Playback: Ethan Hawke on ‘First Reformed’ and His Troubadour Biopic ‘Blaze’

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke is as prolific as ever. He sauntered into Sundance in January with two films in tow — the Blaze Foley biopic “Blaze” (a directorial effort) and the Nick Hornby adaptation “Juliet, Naked” (a starring one). Releasing amid the summer blockbuster fireworks will be writer-director Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” the portrait of a pastor haunted by grief and heavier thoughts, a Bressonian figure that made for one of the ripest opportunities of Hawke’s career.

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“I spend my life waiting for moments like that to happen again,” Hawke says of his first read of the script. “Paul Schrader is such a meticulous writer that the job of doing difficult things, real dark, heady material — I mean my character is having a full-blown, grown-up existential crisis. But it’s written so beautifully that playing it wasn’t work; it was fun. When I read the script it reminded me of — I mean Paul is always working so it’s different — but remember when Terrence Malick hadn’t made a movie in 20 years, before ‘Thin Red Line?’ And the second that movie starts, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s Terrence Malick.’ It was like no time had gone by. So clearly the same voice of the guy who made ‘Badlands’ or ‘Days of Heaven.’ I felt that way reading this script. I was like, ‘This is Paul Schrader at his finest.’”

Troubadour drama “Blaze,” meanwhile, represents a whole other hemisphere of Hawke’s creativity, a freewheeling side that fulfills him in ways even his passionate commitment as a journeyman actor can’t.

“Somehow over the last 30 years I have become a professional actor, meaning I pay my bills with the craft of acting and I pay my kids’ school and their doctor bills and alimony. I support my whole life with it,” Hawke says. “Because of that, it does become kind of a job in a way that I never wanted the arts to be a job. I still love acting. It’s still my primary passion. But it is a job, and directing and writing for me have been, in the best sense of the word, amateur. They’re for love.”

“Blaze” stars newcomer Ben Dickey as the eponymous (unsung) singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. The musician-turned-actor impressed in Park City, taking home a prize for his work in the film. Hawke says he wouldn’t have made the film without Dickey, who he came to know through their significant others’ childhood friendship. More importantly, an unknown was the engine a film like this needed.

“If you’re gonna make a movie about the fraudulence of fame, you can’t cast somebody who’s famous,” Hawke says. “As much as I love Jack Black, if I had cast Jack Black, well the whole thing would all of a sudden have a subtext that didn’t smell right. Years ago Linklater gave me Kazan’s book, and Kazan talks about how there’s got to be some real blood in the frame or it’s not worth somebody’s time. Ben knows something about what he’s singing about, and Charlie Sexton knows something about that life.”

For more, including idle conversation about films like “Great Expectations” as well as Hawke’s thoughts on stones left unturned in his career, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

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Ethan Hawke photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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