He’s graced our screens for more than three decades, but Ethan Hawke has never before shown such fierce gravitas. Now his role as troubled Reverend Toller in First Reformed is the epitome of solemn dignity. An unsettling spiritual drama for our turbulent times, the film has garnered stellar reviews in the States. With his drawn features accentuating those sharp cheekbones, Hawke’s pastor – of a small, white-timbered church in New York State’s historic Albany – proves as serious as any fire-and-brimstone sermon.
It’s a far cry from the eager youth he played in Dead Poets Society in 1989, but since then Hawke has become one of Hollywood’s most versatile performers, if not a marquee star. Bringing a slow-burning intensity to the ecclesiastical meltdown at the heart of this story, his fervent eco-warrior convert prepares to defend the planet by any means necessary.
“Will God forgive us for destroying the Earth?” Toller asks accusingly, while the tragedies of his own life bear down on his booze-ravaged body. Writer/director Paul Schrader’s modestly scaled but thematically rich film is a powerful brew, and while Hawke absolutely does it justice, it’s undoubtedly a weightier role than he’s used to. He’s a leading man, after all, often exemplifying decency and somewhat befuddled masculinity – the slightly flaky dad in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, or the writer facing the regrets of maturity in Linklater’s Before trilogy.
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As he passes through London, it’s obvious the still-trim 47-year-old actor was more than up for the film’s demands. “In a normal movie, it would be my job to help the audience understand who Toller is, but this is not that movie,” he explains. “This role is about non-simplistic thinking, where nothing is just one thing. Is Toller politically charged or going crazy? Is he finding his faith or losing it? These are not easy questions, and the film isn’t there to give you easy answers.
“I have to admit I’ve been surprised by how well it’s done with audiences in the US. I guess people are hungry for something with substance,” he says, his characteristically soft voice still offering faint traces of a Texas drawl. “Great writing like this says things that need to be said. It was certainly meaningful to be making this film in the wake of the Trump inauguration. It got us thinking – where’s the spiritual leadership we need today?”
Toller’s unravelling is another cautionary tale like Schrader’s breathtaking script for Taxi Driver. It also hints at a mature new chapter for Hawke’s career, which kicked off when he was 14, co-starring with an equally fresh-faced River Phoenix in Explorers. Does he feel his lived-in looks might now open up new casting opportunities?
Possibly for effect, he strokes his goatee before saying, “Our lives are the people we spend time with, and actors are no different. Sir Ian McKellen has spent his career putting on the best plays, and working with some of our greatest writers, and I think that shows in him. Perhaps the best year of my professional life was performing Off the Coast of Utopia with Tom Stoppard in New York. That stuff has to rub off. Maybe if you spend your time doing stupid stuff, that has an impact, too?”
Hawke’s work ethic and quality control mean he’s largely side-stepped “stupid stuff”. After all, he’s a novelist, theatre director, Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for Before Sunset and Before Midnight), and has been hailed this year for both First Reformed (in cinemas from Friday 13 July) and his third film as director, the country music biopic Blaze. He will, however, admit the films that continue to mean most – sci-fi thriller Gattaca, crime flick Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and even Before Sunrise, the indie film that kicked off the now-revered trilogy – were all “ignored in their moment, by audiences and critics”.
But it was illuminating when he mused in an interview with Variety on his lack of key roles in franchises such as the Star Wars or Tolkien sagas. To hear a name actor venturing disappointment about the road less travelled is rare. Nothing is that simple with Hawke, however.
“Let’s face it,” he adds, with a look of mild resignation, “if you’re in something that makes money, then your life gets easier. But it’s about more than that, it can also draw people in. I remember going to see a sold-out Waiting for Godot with McKellen and Patrick Stewart. How fantastic to see Star Trek kids and Lord of the Rings fans getting their minds blown by Samuel Beckett. It made me love my profession.
“This is my job. People who love me and people whom I love depend on me. Maybe when I was younger, I’d be waiting for that role that never came, but there’s something good about the fact it didn’t. Really, I feel like a cat. I’m always trying to stay on my feet, always trying to be alive to what’s in front of me. So when something like First Reformed comes along, I’m there.”
Such upbeat noises notwithstanding, I have to ask him to reflect on the industry in the post Weinstein/#MeToo era – not least because the oldest of his children has a career that’s gaining momentum. Twenty-year-old Maya Hawke – from his marriage to Uma Thurman – has already played Jo in the BBC’s Little Women and will be in the new season of Netflix hit Stranger Things. A bright future seems to be in the offing, so is dad concerned?
“If she’d been breaking into the profession in 1991 when I was 21… then it was different. I don’t think we saw the worst stuff, but for us there’s a lot of self-investigation. Right now, it’s a question of how far-reaching the changes will be. There are a lot of stones still to fall, but when I see Maya, she’s interested in writing, directing, in the stories she and her friends have to tell. I get the sense those dreams may now be more available than they were 25 years ago.”
First Reformed is released in UK cinemas on Friday 13 July