New York Film Fest: Ethan Hawke Reflects on His 'Boyhood'/'Seymour' Moment

The 43-year-old Oscar-nominated actor, who is celebrating his 30th year in the business, will receive a career tribute from the fest on Tuesday evening
Scott Feinberg
Ethan Hawke, right, jokes around with Seymour Bernstein, the subject of Hawke's documentary 'Seymour: An Introduction,' as Bernstein's sister laughs

There are few people in the film industry who are better liked or more respected than the actor-writer-director Ethan Hawke. For this reason, many are surprised to learn that the 43-year-old, who is celebrating his 30th year in the business, and who will receive a career tribute at the New York Film Festival on Tuesday night, has received only one Oscar nomination for acting, 13 years ago for Training Day, despite giving a litany of great performances in memorable films over the years.

Next January, though, that number will almost certainly grow to two thanks to Hawke's memorable supporting work in this summer's Boyhood, the year's most critically acclaimed film and a breakout hit at the box-office, as well. Directed by Hawke's decades-long friend and collaborator Richard Linklater, the film, which was shot intermittently over 12 years, focuses on the evolution of a young boy (Ellar Coltrane) whose flawed but well-meaning father is brought to life by Hawke in one of the actor's finest performances to date. Months after its theatrical debut, the film is still playing — and moving audiences to tears — in hundreds of theaters across America.

Simultaneously, Hawke is enjoying massive acclaim for a film that might well bring him an Oscar nomination in January 2015, too: Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary that he directed about Seymour Bernstein, a humble and soft-spoken octogenarian who, decades ago, gave up a career as a professional pianist — partly due to stage fright (which has also afflicted Hawke) and partly due to other reservations — to become a piano teacher, and who recently became a life coach, of sorts, to Hawke. The low-budget, meditative production — the title of which comes from a 1959 J.D. Salinger novella — has been a favorite of critics and audiences alike on the Telluride-Toronto-New York film fest circuit this fall and will be released theatrically next spring.

In short, it's quite a moment for Hawke, with whom I caught up on Saturday at The Atlantic Grill on New York's Upper West Side, just blocks from where he and Bernstein had just delighted a New York Film Festival audience with their film and a post-screening Q&A, and where they and friends were gathering for a reception hosted by IFC Films, which is distributing both Boyhood and Seymour (the latter under its Sundance Selects banner).

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Hawke, nibbling on some cheese and nuts, told me that he's having a blast with the two projects. "I don't take a second of it for granted, especially the look in people's eyes when you've made something that moved them," he said. "And so to have them both come out in the same year is really fun." Moreover, both films represent years of hard work and emotional investment of a sort that is unusual even for someone as committed to his craft as him.

"Everybody knows Boyhood is kind of a manifestation of 12 years work," Hawke noted, "but the truth is it's a manifestation of 20 years' work 'cause it's my relationship with Rick and kind of this ethos that we believe in and have been working towards making. You know, the Before trilogy has its fans, but it never connected with audiences the way that Boyhood has, and that's been incredibly rewarding. That's why we do this."

Seymour, meanwhile, was at least as personal for him: "Seymour, oddly enough, is something I started when I was really lost. You know, turning 40 for somebody who was a big success at 18 — Dead Poets Society came out when I was 18 — is hard. It's a weird moment when you're not the youngest person in the room anymore, and you're being directed by people who are younger than you and you're not judged by your promise anymore. And I think that's part of what was so inspiring to me about meeting Seymour — somebody who kind of was lighting a path for what the second half of your life could look like."

It's not lost on Hawke that during the making of Boyhood, on camera and off, he was a teacher, of sorts, to Coltrane, and during the making of Seymour he was a student, of sorts, of Bernstein — and he has reveled in seeing how the films have already begun to change the lives of Coltrane and Bernstein. (Bernstein was profiled in this weekend's New York Times.) Indeed, as we talked, Bernstein was sitting in a nearby corner booth, flanked by his sisters, as well-wisher upon well-wisher came by to shake his hand or ask for a photograph with him. "Isn't it amazing?" Hawke said with a smile.

Does Hawke hear the awards buzz around him? Yes, of course. What does he make of it? He put it to me this way: "I've always believed that any awards in the arts need to be seen with a wink, a little bit, because it's not a competitive field, it's not sports, but it's very meaningful in the community, and it changed my life. After Training Day, it was much easier for me to get some money together. Do you know how hard it is to get the money to make a movie like Boyhood? Boyhood, in a lot of ways, was greenlit off the energy and excitement around [Linklater's] School of Rock and Training Day. It's a little bit like, 'It's okay to believe in this person.' "

As far as the specific prospect of Boyhood and his performance in it attracting nominations — and maybe even wins — he said, "Even if it doesn't happen, the fact that it's part of the conversation is already a victory, you know, for a little movie and for a little dream; for years, I tried to tell people what I was working on, and they couldn't even wrap their head around what we were doing! But, for me, it couldn't come for a better project."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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