Along with his varied and impressive movie career ("Dead Poets Society," "Before Sunrise," "Training Day," "Hamlet"), Ethan Hawke, who is a writer and director as well as an actor, has always found time to work onstage. Last year, he starred in a popular off-Broadway production of "Hurlyburly," and he appeared in Lincoln Center Theater's acclaimed 2003 staging of Shakespeare's "Henry IV." He will play the part of the 19th-century Russian revolutionary Michael Bakunin in "The Coast of Utopia." He spoke about his latest assignment after a recent rehearsal.
Brendan Lemon: What is your experience with playing period roles onstage or onscreen?
Ethan Hawke: I did The Seagull on Broadway in the early 90s as well as that Henry IV here at Lincoln Center. In terms of movies, there's A Midnight Clear, set during World War II, which I think is a movie that holds up really well. Mostly, I consider myself a contemporary actor, even in period roles. For example, Hotspur, the part I played in Henry, allowed for a more modern kind of take on the character.
BL: Part of the challenge in playing Bakunin, your role in Utopia, is conveying his volatility and brashness and youth. At the same time, like all the Utopia characters, Bakunin lives in a world where, politically and socially, the lid is on tight. We ourselves are not used to living in a time where the slightest thing can be grounds for sending you into prison or exile.
EH: Right. Even people who now speak out strongly against the war in Iraq are allowed to make movies and records and go about their lives. They're not, for the most part, sent to Siberia.
BL: Utopia relates to our current political situation only occasionally, which I think is the more powerful way to go. Otherwise, it would feel like propaganda.
EH: I agree.
BL: When you first read Utopia, what was it about Bakunin that interested you as actor?
EH: I remember Robert Sean Leonard telling me, "I know what part you're going to want to play!" Bakunin reminded me a little bit of John Reed in Reds, Warren Beatty's movie about the Russian Revolution. Reed was someone who just wanted to be in the center of the storm -- someone who wanted to be where it was happening. He becomes substantive eventually, but in a different way than Herzen or Belinsky. I feel that I have a better understanding of the Bakunins of the world, compared to the Herzens. Bakunin in some ways ended up becoming more public a figure than even Herzen.
BL: Yes. Bakunin almost ended up heading the largest socialist group of the 1870s, until Marx pushed him aside.
EH: He's a man of action.
BL: How do you meet the challenge of making audience members believe they are watching people who lived in a world before television or movies or the Internet?
EH: Well, it has to do with conveying their passion for ideas. If you didn't have TV or the Internet, and you were intelligent, you'd have to find something else to pour yourself into. Books are a logical candidate.
BL: But it can be hard to make an imaginative leap of ten years, let alone two hundred.
EH: Yes. Isn't it amazing how quickly you can't remember what life was like before the Internet or before cell phones? It's almost as if that time never existed. And that's only twenty years ago.
BL: One of the interesting things about the Utopia rehearsals is observing the interactions of so many people. It feels a little like a movie set.
EH: Yes. It almost feels as if we're making Lawrence of Arabia.
BL: That David Lean epic feel has largely gone out of our lives. This play reintroduces it somewhat.
EH: That's what's so hard about doing this kind of piece. So many people have to carry the baton--designers, actors, everyone. Think of how much of this job was done before the actors even started rehearsing. We're all trying to fit into this conceit that's been hatched beforehand.
BL: There is a genuine ensemble, repertory feel to doing Utopia, something that many New York actors aren't used to.
EH: Yes. I'll probably never have this kind of experience again. What will be really interesting will be to go backstage and see so many people dressed like 19th-century Russians. We're not used to that. Contemporary plays usually have three people in them.
BL: The rehearsals have been very lively so far.
EH: People are having fun. But I was just thinking today that pretty soon people are going to stop having so much fun. The work's going to get harder. As our director, Jack O'Brien, said, "You start with a charcoal sketch and then you move to watercolors and then you move to oils." Once your lines are learned, and you have to dig in, that's when it gets harder.
BL: A last question, unrelated to Utopia. You just finished a movie that you wrote and directed, The Hottest State. It's a modern-day story set in New York and based on your novel of the same title. What's happening with the film, now that it's been shown at the Venice and Toronto film festivals?
EH: I'm not sure. All I can say is that I'm looking forward to showing it to the cast and crew. I'm trying to decide when, though. Maybe sometime in the middle of our run, when people are saying, "Get me out of Russia!"
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
Ethan Hawke Interview
The LCT now has an interview up with Ethan Hawke about Coast of Utopia.