Plus, get a sneak peek at an adorable scene from the film.

By Sydney Bucksbaum
October 31, 2019 at 09:30 AM EDT

Everyone in show business knows that babies and animals can be notoriously difficult scene partners. But that didn’t stop actor-turned-filmmaker Logan Marshall-Green from making his directorial debut hinge on star Ethan Hawke‘s ability to bond with a newborn on screen.

The quietly emotional drama Adopt a Highway stars Hawke as Russ Millings, an ex-con who has just been released from prison after serving 21 years for a third-strike conviction for possessing an ounce of marijuana — and he’s also the reason that law was changed. As he tries to adapt to a world he doesn’t recognize, including trying to learn how to use the internet, he finds an abandoned baby named Ella in a dumpster behind the fast-food restaurant where he works as a dishwasher. Unsure of what to do, and caught between impulses of kindness and panic, Russ soon realizes this could be his chance at redemption.

Quite a bit of Adopt a Highway features Hawke alone with Ella (played by twins). And while it was a risky move to count a pair of infants to carry so much of the film’s emotional weight, Hawke tells EW that not only was he used to this unique environment, he actually loved working with the babies for so much of this movie.

“It’s a lot like when I was a kid and I did a movie called White Fang with wolves,” Hawke says. “When you work with an animal, it’s not aware that it’s acting; the same is true of a baby. I found it really thrilling. Babies force you to be spontaneous. We had these amazing twins, and I’ve had four kids so I totally love babies. [My character] Millings has not. The movie, to me, is about learning how to love. It’s very simple but quite profound. I love it.”

Marshall-Green — best known for his acting roles on 24, The O.C., and Dark Blue — knew he might be setting himself up for failure by writing a script that hinged a baby’s “performance” for his first foray as a director. But he can’t give enough credit to how the movie’s success “all came down to Ethan’s abilities as a father.”

“You certainly need a lot of luck when you’re shooting with babies,” Marshall-Green tells EW with a laugh. “And with Ethan I had a father of four! And he’s an actor who knows how to portray someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing with a baby. My cup simply runneth over for my first film.”

Marshall-Green praises how Hawke took care of the twins when he called cut and yet perfectly “bumbled” the babies during each take as Millings. That gave Adopt a Highway more authenticity than any director — first-time or veteran — could have ever hoped for.

RLJE Films

“The CGI is negative,” Marshall-Green says, despite how “we would not frame the baby out,” meaning the camera was always on the baby’s face with Hawke’s. There was no cheating during production, which was exactly how Marshall-Green wanted it.

“We would take what we could get, and we wouldn’t get upset,” he says. “Even the best babies are the worst days of shooting. We had the best babies. It is so alluring to frame that baby out and [finish] that day so easily and put the baby in [during post-production]. But I didn’t want to do it because what was happening was, a relationship was forming on camera with Ethan and these two incredible girls. They were starting to trust him, they were starting to perform and forget about the group of 20 large men and women in grip gear and equipment on set in that motel room.”

Hawke credits a lesson longtime collaborator Richard Linklater taught him with how well he was able to bring out the right performances from the babies for Adopt a Highway.

“One of the things I learned from Richard in Boyhood and some of the other things we’ve done together is just cultivating the right space to be creative in,” Hawke says. “Rick has this school of thought that real life is good enough, real life is magical enough, real life is profound enough; you don’t have to actually do a lot. It’s a methodology that I’m really into. So babies really bring everyone into the present moment — you don’t always get the scene you want, you get a different scene. The baby starts playing with your necklace, ‘Oh that’s interesting! That’s more interesting than what we wrote, so let’s go with that.’ You have to be limber, and I really enjoy that.”

As for working with Marshall-Green on his directorial debut, Hawke says it can be a relief to work with an actor-turned-director despite their inexperience behind the camera.

“Acting and directing are both interpretive arts,” he says. “Some of the best directors in the history of cinema are actors. The connection between acting and directing is huge. I really believe in that process, and Logan’s love of acting made a movie like this extremely doable, and right in his wheelhouse. He’s an extremely discerning person, and very thoughtful. The script is fantastic and it’s beautifully written — it’s really remarkable and there aren’t that many movies that are just about people, about characters, like this. And that’s what I love.”

Adopt a Highway hits theaters, On Demand, and digital HD on Nov. 1. Check out an exclusive sneak peek at the film above.

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