Ethan Hawke Talks 'Seymour' Doc, Stage Fright and "Spiritual" Film Fest Circuit

Courtesy of New York Film Festival
'Seymour: An Introduction'

"I ultimately feel that an emotional life combined with a discipline of practice, where those two can meet, is the same in acting as it is in piano-playing"

Seymour: An Introduction isn't just a documentary for Ethan Hawke — it's a quest.

During their first meeting, the actor confessed to piano legend Seymour Bernstein that he had been wondering why he does what he does — or why anyone does what they do — and had recently been plagued by an overwhelming stage fright. "I asked him very boldly, 'What form does it take?' " said Bernstein during a press and industry post-screening Q&A ahead of the documentary's New York Film Festival premiere. He quoted Hawke, " 'I have the feeling that I'm going to stop talking.' "

The actor, who admitted he was initially looking for "some grand secret," later noted that he is working through his newfound fear thanks to Bernstein's account of Michael Rabin, the violinist who purposely dropped his bow mid-performance. Therefore, in the middle of a Macbeth performance, Hawke spontaneously let out a scream — unbeknownst to the audience that it wasn't part of the play.

"The idea that this guy dropped his bow and nobody really cared, but they care that you're engaged and doing something," explained Hawke of hearing about Rabin, and healing while making the film. "[I learned] you didn't need to be ashamed of those feelings — when you're touting yourself as a professional, insecurity and feelings of inadequacy can seem like some kind of horrible blemish that needs to be hidden, and that whole idea can start tripping you up. That it was not only something not to be ashamed of, but, quite possibly, something to be proud of. You're opening yourself up, putting yourself out there."

"On the day of your performance, when your head and your stomach change places with each other, you look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'I have a right to be nervous.' … If you're prepared, you have a right to be nervous because you're responsible: to your art, to the audience, to your own integrity," added Bernstein. "Once you accept your right to be nervous, you stop fretting about it, because you'll never get rid of it. So the only thing to do is practice so hard so you can do well in spite of it."

Seymour: An Introduction follows Bernstein, a long-ago piano prodigy who, at 50, retired from public performance in order to concentrate exclusively on his great gift, teaching.

"The theme of the documentary ought to be how a devotion and a discipline to an art form cannot only improve the art form, but radiate out into your life," said Bernstein, adding that it doesn't have to be a talent that evolves into a career. "It suggest that a devotion to practicing properly can not only make you into a better musician, but more importantly, into a better person."

Added Hawke, "I ultimately feel that an emotional life combined with a discipline of practice, where those two can meet, is the same in acting as it is in piano-playing." Of the moments in the Richard Linklater trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) that feel spontaneous, he laughed, "People love the idea that they're improvised and get disappointed! They're highly rehearsed. … You play as you practice."

Hawke's entry into documentary filmmaking was effortless, thanks to his subject. "It's pretty easy — all you have to do is turn the camera on, and you give it away for free! It's pretty genius," Hawke laughed to Bernstein. "Seymour speaks in complete sentences in complete paragraphs, with semicolons and the appropriate punctuation, so filming it and cutting it together was not time-consuming. What was time-consuming was thinking about the documentary and finding the time." Hawke added that his wife and fellow producer Ryan Hawke propelled him through the filmmaking process, which spanned 2½ years. "It makes it clear that we're not just talking about the piano, … but the piano as a metaphor."

Hawke, who will be honored at this year's New York Film Festival, added that such post-screening Q&As and other promotional events have been just as rewarding as making the film itself. "I had never wanted to make a documentary. This came to me. This happened to me as much as it happened to you, I feel like. It seemed like the right thing to do every day, and it's teaching me now. ... I came out of Toronto feeling like I was on a spiritual retreat!"

Bernstein also candidly told Hawke, "I was trying to think of why you and I were drawn to each other. Actors and performing musicians are not creative people; they're re-creative people, right? When you played Macbeth, that score was already written, and you had to re-create it. If I play a Beethoven sonata, my task is to re-create that sonata. There's nothing creative about it. … However, in the way we do it, one might say you have the potential to create your own art form. What is akin to both of us is you and I are both creative and re-creative people. You write and I compose and write, ... and now you've made this documentary that's purely creative."

Will the new documentary filmmaker try other methods of creativity? Well, Bernstein did encourage Hawke, "You have to write the first great American play," to which he responded, "The first one? Tell that to Eugene O'Neill!"

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