Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano on Their All-Consuming Partnership in 'True West'

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Ethan Hawke (left) and Paul Dano in 'True West'

The actors are performing together for the first time in director James Macdonald's Broadway revival of the 1980 Sam Shepard classic.

The first time Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke were in a movie together, they shared no scenes. Dano played the younger version of Hawke's character in Taking Lives in 2004, but neither can remember if they actually met on the project.

"It's possible we shook hands," Dano says. "I remember you had a silver Airstream, and I was like, that's cool."

"That's right! I did have a silver Airstream," Hawke recalls.

Now, they share every scene onstage in True West, which opens Thursday on Broadway, marking their first acting collaboration. The 1980 Sam Shepard modern classic follows estranged brothers staying in their mother's house outside of Hollywood. Dano plays younger sibling Austin, who is at work on a screenplay when his shifty older brother Lee, played by Hawke, arrives unexpectedly.

The actors have been friends since Hawke directed Dano in Things We Want off-Broadway in 2007. So when British director James Macdonald suggested Dano as a co-star for Hawke in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of True West, Hawke immediately texted his friend.

"Acting together was actually a somewhat daunting prospect because sometimes, the closer you are with the person, the more vulnerable you feel, or at least for me it's that way," Dano says. "Ethan has probably a decent BS meter on what I'm doing."

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Dano and Hawke during previews to talk about their friendship, how True West has taken over their lives and what the late Philip Seymour Hoffman said about performing this play.

This revival of True West is coming about a year and a half after Sam Shepard's passing. Ethan, you performed in Buried Child in 1995 and directed A Lie of the Mind in 2010. How has your relationship to the playwright's work helped out in the process?

Hawke: What makes Paul and I an interesting combination is Paul didn't know Sam and hasn't seen productions of this play. He's coming at it with completely fresh eyes and looking at it as a new work, and I have a very old relationship to the play. So we both bring something completely different than the other one.

Dano: Ethan's relationship with Sam was an incredible asset in the rehearsal room — not just an entertaining one but a really useful one. It did make me miss the fact that that I didn't know this person and how much of themselves they've given off through their work and their words.

Hawke: If you study Sam's work, you become intimate with him because he wrote from such a deeply personal place. So much of who he is is inside these plays and inside this language. And so it was a great advantage to know him a little bit and to know how much he loved actors. His favorite thing was to sit around and watch actors act.

This play has generated some iconic stage partnerships, from John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in 1982 to John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman alternating roles in 2000. How do you hope your collaboration both reflects past productions and brings something new to the brothers' dynamic?

Hawke: Something incredibly beautiful about John C. Reilly and Phil rotating parts is it became this idea that the brothers were mirror reflections of each other. And that's really not what Sam wanted. Sam wrote them to be a decade apart and to have an older brother-younger brother relationship. That's something that Paul and I can offer.

Dano: The play is readable, but it's so complicated and psychically deep and all preconceived thoughts about it really disappear once you're in the rehearsal room because you're really just digging into the text and into yourself. And so much of what this production is — and I don't mean it in an egotistical way — is what we have to offer. The play has a lot of room for interpretation because it's so true to so many people.

Hawke: I remember talking to Phliip Seymour Hoffman about how he was getting Malkovich out of his head because we had both loved the Malkovich production so much. He said, you'd be shocked. Once you start saying these words, your respect for the writing goes up because they're infinitely interpretable. It's like a great poem and you just start to claim ownership of it. I remember him saying, in the doing of it, the other productions just disappear because it strikes such a personal chord in you. 

You've both mentioned how personal the play is, and it deals directly with the American Dream as it pertains to Hollywood. As actors, do you relate to the characters you play?

Hawke: I don't think either one of us would be doing the play if we didn't. 

Dano: I think that's an important question that you ask yourself before you take on a piece that's really asking for all of you, is what do you have to give to this? The idea of Sam Shepard looms large, and I'm surprised at how personal and universal and how deep the energy is in this play because it does have a sort of myth to it.

Hawke: One of the exciting things about working with James MacDonald is Paul and I both as actors, whatever we work on, work from a pretty personal place. And James has really studied Sam the writer. Because he's not American, he doesn't buy into this knee-jerk Americana myth that a lot of people fall into. He just studies Sam like a student. He takes Sam's notes and thoughts and ruminations about this play incredibly seriously. I know this production would make our author extremely happy.

Both of you are also directors, and you each helmed a movie this year: Ethan, you had Blaze, and Paul, you directed your first feature, Wildlife. How do you think your experience as directors bolsters your partnership?

Hawke: When I first directed Paul, Paul was incredibly young, but he was already a storyteller. He doesn't see acting selfishly; he sees himself as part of telling the story and so do I. I think that's why we're both good at listening to James and letting ourselves be directed, and we hear the other one and the other one's needs. It's like we're playing music together up there. And if somebody wants to pick up the rhythm and you don't let them, you're stopping their creativity. And yet you can't bully each other. It's a very complicated dynamic. It didn't surprise me at all, Paul, when you started directing because it seemed a natural extension of the way you act.

Dano: Well, that's nice. That is such an important collaboration point for us in the rehearsal room to be on each other's side, which is really to be not just on each other's side but to be on the play's side.

What was the rehearsal room like? You have several very physical and active moments onstage together. How did you discover and create those together?

Hawke: My first thought is I wish we had a lot more time. I wish it was longer. These previews have been a large part of our rehearsal process. The fights and the physicality of the play improve nightly because we're more confident. We're not more confident that we won't get hurt, we're more confident about how badly we're going to get hurt and that we will heal. My hands are still cut up today, Paul.

Dano: I've done 14-hour days on films, and an eight-hour rehearsal is some of the most exhausted I've been because of just what we're digging into and putting out every day. What's beautiful about that is how much you have to lean on and trust your partners and everybody around you.

Both of you have projects that are making the awards rounds: Ethan, you have First Reformed and Paul, with Escape at Dannemora. How have you been balancing projects?

Hawke: (Laughs) There's no balance at all. This play has eaten our lives.

Dano: Absolutely. I can't even think about anything else, even though we have to sometimes. 

Hawke: My kids are getting wildly shortchanged, and they come long before any award-season thoughts.

You are both on your way to the theater as we're talking, but the show isn't for two hours. Do you do anything together before the performance?

Dano: Ethan likes it when I rub warm milk into his thighs.

Hawke: (Deadpan) Paul does massive amounts of illegal methamphetamines. We're still figuring it out and we can't divulge those kinds of secrets. 

Dano: We like to get there early.

Hawke: Let's face it, I'm already here. 

Do you think you'll work together again?

Hawke: Never. I secretly have a fantasy: I would love to do this play in rep with The Late Henry Moss with Paul. It would be such an interesting thing to do because it's a very similar play, but it's the father's house instead of the mother's. It would be so fascinating to do in rep with the same actors. Maybe some day Paul and I can do that together.