Plus: Ethan Hawke on the time Philip Seymour Hoffman told him off
Credit: Desiree Navarro/WireImage

Punk-rock legend Patti Smith and actor Ethan Hawke kicked off Tribeca Film Festival’s Tribeca Talks series Thursday afternoon at Manhattan’s SVA Theater. While the event was technically billed as a Hawke-moderated discussion about Smith’s career, the pair instead opted for a more laid-back format. “How about neither of us be the moderator and we’ll both be ourselves,” Smith quipped shortly after taking the stage. Read on for some of the afternoon’s highlights.

Chet Baker almost played on Smith’s seminal 1975 debut Horses

The conversation first focused on Hawke’s new Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue, which Smith said “moves like methadone.” When Hawke asked Smith if she’d ever met the jazz trumpeter, she shared an impressive story of her own. The final stanza of the final song on her debut Horses begins with the line “Trumpets, violins, I hear them in the distance” — and Smith had wanted Baker’s trumpet to make a cameo. She got pretty far too, convincing Baker to take the gig until his agent demanded $5,000 compensation. Smith, who said she was making $2,000 per year working at the Strand bookstore and only had a $20,000 budget for the album, couldn’t make the finances work. “I hear the echo of him on the record,” she said. “If you hear the last song [‘Elegie’], throw some Chet Baker on, it’ll make it perfect.”

Smith seriously considered an acting career

In an alternate universe that would bum out lots of rock fans, Smith could’ve been an actress. “I thought I would be in theater,” she told Hawke, “and I loved being onstage, but I couldn’t take the repetition of having to do the same lines.” So after dipping her toes in the acting world as a teenager, Smith channeled her love of poetry and writing into musical lyricism. She took time to laud Meryl Streep — and Hawke, of course. “God bless our actors,” she said. “It’s the worst f—ing job.” To which Hawke retorted: “Is being a rock star all it’s cracked up to be?”

Hawke and Smith share a mutual friend and influence: Vincent D’Onofrio

After Smith praised Born to Be Blue, Hawke relayed advice his colleague Vincent D’Onofrio gave him for the role. “Make sure before you play this part to spend some time with some people on methadone,” the actor had told Hawke. (Born to Be Blue explores Baker’s use of the drug as an aid for halting his heroin addiction.) From there, the conversation repeatedly drifted back to the 56-year-old actor. Smith, who shared her love of British crime dramas like Luther and Broadchurch, said she got to know D’Onofrio’s work through watching him in subtitled episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent while she was on European tours. And although Smith has a limited acting resume, the friendship she forged with D’Onofrio led to a guest role on the show in 2011.

Philip Seymour Hoffman once told off Hawke for insulting Al Pacino’s accomplishments

As Hawke and Smith’s conversation turned to accolades and recognition, Hawke brought up a story about one of his favorite actors, Al Pacino. As Hawke told it, he questioned how much an Academy Award really mattered when discussing Pacino with the late Hoffman while working on a movie together. And in a spot-on imitation of the actor’s gruff growl, Hawke recalled his response: “You ever won one?” Hoffman told Hawke to reserve judgment until he had, and Hawke took a valuable lesson from the interaction. “What people perceive as success and failure is often flat-out wrong,” he said.

Hawke and Smith don’t have many performance rituals

When an audience member asked the duo about how they prepare for gigs, Smith provided a characteristically relaxed answer. “Whether there’s a hundred thousand people or a hundred people, usually I’m backstage laughing and joking with people,” she said. “Or somebody has their dog backstage and I’m playing with the dog and they’ll say, ‘Hey, you have to go on!’ and I’ll go, ‘Oh! OK! I’ll be right back.'” Hawke agreed, explaining that ever since he saw Willie Nelson perform he’s been striving to maintain a similar energy whether he’s on or off the stage: “Relaxation, imagination, everything, who you are can really shine when you’re not sucking it all up or tearing it all down.”