Interview: Ethan Hawke channels Thomas Merton in ‘First Reformed’
When Ethan Hawke was born, his great-grandmother believed he was destined to become a minister—to heed God’s calling where the other men in his family hadn’t. Looking back, Mr. Hawke believes, this was just “wishful thinking.” His grandfather, for example, served as a minor-league baseball commissioner and was elected to five terms in the Texas state legislature, but Hawke’s great-grandmother “always thought that he wasted his talents in politics, when he should have been converting souls instead of votes,” Mr. Hawke said in a recent interview with America. “I think she was just projecting that I would pick up where he had dropped the ball.”
Now 48, still in the prime of a prolific acting and writing career, Mr. Hawke somewhat fulfilled his great-grandmother’s premonition, putting on the collar and robes in writer-director Paul Schrader’s newest movie “First Reformed.”
Mr. Hawke, like the character he plays, believes in writing’s solitary power.
Playing Reverend Toller—a middle-aged pastor working through a crisis of faith—wasn’t exactly a vocational shift for Mr. Hawke. But it provided a brief window into an alternate reality, and allowed him to wrinkle the cinematic tropes frequently ascribed to the clergy.
“So often in film, priests are either a source of comedy, or they’re evil, malevolent, or they’re just plain old idiots,” Mr. Hawke said. “But to actually get a chance to play a person who is sincerely involved with a lifelong struggle with the spiritual life was really interesting.
“I’ve been reading scripts since I was 13 years old. I’ve never been offered a part like this,” he said.
Considering his tenured status in Hollywood—beginning with “Dead Poet’s Society” and continuing with fame-broadening features such as “Training Day”and “Boyhood”—that assertion is both an indictment of screenwriters and casting agents who overlook or misunderstand faith, and a profound appreciation of Mr. Schrader’s bold and imaginative artistic prowess.
“I’ve been reading scripts since I was 13 years old. I’ve never been offered a part like this.”
Similar in tone to Mr. Schrader’s bleak “Taxi Driver,” “First Reformed”follows Rev. Toller, dually working as pastor and tour guide of a small, historical Presbyterian parish in upstate New York. Burdened with despair (his son has recently died), Toller provides counsel to another struggling man: a young environmentalist, whose wife is worried about his destructive tendencies. Their meetings begin to interrogate Toller’s perspective and relationship with God, conflicts that come to a boil as he reckons with his failing health and prepares for his church’s 250th anniversary.
For Mr. Hawke, who has played shaggy, idealistic and passionate characters throughout his career, tapping into cloistered and insular feelings of depression and hopelessness was a real gift, he said.
“I related to this person’s anxiety and depression, and I think the movie, in a lot of ways, functions as an extremely intelligent cry...that I certainly related to,” Mr. Hawke said. “This man, whose feeling just can’t make sense of the world around him and the normal functions of leadership, whether it’s from the church or the government…he’s looking around and can’t find a fence post to lean on, and so this cry erupts out of him. When I read the script, I knew it wasn’t going to be hard to find this character. I understood it immediately.”
Mr. Hawke wrote his first novel, The Hottest State, on the heels of his early cinematic fame.
That understanding of other people comes initially through writing, both for Mr. Hawke and the Rev. Toller. In “First Reformed,” Toller pens thoughts into a journal each day, which he calls a form of prayer, reflecting alone on transpired events. Mr. Hawke, who has written four novels and is working on his fifth, also believes in writing’s solitary power. “It gives you a reason to quiet your mind. It gives you a reason to try and discipline your mind. And that is a form of prayer. It’s the simple action of valuing your thoughts, valuing your life,” Mr. Hawke said. “It can function very well in making you feel alive, not feeling like you’re sleeping through your life.”
Mr. Hawke wrote his first novel, The Hottest State, on the heels of his early cinematic fame, which he felt had taken control of his life. “There was something really exciting about trying to tell my own story,” he said, and much of his 21-year old protagonist, William Harding, a volatile actor who falls deeply in love with a musician, reflected his insecure young self.
Where that novel (which Mr. Hawke eventually turned into a movie) only engaged William’s perspective, his second, Ash Wednesday, written six years later, provided two sides of a severed relationship. The writing is more mature—there are more ideas to explore, including religion—and the story, about a young man driving his pregnant girlfriend from New York to Texas, grapples with the conflicts of love and responsibility. His third novel, Rules For A Knight, written in 2015, offers a collection of short parables centered on humility and gratitude.
Only through writing did Mr. Hawke realize the immense value of creating in different mediums.
The evolution—of his writing, his themes and his male characters—parallels much of Hawke’s acting career, most prominently on display throughout Richard Linklater’s “Before”trilogy, in which his erudite romanticist morphs over two decades into a more thoughtful, restless, occasionally cynical, father. “A lot of ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset’ is about romantic projection, about what you imagine the great love of your life will be like,” he said. “And then ‘Before Midnight’ is about trying to accept who he or she is. It’s not an imaginative person any more, it’s a real person.”
Only through writing did Mr. Hawke realize the immense value of creating in different mediums, how it kept him curious, humble and capable of imbuing more compassion into his performances. A deep influence on him through the early phases of his writing and acting was Thomas Merton, the acclaimed monk whose life and writings supplied inspiration for “First Reformed.”
“[Merton] really wrestled with his desire to be a writer and his desire to be a monk, and it took him a long time [to realize] that he didn’t have to choose and that he could integrate them both,” Mr. Hawke said. “I think it’s why his journals have such a powerful effect on me. I kept thinking that I needed to decide if I wanted to be a writer or an actor. And somehow, reading these journals gave me permission to say I’m going to be an actor that writes…that [I] don’t have to be one or the other.”
Though Mr. Hawke was confirmed at Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton Junction, N.J., where he spent most of his childhood, the holistic perspective he developed later moved him towards Buddhism and to studying other world religions. He regrets that his four children never experienced organized religion and a spiritual community as he did. “I feel like my religious teachings as a kid were really good for me as far as an education in ethics. I wish I provided that kind of discipline and organization for my kids,” Mr. Hawke said.
Over the course of our conversation, Mr. Hawke, much like Toller, negotiated feelings of hope and despair, ruminating on humanity’s cosmic significance and his constant desire to keep creating (his fourth turn as director, “Blaze,” premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival). With the current state of world affairs, Mr. Hawke, however, doesn’t seem too overwhelmed to continue to heed his own calling—through his words, his art and his joy.
“I love being alive, and any day that we’re above ground is a blessing,” he said. “I try to figure out how on one hand to hold that, and on another hand, try to do your best to help in whatever way each one of us can.”