Ethan Hawke on His Career: ‘I Know I Only Have So Many Movies Left’

Ethan Hawke’s new HBO Max docuseries The Last Movie Stars focuses on the romance and careers of Paul Newman and Joanna Woodward, which was very personal to the actor, director, writer, and showrunner. It utilizes transcripts from an old project Newman commissioned later in life for a memoir that never happened.

“There’s an honesty in those transcripts, and not only when he says he’s a sexual being created by Joanne. He writes about being insecure or nervous around Scorsese or Malkovich. I find that so fascinating,” Hawke said during an interview with IndieWire.

While working on the docuseries, Hawke spent the first year wondering, “Why is this falling into my lap? There are better documentary filmmakers. What can I add?” The answer he came up with was, ‘Well, I am an actor, and I do know that it’s so hard to make one good movie. If you love and want that feeling again, it’s incredibly stress-inducing and competitive. You know, Newman won Best Actor at Cannes in the ’50s and Best Actor at Berlin in the ’90s. That’s a big career. There isn’t a bad period beyond maybe two and a half years.”

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Another thing Hawke stated during the interview was that “if you want to understand the life of an artist, you have to understand the failures.” Such as The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, which according to Hawke, was brilliant, but universally panned. Some movies are widely panned but don’t deserve it. In his own filmography, he signaled Gattaca as a film that didn’t deserve its initial, awful reception.

“I’m always telling this to my daughter Maya: It’s not just about this job. It’s about this ability to express yourself. It’s like a spider web. There’s this job, there’s that job, and that job. You step back 15 years later, and there starts to be a career. When you look at the breadth of Newman’s career, it’s staggering to look at each individual performance. I can’t pick the performance that I think is the best. Newman’s genius is his consistency over 50 years and his ability to be excellent for so long. I found that inspiring — and intimidating.”

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Hawke, like Newman, also had to deal with a divorce that both played out in public and was treated like a scandal. Looking back, the actor said that the thing that got the thing that got him through that was work. “The answer is always work.” Hawke doubled down by deciding that no amount of brad press would turn him into a bad actor if he didn’t let it. He “took Chekhov and Shakespeare around the world for a year,” in addition to doing Hurly Burly, The Coast of Utopia, and The Bridge Project.

“I always look back at the periods that I perceived as the hardest as being the ones with the most growth. It seems funny, but there was a period right before Training Day where I couldn’t get a fucking job because I was the Gen-X poster boy, and everyone thought they knew me. I was supposed to be washed out to sea with that fad. I remember I wanted to get an audition for Saving Private Ryan, and I couldn’t fucking get it.”

During the final episode of the documentary, Hawke shows us how the media processed Newman’s death. Hawke admitted that he has “a weird pathological thing” about how the media will discuss his career after he’s gone. He’ll see a shot that he thinks is good, like his entrance in The Magnificent Seven or something from the Before trilogy, and wonder if that’ll be the shot that plays during his in memoriam.

“I’ve definitely made the turn from being an old young person to being a young, old person. I prefer this. I feel like playing John Brown in The Good Lord Bird was that for me: the beginning of my ‘old man’ career, the beginning of my last act. But it’s the beginning of it, you know? I definitely find myself looking over a filmography and thinking about which ones I could’ve cut out because I only have so much time left. I know I only have so many movies left. You have an awareness of time.”

When Hawke was younger, he would say, “I’ll do this, I’ll do that, that’ll be a good learning experience, and then I’ll try this,” thinking that he had all the time in the world. Now, he’s at the point in his life where he says, “I didn’t learn anything from that one or that one, and that one would’ve been better spent in three months with my family.” Then, when asked about his sense of how subsequent generations saw the craft of acting, Hawke had this to say:

“The tide comes in and goes out. Some of the things it carries out, we wish it didn’t. When Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were going to the Actors Studio and the Neighborhood Playhouse, there were famous acting teachers. Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler: There’s not a famous acting teacher on the planet right now. So what does that tell us about the respect for acting?”