Ethan Hawke: You are everything and you are nothing

The actor's greatest heroes exhibited humility in their actions, a view he tries to emulate.

ETHAN HAWKE: All my heroes have one thing in common which is humility. And the ability to see yourself in the context of a larger community and see what you do as both important and unimportant. I believe that we are only as good as our time period. Like when you look at the great music of the late '60s and early '70s all those bands helped each other be great. They pushed each other up. If the artistic community is failing we all fail. I get inspired by other people's excellence. I don't want to be better than them.

I want everybody to be great, right? That's the healthiest idea. Oh, let me take a hero of mine when I was younger: River Phoenix, right. I was very jealous of River Phoenix. I've said that before in other places, but one of the things that was heroic to me about what he did – and people, so much has happened with the thought about this. But when I was – when River and I were 23, 22, the idea that you were like a young like teen star, right. You're on Teen Beat magazine, you're happening and agents want you to work in movies. The idea that you would go and play a gay character, a gay hustler was career suicide. But River never thought like that. The idea to think like that seemed small to him. Now it's kind of cool. Like with my kids and stuff, you know, with what's been happening – education about equality has been growing and growing, but when I was younger I mean that was before Kiss of the Spiderwoman. That was before, you know, there were a lot of revolutionary performances. But River's was really dangerous and incendiary.

And he was a real humanist about it. And I really admired that and when I get asked to play roles that might not suit my ego or might not suit my vanity I think of what River would say or how River would think. Tom Stoppard is a hero of mine, a living hero, a guy. I was in a rehearsal with him for nine months doing Coast of Utopia. This story of mid-nineteenth century Russian radicals. This is a man whose artistic flower is still blooming in his seventies. And why is it still blooming? Because it's a work ethic thing. He's never been about anything but the joy of creativity. And when he comes to rehearsal, at first you're intimidated and before you know it you're engaged because he's talking to you and asking you and provoking you. And he also wrote everybody who worked on the show - there was this huge cast like 100 people. He wrote everybody a personal thank you note for dedicating time out of their life to help his play come forward and he knows what a sacrifice was and how valuable their time is.

And he writes their name and he knows their name and he – and it's very – there's a humility to it. That humility is very inspiring to me. Robert Benton, director of Places in the Heart, who wrote Bonnie & Clyde along with a million other things, you know, when you meet these guys there's a great humility to them. I was doing this play Ivanov, right. This Chekhov play. It was so hard and I was killing myself with this character.

He commits suicide at the end of it. It's a very painful performance to give. And I was so nervous and opening night was coming, and I was getting so upset during the show that I was really hurting my voice. But I couldn't stop, and I was a nightmare to be with. And all of a sudden Hurricane Sandy happened and the theater shut down. And the lights didn't work and the New York Times wasn't going to cover the play. And all of a sudden you realize oh shit, you know. I mean there's so much that it's a luxury to be nervous. It's a luxury that this theater even exists to create this opportunity for me no less that anybody comes. After the hurricane nobody came. Man I was doing a play when September 11th happened. Nobody came to the play for a couple of weeks it seemed like. And so I feel, you know, Phil Hoffman used to say this all the time, that it's the most important thing in the world and it doesn't matter, and you have to hold both those – that coin together and flip it around. It's all true all the time.

  • Ethan Hawke is inspired by others' excellence and ability to see the context of the larger community, those who value their work but don't take it too seriously.
  • One of his heroes, River Phoenix, exhibited this kind of humility by taking on roles that were meaningful to him but were seen as controversial.
  • "Phil Hoffman used to say this all the time, that it's the most important thing in the world and it doesn't matter, and you have to hold that coin together and flip it around. It's all true all the time," he says.

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