Guest of Honor

Ethan Hawke’s Portrait of an Artist: ‘Seymour: an Introduction’

In "Seymour: An Introduction," actor Ethan Hawke steps behind the camera to document the life of his friend Seymour Bernstein, an octogenarian pianist brimming with lessons to teach.

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Photo credit: Mark Davis/Getty Images

You’ve been hearing Ethan Hawke’s name lately thanks to his Oscar-nominated performance in the movie “Boyhood.” He also starred in “Training Day” and the “Before Sunrise” trilogy.

But, for his latest project, he got behind the camera to direct a documentary called “Seymour: An Introduction.” It’s a quiet portrait of an accomplished concert pianist-turned-teacher named Seymour Bernstein… and his philosophy on life and art.

Hawke met Bernstein at a dinner party, and when Brendan spoke with the actor turned director, he asked Hawke what his first impression was.

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Ethan Hawke: How rare it is to meet someone in their mid-80s who seems to be full of so much joy. So often when you meet successful older people, they’re so pompous. Or they’re bitter. Particularly in the arts, some of the most successful people I’ve met are some of the least successful human beings I’ve met.

I was 40 years old and I was looking at what the rest of my life was going to look like, and there’s this huge problem, which is that if you fail, you’re going to be miserable, and if you succeed, you’re gonna be miserable. So I was hypnotized by this person who was so buoyant.

Brendan Francis Newnam: He does have this beatific quality to him. Seymour talks about patience, concentration, practice and devotion to your art. These are wonderful qualities that you get across in this portrait, but in a strange way and probably intimidating as a director. I mean, it’s a pretty subtle thing you’re trying to get across here. How did you confront that? It’s not like there’s some central big-D drama in the middle of this.

Ethan Hawke: No, I think that was the mystery for all of us. When you sit with Seymour, there’s this subtle feeling that you get that life is worth living and that everything is interesting. You know? And there’s something near-religious about being near him, but what’s so wonderful is that he doesn’t espouse any religion. As you said, he really doesn’t preach.

Brendan Francis Newnam: He is monk-like, though.

Ethan Hawke: But he is monk-like and he is dedicated. We live in a culture that is constantly subtly supporting status and it creates this feeling in all of us that I think the point of life must be to win.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Ethan Hawke: There’s something so refreshing about being around an intelligent, 80-year-old person who respects themselves and respects you, who is full of joy, who says, “Guess what? There’s no winning.” And it’s this huge relief, I think. That’s when I was getting after with him in these conversations.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I saw you speaking with Seymour about this film and you were talking about the idea of in America, often being a student ends at 21, when you’re done with college. But in other traditions, like in the Buddhist tradition, there’s this idea of being a life-long student. Do you consider yourself maybe a student of Seymour, or?

Ethan Hawke: I do wish very much that it was easier in our adult life to have mentors and the theater has it a little bit with directors, but so many directors now don’t really know what they’re talking about. I mean there’s not an apprenticeship, even in that profession.

If you meet a director like Jack O’Brien, who directed me in “Henry IV” and “Macbeth” and Tom Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia,” he’s a guy in his 70s who is a man who has dedicated his life to studying the theatrical arts. And when you work with him, it’s clear that he really does have things to teach you.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Ethan Hawke: He’s directed this play seven times. And when he did it with Kevin Kine, he did it like this. And when he did it with this other great actor, when he did it with this other great actor…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Sure.

Ethan Hawke: There’s all this stuff to learn and for me that’s thrilling. Because a lot of times you get hit with these ideas that, you know that’s it’s downhill from 25.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And when they don’t like you anymore, it’s over.

Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke in Hawke’s SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION. Courtesy of Robin Holland. A Sundance Selects release.
Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke in Hawke’s “Seymour: An Introduction.” Courtesy of Robin Holland. A Sundance Selects release.

Ethan Hawke: A lot of our culture supports that, you know we see it. We see all these people trying to stay 25.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Ethan Hawke: When you get to work with Tom Stoppard, you don’t want to be 25, you want to be 80.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, yeah.

Ethan Hawke: Just getting yourself in that framework, that mindset, I think that’s part of what I enjoyed about being around Seymour and making the dive.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So I will need to transition to our two standard questions here.

Ethan Hawke: Okay. Please do.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The first one is, what question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

Ethan Hawke: Even the whole conceit of that question is the one I’m most tired of being asked.

Brendan Francis Newnam: OK. I’ll take it.

Ethan Hawke: It operates on this precept that being interviewed is a drag and how I’ve come to feel about it is that it’s such a gift that anybody would care enough to ask me any question.

It’s something that Richard Linklater and I — it really happened to me on “Before Sunset.” We were on set and we kind of couldn’t believe anybody giving us the money to make a sequel to a movie that didn’t make any money. The whole time we made the movie, we had this overwhelming sense of gratitude like the plug was gonna get pulled any minute.

Director Richard Linklater (L) and actor Ethan Hawke attend the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)
Director Richard Linklater (L) and actor Ethan Hawke attend the Oscars on February 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Ethan Hawke: “Before Sunrise” is the lowest grossing film to ever garnish a sequel in the history of cinema.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But a cult hit. People loved it.

Ethan Hawke: Yeah, but we never made anybody any money. And so we had this huge sense of gratitude and I remember thinking, “I’m never gonna let this go. Whenever I’m on set, I wanna accept jobs and I wanna do things that create — make me feel this way.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Ethan Hawke: And the fact that I’m on a talk show where we’re actually talking about a life in the arts, I feel so grateful. So I don’t wanna say it’s…

Brendan Francis Newnam: I like it. So you’re the first person, and even in this you found a meta-answer. We’ve had hundreds of guests.

Ethan Hawke: Well, I’ve looked forward and I found it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And your answer is what question are you tired of being asked? I’m tired of being asked what question I’m tired of being asked. OK, well, our second question is different. Tell us something we don’t know. And this can be a fact about you or it can be just kind of an interesting piece of trivia about the world.

Ethan Hawke: Well, the first thing that pops into my mind is — for years I’ve been working on the text to a graphic novel.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Okay.

Ethan Hawke: Trying to tell this story of the last free Native Americans. Geronimo, Naiche, and Cochise, the Apaches, and I think a lot of people — some people know this — but a lot of people don’t know that Geronimo wasn’t a chief, that he served the chief Naiche.

And what even less people know is that one of the real true leaders of that last free band of Chiricahua was a woman named Lozen. And Lozen is a great kind of feminist role model because not only was she a great warrior, but a great leader and a great healer.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Forget Pocahontas, Lozen.

Ethan Hawke: You know, Lozen wasn’t anybody’s lover or girlfriend or something like this. She was a leader and pretty ferocious. In fact she has a great thing that she said. Her brother wanted her to leave this battle so that she would live, and she said no, when they kill you I want to eat your body so that they don’t even get to touch you. These people don’t deserve to touch you.