Ethan Hawke on "Boyhood," Chet Baker, and What Makes a Good Artist

Actor, Novelist, Screenwriter, and Director
Over a year ago

Ethan Hawke, award-winning actor and director with titles that include the ever talked about Boyhood, discusses the extent to which appearance matters when playing a role — changing accent, changing hairdo, etc. — and how much it doesn't. For him, understanding character acting and breaking the wall of what the audience expects means coming to something more essential about a character, an essential truth beyond cosmetic changes.

To be sure, people's physical characteristics are not entirely artifice. And understanding the deeper importance of appearance can help an actor get into character: getting their hair right, the perfect costume, and knowing that someone from New York speaks differently than a person who has lived in California their whole life. Most of the time, we expect these changes to their appearance, i.e. normal clothing and an accent not usually too far from their own. Yet reaching that deeper truth about an individual, or about life in general, typically requires departing further from what is taken for granted by an audience.

The film Boyhood, for example, was hard to pitch because it was not what studios expected: the film would take over a decade to create, shooting an actor as he grew from childhood to adolescence. Most films would only take a handful of years to make, and follow a storyline. Boyhood was just about a family growing together, and the ups and downs of family life. Pitching this experimental movie, Hawke had to risk looking a bit dumb. It is not the first time he has taken a risk as an artist — his own actions behind playing Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue involved raising his voice to a “higher octave,” something that at first the director didn’t like. It was a risk Hawke decided was worth it as an artist.

That in the end was, Boyhood was made, winning Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards. In his drive to experiment and surprise, Hawke says h takes his inspiration from Allen Ginsberg, who claimed his job as a poet was to be made fun of. Ginsberg was known for singing the Hare Krishna before television hosts like Johnny Carson and William Buckley, not caring if the hosts or their audiences laughed at him for it.

Hawke says that's his favorite Ginsberg moment because, aware of being laughed at, he carried on his shtick: it is not an artist’s job to be liked, or to make money. Instead it is his or her job to be poked fun at, and challenge the idea of normal.

Ethan Hawke's graphic novel is Indeh: The Story of the Apache Wars.