Tribeca: Patti Smith Explains Why Acting "Is the Worst F—ing Job in the World"

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Ethan Hawke and Patti Smith

During a Tribeca Film Festival talk, the rock legend and Ethan Hawke discussed how they measure success and what they love about Vincent D'Onofrio: "We should be giving awards to that guy!"

Patti Smith always thought she’d become an actor before ever becoming a songwriter.

“I loved being onstage, but I couldn’t take the repetition of doing the same lines,” she told Ethan Hawke during a talk at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday. “I didn’t have the right discipline. Acting is so hard. God bless our actors. No one realizes what a rough gig it is, really. They think, ‘Movie stars, they get so much money.’ It’s the worst f—ing job in the world.

“Fourteen, 15 hours at a time, and a lot of times just sitting in seven hours of makeup, then there’s a technical problem and you have to do it all over again,” she continued. “You have to shoot the same scene from 40 different angles. Crappy food. … Acting is much harder than rock and roll.”

Hawke laughed and added, “All that is true — I completely agree.”

Smith said she used to dream of starring in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children — of which Hawke said excitedly, “You’re getting old enough for the part now!” —  but after seeing Meryl Streep in a 2006 staging at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, she nixed the idea. “I couldn’t believe how awesome it was,” she recalled. “The strength she had, her movement, her body language. I don’t think she has arthritis.”

Still, Smith recalled a tip Sam Shepard shared when they were writing Cowboy Mouth: “‘Patti, it’s improvising, you can’t make a mistake. If you miss a beat, you invent another beat,’ That made perfect sense to me, that little instruction.  … That served me my whole life, one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever gotten.”

After the two traded compliments on Hawke’s portrayal of Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue (“It felt like methadone, not that I’ve taken it,” she praised) and Smith’s lifelong authenticity (“You had given yourself permission to be yourself,” he told her, to which she said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do”), Smith and Hawke discussed their measurements of success, which often conflicts with what the public sees.

Hawke shared how, while shooting Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Philip Seymour Hoffman told him that winning an Oscar is “confusing. It’s really confusing.”

“What people perceive as success as paper, often it’s totally flat-out wrong. When people are getting praised for succeeding, they’re rotting on the inside, and when they’re getting ridiculed on the outside, they’re actually growing inside,” the actor explained. “Sometimes success really atrophies people — they get caught in a glass box, trying to repeat it or live inside it.”

Smith admitted that though it’s fun to get awards, “the only real success is that success when you know when you’ve done something well. … Sometimes it’s success that hardly anybody sees.”

Most recently, Smith has found success as an author of crime novels, and she has actor Vincent D’Onofrio to thank: After occasionally watching dubbed episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent while touring Europe, “Finally, I just went and bought a f—ing TV and started watching it at home and seeing it in English," she said. "I fell in love with it.”

Hawke also sang praises for D’Onofrio, who commits to every role, regardless of size: “They give him [Daniel Day Lewis] an Oscar for [Lincoln] because he was great in it. But give me Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, a part like Lincoln and the best master craftsmen of every profession, and I’ll do a pretty good job, too. But put me as a guest star on an episode of Matlockthat is hard! We should be giving awards to that guy.”

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