you get two Oscar-winners in there to play those parts, all of a sudden you have to schedule around them, they don’t have time to learn the songs, they don’t want to change their hair. Ben and Charlie, they can completely pour themselves into these roles.

Charlie in particular is so great, I’m itching for a Townes biopic now …

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Well, please write about that because I want to get the rights from his estate to do that, too.

The structure of the film is interesting, as it seems to mirror a song’s structure. It’s not point A to B.

If you’re going to do the story of a person’s life, lives don’t work in a straight narrative, in an ascending arc that people often dramatize. Wouldn’t it be fun to make the storytelling more circular, where the past, present and future are always intersecting? That way, I could hop around to the moments that were most interesting to me, that most revealed the character, rather than fulfilling the plot obligation.

Was there any temptation to take on a role in this film, other than your cameo as a radio DJ?

I wanted to push myself as a director, and I didn’t think I could do that if I was also acting. Part of what I love about directing is celebrating other people and giving them a chance to excel. If you put yourself in the centre, you rob yourself of that objective.

The film was made for less than [US]$1-million. How difficult was it to get off the ground?

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Extremely. But I so loved reading about [John] Cassavetes and those kinds of stories about people putting their lives and love into a movie by hook or crook and not having it be about any kind of fiscal reward. My wife [producer Ryan Hawke] and I called it this homemade, duct-tape production. Which I always worry about saying, because sometimes people only want to see things if money was spent on it – if no one spent any money, they think it must not be very good. So I hate bragging about that. I want it to be good on its own merits. The wonderful thing about First Reformed is that it was made extremely frugally, but if you had $40-million, you wouldn’t have made it any differently. If we had $40-million, we would’ve messed Blaze up.

Speaking of First Reformed, this is a great moment for your career. How much do you try, or not try, to be aware of that? Of the career narrative that journalists, such as myself, tend to craft?

Well, the funny thing about narratives is they’re always ascending or descending. That’s the only interesting narrative to tell. But the truth is always so much more muddy. Whatever narrative is being told with a public face on it has some dishonesty to it. In a lot of ways, my work is getting richer and stronger – but I’m just doing the same thing I’ve done since I was 18, which is trying to make good art – something that’s worth someone’s time to go see.

Is there a sweet spot?

If you go too far to the left, and you’re just trying to entertain, you can teeter into wasting people’s time. And if you go too far into being super artistically oriented, you can navel-gaze and forget to entertain. The sweet spot is where you’re using people’s time wisely. Most people have little time to watch a movie, so you want it to be entertaining and meaningful. My whole life, I’ve just been trying to get better. I love it when people notice, that’s very meaningful. Sometimes depression comes when you’ve killed yourself for something, and it seems like it didn’t matter. But every now and then something clicks, and Boyhood happens, or First Reformed connects. When it happens, it makes you a believer.

Blaze opens Dec. 14 in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Halifax.

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This interview has been condensed and edited.

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