By GRACE WILLIAMS
For Montclair Local
“I have walked onto the stage of my middle-school dreams,” actor/director Ethan Hawke told the audience as he walked across the stage at Buzz Aldrin Middle School.
Stephen Colbert sat waiting to interview him as the close-out conversation in the 2018 Montclair Film Festival on Sunday, May 6.
Hawke’s films “Blaze” and “First Reformed” were shown at the festival. He directs in the former and performs in the other. Hawke has made more than 50 films, including “Training
Day” (2001); and “Before Sunrise, Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013).
Colbert and Hawke’s jovial spirit immediately spread to the packed audience. Hawke, 47, spoke frankly about his experiences as a child star and making the leap to directing and writing.
Hawke said he dabbled in acting on the middle school stage as part of a talent show in his hometown of West Windsor, but his first break came when he was asked to fly to Los Angeles for a screen test. His mother was asked if he could remove his braces for the audition.
“I remember her saying, ‘he will NOT take his braces off for this. Do you know how expensive they are,’” said Hawke, as the audience erupted with laughter.
Hawke got the part.
Over the trajectory of his career, Hawke worked first as an actor in iconic films like “Dead Poets Society” (1989) and the film “Reality Bites”(1994).
As time went on, Hawke crossed over to the other side of the camera.
Hawke was drawn to the story of Blaze Foley, the protagonist of ”Blaze,” due to the musician’s relative obscurity.
After Hawke played a musician, Chet Baker, in “Born to Blue,” he wanted to make a film about a musician that was also cast with good musicians.
“Ben [Dickey], who plays Blaze, is a world class musician and artist and he’s been met with abject indifference,” he said. “Like Blaze Foley. Like a lot of artists.”
Putting “Blaze” together, Hawke leaned on Sybil Rosen, who lived in a tree house with the real Blaze Foley and went on to tell his story. Rosen was on set every day, he said. “You can’t just tell the story of somebody’s life like you’re Wikipedia.”
While Hawke and Colbert agreed that fame can be used as a tool, Hawke said he was “very allergic” to fame and described it as very often being toxic. “In jail, if you want to punish someone, what do you do? You isolate them. Fame is extremely isolating. It puts a glass wall between you and other people and you are in an isolation tank,” he said.
That attitude to fame and isolation was cemented by the death of River Phoenix, his co-star in the 1985 movie “Explorers. “There’s something intrinsically fake and false about hero worship,” he said.
But his fame doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. So Hawke is on a mission to channel his fame for good and remain down to earth in the process. “There are so many artists who’ve applied themselves to a level that I aspire to that don’t get met with a lot of the superficial accouterments of success that I have,” he said.
He draws inspiration from a sign he once read, “To whom much is given, much is asked.”
“It’s such a beautiful expression from the Bible,” he said. “I wanted to make something that was important to me and give back to this artistic world that has been so good to me. I don’t have a false ego about it.”