Ellar Coltrane isn't the only person in the film Boyhood who grows up on camera. Ethan Hawke's character, Mason Sr., matures from a self-involved scrapegrace to a caring father with credible wisdom. Hawke, 44, was able to convey those changes so simply and believably because they match his own.
As he admits in the new documentary Seymour: An Introduction, which he directed and which opens in select cities today, Hawke experienced a full-blown identity crisis when he turned 40, complete with panic attacks and near-crippling stage fright. "The truth is, I was in a lot of pain," Hawke told me last September, when Seymour premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. In person Hawke's a charmer, thoughtful and self-deprecating. Something in our hotel meeting room was emitting a low hum, but instead of irritating us, it became a soundtrack for hushed revelations; we kept leaning toward one another and agreeing enthusiastically.
"I felt the world chipping away at my idealism," Hawke continues. "I've acted professionally since I was 13. I'd always been the youngest person in the room. But it was difficult to make it to 30 with the kind of success I'd had at 18. And then I looked up and I was 40. I have four kids, I'm a son, I'm responsible to all these different entities. I didn't know where to put myself on that list of priorities."
Hawke's crisis seems especially surprising because, from the outside, his life always looked so dishy. At 18, he plays a breakthrough role in a beloved film, Dead Poets Society.
Lead roles in diverse genres follow: He works for Ben Stiller in the Gen X romance Reality Bites, for Alfonso Cuaron in a modern-day Great Expectations, for Antoine Fuqua in the bad-cop drama Training Day (he earns a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for that one; another acting nomination and two for screenwriting will follow).
There's something brash, maybe even a little bratty about Hawke – he seems to do whatever he pleases. He makes his Broadway debut at 22, in Chekhov's The Seagull; his other stage credits include Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard and Tom Stoppard (he lands a Tony nomination for that one). He co-founds a theatre company in New York; he sets up house in Brooklyn. He writes a novel, The Hottest State, and then another, Ash Wednesday. He marries Uma Thurman, they have two kids, then get divorced. He marries Ryan Shawhughes, who once worked for him as a nanny, and they have two kids. He directs theatre. He directs films. He forms a creative partnership with the writer/director Richard Linklater; among other projects, they co-write the acclaimed trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight.
It sure doesn't look like the résumé of someone wracked with doubt. "I always made myself get on stage, but sometimes it was by a hair's breadth," Hawke says. "Panic attacks, they're really serious. You start having panic attacks about having a panic attack. You start avoiding challenging situations."
Then, at a Monday night dinner party he didn't want to go to, Hawke sat next to someone who literally changed his life: Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist who suffered such severe stage fright that he abandoned his concert career at 50 and became an instructor. This was not a tragedy, however, because as Hawke's documentary gently and generously shows, Bernstein, now in his 80s, is a gifted teacher whose lessons reach far beyond music.
"When Seymour talks about how to be a better piano player, it relates to how to be a better father, a better actor, a better human being," Hawke says. "What he's really talking about is how to be fully yourself all the time. And that actually requires work. It's discipline."
Hawke's film includes a brilliant demonstration of that, a seven-minute sequence in which Bernstein asks a young female piano student to play a short passage. Repeatedly, he stops her after just a few notes, each time offering a new suggestion. With any other teacher, she may have dissolved in tears of frustration; with Bernstein, she beams, and by the end of the seven minutes, her playing is discernibly improved.
"Because he didn't stop until she did it right," Hawke says. "Really good teachers can't let you off the hook. He says his job is to give somebody self-respect, but you don't do that by just telling them they're wonderful. You do it by teaching them how to have the discipline required to feel good about themselves."
Hawke took three and a half years to make the doc; as a result, it has a depth you can feel. "If I'd made it when I was younger, I would have shot it in a month, edited it in two, submitted it to a festival and wondered why it was a little sloppy," Hawke says. "Now, I love realizing time can be my ally."
Working with Linklater on three films that span 18 years, and one (Boyhood) that spans 12, certainly aided that realization. "How could it not?" Hawke asks. "It really got Rick and I thinking about the power of using time as clay."
Through Bernstein, Hawke learned that his stage fright was not only nothing to be ashamed of, it was something to be honoured. "When those things happen, something in you is opening up, you're about to get better," Hawke says now. "No growth happens without pain. I realized that how I perform, in anything, doesn't matter in the ways you're told it matters, like reviews. What matters is the attempt you put forth. It matters because it's your life, it's passing and the time is now."
Hawke's schedule is as crowded as ever. He's the lead in an upcoming Chet Baker biopic, and is filming a romantic comedy for director Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur Miller; Mrs. Daniel Day-Lewis). In next month's Good Kill, he plays a U.S. Air Force pilot struggling to adapt to his reassignment in the drone program. When that film's director, Andrew Niccol, hired Hawke, he told him, "'You have a great facility for language, and we're not going to need that in this movie,'" Niccol says in a separate interview. "It was useful for the character, who's stuck in a box, emotionally unavailable, that Ethan's natural way of communicating be stopped. Plus, he has the right amount of maturity for this now, a bit of world-weariness."
Rather than living from role to role, Hawke is now taking a more sweeping approach. "I think the second half of my life will involve more writing and directing," he says. "I still love acting. I love it more than ever, but in a different way. Rick [Linklater] and I have been having a hard think about what we can offer acting right now. We've been working toward a different level of naturalism. Though I think being a movie star is a young person's game, I'm more relaxed on camera than I've ever been."
"Something has clicked in me," he sums up. "Before, I felt like I was a really old young person. Now I feel like a really young old person. I'm ready to try new things. I'm not going to hold onto the old ones."