Why is Ethan Hawke Scaring Us!?
Actor Ethan Hawke is probably best known for his roles in the films “Gattaca”, “Dead Poet’s Society”. and of course his role in ‘Training Day” which earned him an Academy Award nomination. His newest role is his first foray into the horror genre as the lead role in the film “Sinister” which has opened to great reviews. He recently stopped by the SiriusXM studios to sit down with Ron Bennington to talk about the new film, as well as an upcoming theatrical run in New York City. Excerpts from the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: You play a true crime writer in this film, which already is about the strangest thing someone could be.
Ethan Hawke: It’s a strange job. I wonder what it’s like for those people who do it.
Ron Bennington: It just goes on and on. It’s not like okay, I’m a journalist so I’m writing an article about this horrible thing— every little detail shows up in large books.
Ethan Hawke: I know…I think it’s a really easy portrait for a scary movie, cause the idea of being left alone to write anything is terrifying enough with just the demons in your own head. But then add on to it that you’re researching these– like, “In Cold Blood” is the perfect example. Everybody who touched that material went insane.
Ron Bennington: There’s something– just like the audience for this movie– some people just like the thought of being scared shitless.
Ethan Hawke: Why do you think they love it so much? Because you know, horror movies throughout time…Friday night, Drive-In, whatever it is. People love to get together and be scared. Why is that?
Ron Bennington: I don’t know…I would say maybe because we’re not running from wolves anymore, like, that somewhere it’s in our DNA that you want to have that wired feeling to be ready. But it goes all the way back. For this movie– cause you’ve never done horror before– going into it does the set feel any different? Is it a different experience for you?
Ethan Hawke: You know I think a part of the reason I didn’t do it, was because I thought it would. But that’s really just superstition. The truth is, that I think it was one of the most fun sets I’ve ever been on. There was a certain weirdness to it because we shot all at night in this house in the middle of Long Island, so it had a kind of dark dream-like quality to it. But I’ve always heard that if you go visit sets of these kind of crazy comedians, they’re actually horribly depressed and it’s funny only when you’re rolling the cameras. Even then they’re like ‘oh that wasn’t funny.’ And on a scary set, we just had to laugh. Because the truth is there’s a certain math to making people scared. It’s like any other emotion. It’s a manipulatable thing. If you want to make people dance, you play a certain beat. You want to make people laugh, you set a certain tone. You want to make them scared– the shots– there’s a certain timing. If you get the timing wrong, it’s not scary. If you get the timing right, it’s creepy as hell. You know, Hitchcock figured all of that out.
Ron Bennington: Here’s something I found so weird in your film too– you use the film – he found these super 8 films– instead of video. And that made me think– yeah there is something strange about the old way that family films were done where there’s no speaking. They suddenly became almost mythology, where I don’t think that happens with video.
Ethan Hawke: I know and I love it. Found footage is used often as a device now cause there’s something just creepy about anything that’s voyeuristic. But that makes for this kind of harsh uber-naturalism to the whole movie. And what I loved about this was– there’s something almost elegiac about it. It’s beautiful and mysterious and poetic and all the more creepy because of it. Just like you said– there’s no sound. It’s not naturalistic. My dad has some old super 8 footage that I’ve seen and it’s so poetic. It’s so mysterious to me to see these people from this other era, and it’s realistic, but not.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, and they don’t feel……like….cause you can look at things of your grandparents and great grandparents, so it really is like seeing this kind of walking ancestry, but you don’t connect to them in any way.
Ethan Hawke: What’s it going to be like for children now who grew up with flip cams. They’re going to have so much footage of their childhood, in a way that I never did. I wonder what that’s going to be like as far as how that’s going to affect people’s memories and…
Ron Bennington: Well for all of the pictures people take and all the video that they shoot, they don’t go back and look at it.
Ethan Hawke: I’ll go to one of these school plays or something…it’s like every parent in the room is filming the event. Everybody’s got their phone out and their filming. And I wonder, do you really go home later and watch this? Maybe they email it to grandma or something like that but then it’s gone. It might be less precious than the way somebody a hundred years ago would preserve one photograph. And they would really honor it and frame it and take care of it and respect it.
Ron Bennington: I see shows here in the city, and all of a sudden these things go up, and I go, do you realize that you’re putting something between you and Lou Reed?
Ethan Hawke: Just watch Lou Reed, man!
Ron Bennington: You have one chance now, this could be the last time you see Lou Reed, and you’re treating it like it’s a little tv.
Ethan Hawke: It’s one of those things that I love about doing a play– to be totally honest with you. It’s already in 3D. You have to turn off your phone. It’s like one of the last places you go– you can’t film it– you have to actually sit there and be present. And I, the performer, I have to be present too. I can’t fix it later. I can’t polish off the pimple on my nose or whatever. It’s like, I’m a real person, you’re a real person, we’re here, we’re going to use our imaginations, and we can go places there. I hate to be corny but it’s true.
Ron Bennington: It is true, and then it also means that the audience has to be involved in that.
Ethan Hawke: That requires a little bit of work and I think part of what people want to film Lou Reed is, the intimacy of it is almost too scary.
Ron Bennington: I think that people find it tougher and tougher to be in a moment. You’ve got a play coming up as well too. And this is Ivanoff?
Ethan Hawke: It’s Chekhov’s first play, with the Classic Stage Company.
Ron Bennington: So you work theater all of the time.
Ethan Hawke: There’s a certain kind of theater I really love and I think it’s the part of me that longs to be in a rock band– just to be part of a live event. I don’t like theater anymore than anybody does if it’s kind of dusty but if you can make relevant art on stage– I find it’s an incredible experience.
Ron Bennington: Do people need to know Chekhov before they come into this?
Ethan Hawke: No, if you need to know something before you come in– that’s what makes it like school. What’s awesome about Chekhov, he was Scorsese before Scorsese. He was painting portraits of people. It’s not classic theater like Shakespeare– it’s different. He was the first real modernist. He was really a humanist trying to hold a mirror up to society. You know, maybe Cassavetes is a better example than Scorsese in a strange way. Just really human human behavior. As an actor– this is the birth of Stanislavski. Without Chekhov, there’s no Marlon Brando. All of this stuff is connected. So for me, as a student of acting, it’s a thrill. But as an audience member, I’d like to think if we do it right, it should just be fun.
Ron Bennington: So the actors actually said– we’ve got to adjust the way we act.
Ethan Hawke: It used to be this– oooh presentational– you know, everybody was almost reciting poetry kind of experience in the theater. Chekhov started trying to put…. now people do it even more, you know Mamet…people going much further. But what he was doing at the time was, going ‘what if it was just like real life? And what if I tell a story that doesn’t have an obvious beginning middle and end, you know, my life doesn’t have an obvious beginning, middle and end. What if I put Uncle Phil in a play where it wasn’t the King of Spain– just an ordinary person. And not only put him, I’ll put his cleaning lady– she’ll be a character in the play.” This started– it was kind of the birth of – you know when Stanislavski got a hold of this and they started going, ‘wow what if we could act that well? What if we could take out all the artifice and really do what Shakespeare was trying to do which was, make people see their own lives.’
Ron Bennington: When you look at that generation of actors that had to figure it out, is there some kind of envy there? Do you wish that you were part of that original gang? Because New York was so kind of cool at that time too.
Ethan Hawke: Yeah, when you see these pictures of, you know, Newman and Brando at Actor’s Studio with Lee Strasbourg And there’s something cheap about celebrity now. Because…and maybe we’re just inundated with it? Whereas it used to seem, I dunno, maybe it’s just the romance of that was the generation before me. I don’t know. But I used to have a lot of envy about it. But totally honesty now– I feel like we are living in an amazing moment. The way technology is exploding, the way everything’s changing right now, I feel like– wow. This is it. Digital video changed everything! The fact that you can make a movie– you and I, if we decided to right now– if we had something to say– nothing is stopping us from making a movie about it. Now, when I first started making movies, that just wasn’t true. You needed twenty million dollars to make a movie. And slowly– one of my peers– Richard Linkletter– he made Slacker for a song, and that started this whole movement of like, this kind of punk rock cinema, you know? And then all this shit’s out there on line. Now it’s hard to distribute it now. It’s hard to get your voice heard in the same way. But you can make the art if you have something to say.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, they’re shooting these films on iPhones now.
Ethan Hawke: And they’re good! I saw this movie last year, Bell Flower. It was made in somebody’s basement with their tv and their buddies. And this movie is good. And they’re like wow, if Scorsese was starting now, this is what he’d be doing.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, he would bypass everything that he did before.
Ethan Hawke: And so I feel like, if you think the past was so great, you’re really missing it. Because the past is the present. It’s all…..
Ron Bennington: I just think there was something about that era there, where you had the Actor’s studio on one side, Pollock was on an other side, you had the Beats…
Ethan Hawke: …Jazz…
Ron Bennington: … yeah jazz was happening, and all of a sudden black people and white people were doing things together, and this was all before the sixties. If you look back at those pictures from New York in the fifties, where they’re acting like the fifties were this Leave it to Beaver kind of thing. Something was really happening.
Ethan Hawke: Something radical was happening. And the person who really put their finger in the electrical socket obviously was Elvis. Not this kind of Vegas Elvis that people think of now. But if you go back to the fifties Elvis, Elvis who was breaking, Here he was, Sam Phillips, Sun Studios. You’re like a couple of miles from where Martin Luther King was shot. You’re a couple of miles from some of the biggest battles of the Civil War. You’ve got this whole black culture and white people were dying for this rock and roll music and it kind of all funnels itself, and Elvis was playing a Billy Crudup song, you know, “That’s Alright Momma.”. When they first put that on the radio, people didn’t know if that dude was white or black. They had to do the B-side to do “Blue Moon of Kentucky” so that they’d know, because only a white dude would sing that hillbilly song. But at least they played it. They picked it up a notch. But I think that moment in time, that’s the same moment where Brando is breaking. That’s the same moment Miles Davis— this is an amazing moment in our culture. That’s the period I envy. If I could go visit Sam Phillips in Sun Studio, and I could be part of the respect…. If you read Kazan’s biography, these guys cared. They weren’t using acting to like, become famous. They were using acting to change the world. The Group Theater– these were ideas they wanted to articulate. The trouble with being an actor today– it just seems like everybody’s trying to sell something. And you didn’t get the sense that Elia Kazan was trying to sell you something. You got the sense that there was ideas at play. And I found that exciting.
Ron Bennington: So where did we fuck up? Where did we go off the rails?
Ethan Hawke: Mass commercialization. Money.
Ron Bennington: It’s always money.
Ethan Hawke: This idea that we’re going to be happier when we have more things– it happens to me! I preach all this stuff all the time to my kids but, at the same time, you find yourself falling in to materialism as you get old, because you want to keep up with the Joneses. It’s so insidious! You don’t think you do…but you start realizing… People were talking about Woody Guthrie the other day, it was like his birthday, and I was thinking, wow, he really was a radical. You have to be brave to be broke. He was taking hardcore stands, going to sing for guys at the dam. And he had kids. He put his money where his mouth was. He could have been singing some songs and making a good buck but he was a real radical thinker. And the older I get, the braver I see these people.
Ron Bennington: It’s so cool to have you stop by, man. You’re in New York, why don’t you stop by anytime that you want. Sinister comes out in theaters everywhere Friday October 12. Ethan, great to have you come in man, I’ll see you next time through.
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You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews at RonBenningtonInterviews.com.