Ethan Hawke’s Fifth Elements

Published June 14, 2012

ABOVE: ETHAN HAWKE AS TOM RICKS IN WOMAN IN THE FIFTH.

Seven years after spending the day in Paris listening to Nina Simone with Julie Delpy in Before Sunset, Ethan Hawke has taken on his first French-speaking role. The film in question is The Woman in the Fifth, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) and co-starring bilingual Brit, Kristin Scott Thomas.

A far cry from Woody Allen‘s fantasy, Pawlikowski’s Paris oscillates between the gothic Fifth arrondissement—one of Paris’ oldest neighborhoods—and the gritty banlieue, the outskirts of the city hastily extended to house immigrants from France’s former colonies during the ’70s and ’80s. The film feels very French—an ominous, vaguely surreal, ellipictical thriller in the vein of L’appartement (1996) or even Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005). Hawke plays American writer Tom Hicks, who is definitely emotionally imbalanced, but you’re never quite sure to what extent. Hicks returns to Paris in search of his ex-wife and his daughter and becomes embroiled in… something. Whether a great deal happens in the film, or very little happens, is entirely subjective.

Intrigued by this small movie and Hawke’s sudden decision to play a (partially) French speaking character, Interview decided to give the actor a call. Topics of conversation ranged from Hawke’s next collaboration with Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater, the shifting dynamics of filmmaking, and 11th-grade French. 

EMMA BROWN: I saw your film, The Woman in the Fifth.

ETHAN HAWKE: Ah.

BROWN: How did you meet the director, Pawel Pawlikowski?

HAWKE: Well you see this guy Pawel, I was putting on a play in London, and he came to see me. I was really blown away by his films Last Resort and My Summer of Love, and he made a handful of brilliant documentaries for the BBC. I really wanted to work with him. So we hung out a little bit and started talking about this movie and what it could be and how it could work. He has a really unique style of making movies that I wanted to be a part of.

BROWN: Had you seen his films before he came to see you in London?

HAWKE: No, actually, I hadn’t. What’s funny about it is that the actress Rebecca Hall was in the play that I was doing. She was such a huge fan that when he came to visit us all after the play, the way that she freaked out made me take him very seriously. And then after I hung out with him I went and rented all his movies.

BROWN: In an interview with CBS, you said that the film is supposed to mean whatever you want it to mean. How do you balance getting into character, understanding your character’s motivations, and leaving his actions open to interpretation? Did you know what had happened between your character and his family? Had you decided that for yourself?

HAWKE: I had to make up that reality for myself. What I was saying on television is that the movie is kind of surreal and very strange. It’s kind of an unreliable-narrator story, where you’re not really sure if you’re being given all of the information. But I tried to play it all as naturalistically as possible and not to play to the style of the movie, but simply play a real person and let the movie be all strange and abstract. I know exactly what’s happening in the movie for me, for my character. I made up a reality that works for it. I’m not saying that the audience necessarily needs to or does completely get everything.

BROWN: Did you talk about it with the other actors, or did you keep your reality to yourself?

HAWKE: I certainly talked with the other actors. You know, Kristin [Scott Thomas]—in many ways you could say we were playing the same character, so we talked a lot about it.

BROWN: And do you read reviews of your films?

HAWKE: Yeah, sometimes.

BROWN: With a film like Woman in the Fifth, which, because it is surreal, people react to so differently, it seems like half the fun would be talking to people about their interpretation.

HAWKE: Yeah, it’s one thing I really like about going to a film festival. One of the things that’s really lousy about making movies is that you have such little interaction with your audience. [What] I find really fascinating about this movie is how much, when people first see it, they think they don’t know what happened. Any yet, if you ask them about it, they almost all say the same thing. They actually do understand it, it’s just that we’re so used to seeing movies that tell us a narrative in a very straightforward way, and this movie works using a different vocabulary.

BROWN: When did you learn to speak French?

HAWKE: [laughs] Well, I was supposed to learn in 11th and 12th grade, but I don’t think I did every well. Julie Delpy tried to teach me for years, and I’m not very good at speaking French. But it was sure fun to live in Paris and make that movie. You know, I’d made Before Sunset in Paris, too. Making that movie was the best French lesson I’ve had.

BROWN: I thought it was funny, because most bilingual people I know, when they change from English to French, their voice goes up an octave and I felt like yours went down.

HAWKE: Huh, that’s a cool thing to say. I had to just try to speak very slowly. When people speak French to you, I just find it so difficult to listen; they spoke so quickly, and it was always so hard for me to keep up. I felt like it really helped me with the alienation of that character, and how hard it was for him to communicate with people. His vision is skewed, his voice is skewed. Everything was hard to reach other people. In that way I kind of felt the movie was a portrait of depression, about when you get so insulated by your own feelings that you almost can’t reach anyone else. The language and vision of it became part of that for me. But anyway, I’m glad you dug it, too, because I like it, too. Some people get so thrown by that fact that it doesn’t make perfect logical sense the way that they want it to. But I like it.

BROWN: Was Julie upset that you finally made a movie in which you spoke French without her?

HAWKE: No, she helped me work on my lines. She was my vocal coach.

BROWN: Can we expect another Paris set-film with Julie Delpy now that you can speak French?

HAWKE: We’re trying to work on a third movie. The first one’s in Vienna, the second one’s in Paris, and I don’t know what city the third one will be in, but it probably won’t be the same one.

BROWN: Did you always know that you were going to make a third one now?

HAWKE: My answer to that question when people ask me is that I’d be surprised if we didn’t. The thing that has surprised me the most is how quickly time has gone by. There were nine years between the first two and, if we make the movie this summer, it’ll be the exact same amount of time between all three movies. That’s kind of amazing to me.

BROWN: Does you feel like the clock is ticking, you have to make it now?

HAWKE: Yeah, I think we all realized last September that, if we want them to have a certain kind of structure that would be linear, we’d better get writing. So we’ve kind of been pushing ourselves to see if we have something relevant to say if the timing is right.

BROWN: And how do you write? Do you physically get together or do you write by email?

HAWKE: Both. It has to start with being together, and then once we’ve been together and are kind of united in a plan of attack, then we can go off as individuals a little bit.

BROWN: Do you have a specific meeting city or does it change each time?

HAWKE: It changes completely. We’ve met in Austin, we’ve met in New York, and we’ve met in LA.

BROWN: You’ve been acting for nearly 30 years now, and I wanted to ask you about the transition from filming on film to filming on digital. I was talking to another actor and he told me that he felt like this had changed the process so much because now you spend a lot less time rehearsing, there’s a lot less structure to filming, and a lot of the choices are made while editing rather than during rehearsals.

HAWKE: Some of that, I totally, completely agree with. There’s this kind of incredibly mistaken idea that because it’s so much cheaper to roll the camera than it used to be and it’s so much easier to accumulate a ton of footage, that then you can just go shoot a ton of footage and the editor will make sense out of it. But if you don’t have something deliberate made, you’re not gonna save it in the editing room. This idea that a film is created in the editing room—it’s only a certain kind of movie that’s made in the editing room and it’s not one that I really want to see. You need to be filming something. A lot of times when you’re rolling four cameras, not one of the cameras has a decent shot. Now, that said, I think it can be a great friend to the performer, what’s happening with the cameras, because it takes the stress away from the cinematographer. For years—the whole first 20 years that I was acting—it was like the DP [director of photography] controlled the tempo of the set, because it was all about the lighting. But now, it’s much simpler to light an atmosphere, and it creates a lot more time for acting. So it’s always a question of give and take; there are certain positives that are happening with our time. I think in regards to rehearsal, you’ve got to demand a rehearsal. I know what that person means, because it used to be that you would spend so much time lighting that you would get all this time to rehearse, but now you just have to claim it for yourself.

One of the interesting things about this Polish guy, Pawlikowski, is that [he] is very, very old-fashioned; Woman in the Fifth is very beautifully photographed and very evocatively photographed. It was shot on film and you can really tell, it has a very deliberate look to it, I find. They really worked hard on the composition of every frame. I’ve never, in all my years, been on a set where they worked that hard on what every detail and every frame should look and feel like. That was really exciting. It’s like being a part of a painting.

BROWN: It wasn’t frustrating at all?

HAWKE: When I was younger it would have frustrated me a lot, but now I’m finding that it is quite rare to find people who are really dedicated to a level of excellence. Most of us are really quite lazy most of the time. [laughs]

BROWN: Would you be happy if your children became actors? Would you encourage them to pursue acting professionally if they wanted to?

HAWKE: It all depends on what they want from acting. I meet a lot of young people that want to go into acting because they think of what it will do for them. If that’s the case, it can be a very, very painful profession. But if the kids want to do acting because they love it, and they want to give to it, then they can have a great life. It’s really about as simple as how you look at it.

BROWN: How do you look at it? Because it has led you to—enabled you to do—a lot of other things as well—directing, writing.

HAWKE: I love it. It’s been the energy source for my whole life. For me, it’s not just acting. It’s always been about how to get in a room with the most talented and creative people that you can be in a room working with.

BROWN: Is there anyone you particularly want to work with in the future?

HAWKE: You know, it’s a funny thing, there’s a handful of directors I’ve worked with in the past that—you know, when I made Gattaca with Andrew Niccol—I’d really like to work with Andrew again. I made Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest with Antoine Fuqua, and I’d really like to work with him again. I’m really excited about getting to work with Linklater again. Obviously there are geniuses out there that are making movies that would be fun to be in, but my brain first gravitates to these good experiences I’ve had in the past and how much I’d like to revisit them.

BROWN: I know you’ve been nominated for Academy Awards for both your acting and your screenwriting; do you value everything equally, or did one mean more to you than the other?

HAWKE: That’s a very good question, but I’m so cautious and weary of patting myself on the back about any accolades because ultimately there are so many people that are doing better work than me that haven’t gotten those kinds of things. I’m weary of giving them too much power in my life, so I try not to feel very good about any of them. For me, the real goal is to integrate. The thing that I’m most happy with is the fact that I’ve been able to keep doing all of it—to keep writing, and to keep acting in movies, and to keep acting on the stage, to keep directing plays. I find that they feed each other, and that I learn about acting from directing and I learn about writing from acting. When I’m happiest is when they’re working in some kind of integrated way like that.

BROWN: Last question: Did you ever have an imaginary friend when you were little?

HAWKE: Yeah, did you?

BROWN: Yeah, I had about 20.

HAWKE: I still feel like everyone I meet is an imaginary friend. [laughs] I don’t know. The older I get the more I wonder what’s real.

BROWN: Oh, that must have helped for your role.

HAWKE: Yeah, yeah. Oh, I see, you’re asking in reference to Woman in the Fifth.

BROWN: No, no. [laughs] I was just asking.

HAWKE: In many ways, Kristin is an imaginary friend.

THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH OPENS IN LIMITED RELEASE TOMORROW, JUNE 15TH.