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Actor And Author Ethan Hawke: Writing 'Forces You To Think Through Things'

Jan 31, 2021

A famous young actor's marriage to a pop mega-star is crumbling. To get away from the real-life drama, William Harding immerses himself in the role of Hotspur in glittering Broadway production of Shakespeare's Henry IV.

The novel is called A Bright Ray of Darkness and the author — Ethan Hawke — is someone who might know a thing or two about what life for the main character is like.

Knopf

This isn't Hawke's first novel — early in his writing career he tried to steer away from autobiographical fiction, and was frustrated when reviewers kept trying to "break down the smokescreen."

While on book tour in Berlin, Hawke met a German editor who gave him some advice: "He said, 'The problem is you're having the same dilemma that famous writers have at the end of their career ... You are not a famous writer — you are a famous person who's writing.' "

The editor suggested he just embrace it. "He advised me on my next novel not to run away from it, but to run into it ... and then, of course, it took me 20 years to do it."


Interview Highlights

On why he framed the story around Shakespeare's Henry IV, a play he performed in 2003

I started trying to do King Lear, but I've never performed King Lear, and I realized that I just wasn't intimate enough with the play and that the play's themes didn't speak to my themes that I wanted to write about. You know, Henry IV probably explores fathers and sons and masculinity and the attempt to arrive at some kind of, quote unquote, manhood or adulthood about as well as literature can do. And that was what my story was.

So I kept kind of coming back to Hotspur. One of my favorite things about acting is seeing yourself as your character's lawyer and defending his position. And in the novel, I have this sense that William is trying to prove to himself — that he's the good guy and he's trying to do the same thing for his character and there's something kind of wonderful about that realization.

On revisiting a difficult time in his life – he was performing in Henry IV around the time his marriage to Uma Thurman ended

I had a lot of growing up to do, and one of the things that I really love about writing is it forces you to think through things, and think through situations, and create a fictional universe where you can see things that maybe you can't see inside your own life. That's what the title is about, you know, "a bright ray of darkness" is the unity of opposites, so to speak, that we learn by suffering.

On the complex relationship between celebrities and their fans

I've spent so much time thinking about this because I experienced celebrity young. I've had a desire to break that glass wall. ... When I look at Michael Jackson, or Elvis, or any of these people who have reached extreme celebrity, it's like they're in some isolation tank and they're just going mad. And we're watching them, kind of loving watching them die.

When everyone else is staring at you, it's hard not to start staring at yourself like them. You start to see yourself in third person. You start to be writing the narrative of your life and it's just a toxic way of thinking.

And yet, it's fun to sell out a theater. It's fun to get a standing ovation. It's fun to move people and have them tell you they were moved. So the positives are this huge high and the negatives are just people chopping at your ankles. It's been very confusing throughout my life.

Danny Hensel and D. Parvaz produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A famous young actor's marriage to a pop megastar is crumbling. To get away from the real-life drama, William Harding immerses himself in the role of Hotspur in a glittering Broadway production of Shakespeare's "Henry IV." It's in a novel called "A Bright Ray Of Darkness." And the author is someone who might know a thing or two about what life for the main character is actually like. That's Ethan Hawke. He told me that he first started thinking about a book based in the acting world - his world - 20 years ago.

ETHAN HAWKE: I wrote a book when I was in my early 20s called "The Hottest State." And then on my second novel, I really worked hard to create the situation that was completely other than me. When I did the book tour - this is about 19, 20 years ago - I got really blue about the fact that everybody who wrote a review about the book seemed to try to break down the smokescreen of fiction. They kind of thought this character was that person, and that character was that person.

I met this amazing German editor. I was doing a reading in Berlin. And he was very impressive. And I was complaining to him about this. And he said, the problem is you're having the same dilemma that famous writers have at the end of their career where you can't use the I anymore in the same way. And your problem is you are not a famous writer. You are a famous person who's writing. He advised me on my next novel not to run away from it but to run into it, that you really might be able to have a chance to offer something to literature if you were to write about acting. That was the aspiration. And then, of course, it took me 20 years to do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just for someone who's tuning in right now and doesn't know who this character is, I mean, he is someone who is pretty messed up. His marriage is falling apart. And he kind of goes into this, you know, experience of being in the theater to lose himself. I'm curious about how you sort of came to look at this particular play, Shakespeare's "Henry IV," because you did the play in 2003. Tell me why the play was a good one to hinge a story around.

HAWKE: I started trying to do "King Lear," but I've never performed "King Lear." And "Henry IV" probably explores fathers and sons and masculinity and the attempt to arrive at some kind of quote-unquote "manhood" or adulthood about as well as literature can do. And that was what my story was. So I kept kind of coming back to Hotspur. In the novel, I have this sense William is trying to prove to himself that he's the good guy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

HAWKE: And he's trying to do the same thing for his character. And there's something kind of wonderful about that realization. And that play was perfect for so many ways. I just kept coming back to it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you did play - the play in real life, you were married then, of course, to Uma Thurman. And it was a few years before your divorce.

HAWKE: No, that's not true. We were already split then.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, you were already split. OK. Excuse me. All right. So you were already separated. But the period that you write about, insofar as it runs parallel to your own life, it seemed like a very painful time for you that clearly you're exploring now. What was it like to sort of dive back into the darkness on purpose day after day?

HAWKE: Horrible. It's why it took 20 years. I had a lot of growing up to do. And one of the things that I really love about writing is it forces you to think through things and think through situations. And, you know, that's what the title's about. You know, a bright ray of darkness is - you know, it's the unity of opposites, so to speak, that we learn by suffering.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At this point, we should probably say that while we spoke, Hawke revealed that he has been diagnosed with COVID-19 after a family member got infected at a doctor's appointment. He didn't want to talk about it. But he was in a contemplative mood. And so I asked him about a line in the book. A seasoned actor gives the main character this advice - have a boring life and make your art thrilling.

HAWKE: It's one of my favorite piece of advice that I've ever gotten. Young people often have this desire to try to make their life interesting. Life is so interesting all by itself. You do not have to try to goose life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I also thought a lot about, in this book, celebrity itself and the challenges of celebrity. There is another scene, which is very funny, in the book where he is going out in the theater for the first time. And a woman says very loudly...

HAWKE: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...That's the man that cheated on his wife. And I have been in the theater where women or men will loudly say something like, he looks terrible or, oh, my God, this thing happened. And, you know, there is a lot of meditation on celebrity here about sort of people feeling entitled to celebrities in some way.

HAWKE: That's just been omnipresent in my life since "Dead Poets Society." I remember I was doing a production of "Hurlyburly." I was passed out on the couch as the audience would come in. And people would sit in there and talk about me, like, not realizing I'm five feet away from you. I'm pretending to be asleep. Obviously, we're in the same room. I'd listen to them talk about my ass or talk about this movie they hated 'cause they'd talk like they were looking at the television screen, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As someone who has lived with this for so long, what is the role of celebrity in our culture? And then what does that do to people like you who are celebrities?

HAWKE: You know, I've spent so much time thinking about this. Because I experienced celebrity young, I've had a desire to break that glass wall. When you're in prison, you always hear, to punish an inmate, they put them in isolation, right? And when I look at Michael Jackson or Elvis or any of these people who have reached extreme celebrity, it's like they're in some isolation tank. And they're just going mad. And we're watching them - kind of loving watching them die.

And I saw it a lot as a young actor - some of the best minds and talents of my generation. When everyone else is staring at you, it's hard not to start staring at yourself like them. And it's just a toxic way of thinking 'cause it doesn't allow you to be present with people in a real way. And yet it's fun to sell out a theater. It's fun to get a standing ovation. It's fun to move people and have them tell you they were moved. It's definitely part of what drove me to write this book - is just analyzing exactly that question.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In this book, you know, you explore the effect on what it is to be a young actor in that milieu. But you also look at sort of what lies underneath, you know, the craving for validation in that space. And in your character in this book, it is, of course, the relationship with his father. And another actor says to the - you know, your main character that all actors either had a bad relationship with their mother or their father, and that's the thing that drives everything. And I laughed because it felt probably kind of true.

HAWKE: I'm glad you noticed that line in the book. When I was 19, I did a movie called "White Fang." And I met the great actor Seymour Cassel. He was one of Cassavetes' band. And he was kind of a mad genius. And I remember I met him the first day of rehearsal. And he grabbed me by the ears. And he said, who left you, your mother or your father? And I said, why would you ask? He goes, 'cause you've got talent. And to have talent, one of them must have left you.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I love it. Looking at the whole thing, you know, you finally have the scene with your dad. And that felt to me like the fantasy scene that all children want to have with their parent - that I will say in my own personal experience has never happened - the moment where they say the thing that is going to make you feel heard or whole. Why put that in there?

HAWKE: It's a little bit what the book's about, you know? I mean, it's what drives William to act. And he's sitting there the whole time, hoping his ex-wife comes to the show. And who he really wants to come to the show is his father. And his father comes.

And I - you know, I have had experiences like that where things can heal. Oftentimes, if we don't make peace with the original wound, we keep recreating it in different ways. And I think that part of William's healing has to do with that scene and that he thinks he's struggling with this divorce. And he doesn't know he's struggling with himself, and he was never going to be happily married until he healed himself, you know, and that it wasn't about the marriage at all. I mean, it's why literature exists, right? You can write about your inner life. And so that's what I wanted to write about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was writer, director, actor Ethan Hawke. His new book, "A Bright Ray Of Darkness," is out this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.