Ethan Hawke is on a roll. Last year, he was nominated for another screenwriting Academy Award for Before Midnight, while also starring in the horror film, The Purge, his biggest hit since Training Day. This year, he’s kept it going with Boyhood, the best-reviewed film of the year that has him in the hunt for a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Add to that Good Kill, which debuted last week at the Venice Film Festival and screens at Toronto on Sept. 9. The film marks Hawke’s third collaboration with director Andrew Niccol, who helmed Gattaca and Lord of War, and co-stars Bruce Greenwood and January Jones. In Good Kill, Hawke plays Maj. Tom Egan, an Air Force pilot who has reluctantly traded the wild blue yonder for remote-controlling the deadly drones that rain down on the Middle East’s most dangerous regions from the comfort of home. “Every time I would sit and read the paper and read about a drone strike, I kind of had no idea what that really meant,” says Hawke. “I think I pictured some drone from Star Wars or something. But the reality is extremely interesting and the hope is to tell a true story about the experiences of the soldiers.”
Hawke spoke with EW about Good Kill and his new documentary, which is also playing at the Toronto Film Festival, as well as his biggest takeaway from the 12-year odyssey that was Boyhood.
EW: My first reaction to Good Kill was, “This is what Top Gun is in the modern age.” The glory days of the knights of the sky are really gone, and now it comes down to video games.
ETHAN HAWKE: Yeah, I had that thought a lot as we were making it. Because I remember when Top Gun came out, recruitment for the Navy skyrocketed. [People] had these daydreams of being Navy pilots and riding motorcycles into the sunset, and playing volleyball and stuff. [Laughs] Our movie is the much more realistic viewpoint of what it means to be fighting in the air battle these days. I even kind of like the whole look of our movie; it has a similar vibe to Top Gun. It’s just what they’re doing that is so different.
Right, your character is chalking up bogies, but he does it from a control center, and there’s a sequence in the convenience store, where your character tells the cashier that he killed six Pakistanis today and now he’s going home to barbecue. This is just a totally different war experience than we’ve known ever in the history of man.
I feel a little bit like the movie’s part of a long line of the artistic community trying to talk about war and its effect on its citizens, whether it’s Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front, or Platoon. What’s fun about this one is that it’s just totally new. It’s strange. Andrew’s made a bunch of sci-fi movies, and there’s something when you watch this movie, it almost feels like a science-fiction movie. Except it’s not. It’s exactly where we are. And it’s hard to believe.
What makes your character, Tom, even more interesting is that he actually was, and is, a military jet-fighter.
He was doing tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and living on an aircraft carrier and kind of living the dramatic, thrilling life of a military personnel—with all the problems wherein, but it was one he was really proud of. And now he’s in his third year of sitting on his ass, drinking coffee, watching a satellite feed. How hard is it to manage those feelings of detachment from what you’re doing. And also, his Air Force base is right outside of Las Vegas, so he’s sitting in the City of Sin, casting judgment on the rest of the world. It’s a conundrum for the individual.
With those types of pressures, you can almost contract PSTS without leaving your office.
Exactly. He’s killing people, and if you think that doesn’t haunt someone’s dreams and live in their psyche, to know that he’s having mortal consequences and then going to pick his kids up from school and mowing the lawn. It’s a lot to ask of that individual.
War was never sport, per se, but the queasiness with drones is that you can push a button and people die thousands of miles away. It’s just too easy, right?
It brings up a moral conundrum, which is you don’t have any skin in the game. You’re not in danger. When my grandfather was doing raids as a bombardier in the Air Force in World War II, he put his life on the line every time he went and did a raid. Planes were getting shot down all the time. And so the guilt of what you might be feeling about killing people is tempered with the fact that you put your money where your mouth is and risked your life for your beliefs and for your country. These guys have a harder time convincing themselves they risked their lives. They didn’t.
You also directed a documentary titled Seymour: An Introduction that’s playing in Toronto. How did you meet Seymour Bernstein, a New York music teacher who has a strong take on the pushes and pulls of creative and financial success?
I was invited to a dinner party and I was just seated next to him. He’s this 87-year-old former piano maestro who kind of gave up public performance 38 years ago and has dedicated his life to teaching. He has what I found to be revelatory theories about definitions of success and how a lot of us have trouble integrating our lives, you know, our professional self with our family self with our romantic self with our citizen self. Creating balance in your life. And there’s something about him as a music teacher that he can speak very beautifully about harmony and dissonance and balance through music. I found it a little bit like Zen in the Art of Archery or something. If you explore any one profession deeply enough, there are clues to every profession.
I was in the middle of just doing a ton of theater, and I was having a tremendous bout of stage fright. And part of the problem for something like that is that it’s a really scary thing to talk about and I wasn’t talking about it with anybody. For some reason, listening to him that night at dinner talk about the nerves that he felt before playing the piano, I opened up to him, and he helped me dramatically in one conversation. You know how sometimes you’re in terrible pain like with a neck or a back problem, and you go to a chiropractor and you walk out of there better? That’s how I felt at this dinner party seated next to Seymour. He just kind of righted something in my brain. I came home and told my wife all about him. And then I started staying in touch with him and I started to think he had something to teach other people besides me. And even if he didn’t, I still had more to learn. So I just started filming our conversations.
Between all your other projects, I’m sort of amazed you had the time to direct it.
Where I found the time, I don’t know. I can’t believe I finished it. But when you make friends with an 87-year-old who you promise to finish something with, you try really hard to keep that promise. So my wife produced it with me, and she just really helped me find the time to finish it and coordinate it all.
I feel as if the creative/commercial fault line is one you’ve always navigated rather well, from smaller projects like Boyhood and the Before films and theater, versus Training Day. So it seems like Seymour’s message was right up your alley.
Yeah, he was preaching to the choir a little bit. I’m definitely open to everything he’s trying to teach. But you know, idealism is really easy when you’re 22 and you don’t have any responsibilities. But you get to 44 and you have children and people you start to feel responsible for, it gets more tenuous, the whole walk of being an adult in the arts. It’s just a harder road to walk than I thought it was going to be when I was 20. And so, I think Seymour was a really valuable person for me to be spending time with at this moment in my life.
Last summer, you mentioned Boyhood to me, and since it debuted at Sundance earlier this year, it’s been so celebrated by critics and audiences. What was your takeaway from the experience, which was such a bold experiment?
Boyhood has just been one of the central events of my life. I won’t do anything like this again, and I kind of have a sadness about it being over. It was such a neat secret to have as I was working on other things, to always know that there was this deeply personal project that we had, that we were baking in the oven. It was really fun. But the fact that people have embraced it and liked it and made it their own, it makes me believe in harebrained schemes. You know, there’s such a pull towards mediocrity and for doing the same thing over and over again. That movie was made the hard way. You know, we had no contracts. The whole thing was an act of faith. Nobody got paid. It was our own little project, and it was so fun and rewarding , and it just makes me believe again—that things are worth trying, that ridiculous stunts are worth trying. Sometimes they work out.