After 30 years on screen, Ethan Hawke is still on song

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed.

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed.

Ethan Hawke gives a rueful snigger as he recounts his most recent telephone message from Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise trilogy). The latter was responding to an article that said Hawke's career was going so well he was clearly having “his Matthew McConaughey moment”. That couldn’t be right, said Linklater, who is close to both actors.

“For you to have a Matthew McConaughey moment, you would have had to be washed up,” he said. “What they can’t say is that you have been consistently doing the same thing for your entire life. And that sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t.”

Right now, “they” seem to be getting it. First Reformed, featuring Hawke in an extraordinary performance as a whisky-soaked pastor trying to deal with buried guilt, is an international arthouse hit.

Alia Shawkat and Benjamin Dickey star in Ethan Hawke's Blaze.

Alia Shawkat and Benjamin Dickey star in Ethan Hawke’s Blaze.

Hawke has also directed his own film, Blaze, about an obscure country star from Austin, which received rave reviews at Sundance.

There were more raves for Juliet, Naked, a romantic comedy in which he plays another forgotten singer – a fictional one, this time – opposite Rose Byrne. It does look a lot like a McConaughey moment.

Hawke, Rose Byrne and Chris O'Dowd in Juliet, Naked.

Hawke, Rose Byrne and Chris O’Dowd in Juliet, Naked.

We meet at the Locarno Film Festival in southern Switzerland, where he is receiving an award for his career at precisely the point when it seems to be accelerating. He bounces into a chair, straight from introducing a film to a keen Swiss audience.

At 47, Hawke has been a star for 30 years; his breakthrough role was the troubled Todd in Dead Poets’ Society (1989) with the late Robin Williams. Peter Weir, the director of that movie, was an early mentor.

“He is a total art film connoisseur," says Hawke. "I mean, Peter would say: ‘Have you seen Bresson? What is this, get with it! You don’t even know who [Rainer Werner] Fassbender is! Wake up!’”

The film he has been presenting is Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about octogenarian pianist Seymour Bernstein that Hawke directed in between everything else. He is drawn to music, he says, by its purity. “All art aspires to be music.”

I think my take-away was to learn to accept myself.

Hawke didn’t personally know the subject of Blaze, but the story was “a celebration of people I spent my life with", he says. "I know people like Blaze; I felt qualified to write that story because I’ve swum in that water a lot.”

Bernstein, however, has become a mentor of sorts for later life. “One of the problems with contemporary culture is that there is a tremendous amount of energy put into helping 18-year-olds be 35, but not a lot put into helping 40-year-olds become 80," Hawke says.

"What are you supposed to do with the second half of your life? One of the messages Seymour has to offer people is that you are enough. I think my take-away was to learn to accept myself.”

There have been rumbles about Oscar nomination around First Reformed, although Hawke is too seasoned a campaigner to be distracted by them. Linklater’s Boyhood was widely predicted to win best picture in 2015; Hawke, playing the eponymous boy’s father, was nominated for best actor. He wasn’t the least disappointed not to win.

Hawke in Boyhood (2014).

Hawke in Boyhood (2014).

“I hate it when life moves the goalposts," he says. "We made a movie with our closest friends for nothing, over 12 years, about nothing but the subtle movements of growing up – and it actually found its way in the commercial marketplace. That’s a miracle.”

Also in Locarno to receive this year’s Leopard Club award for career achievement is Meg Ryan, once known as America’s sweetheart for romcoms such as When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail. The film selected for presentation in the piazza, however, was Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003), a dark erotic drama that was buried at the box office and is sometimes blamed for bringing Ryan’s reign over the romcom genre to an abrupt end. She clearly does not see it that way.

In the Cut was a bomb that went off in my life in a very good way,” she says. “To me, Jane [Campion] represents something. She came in with this long grey hair like a wild horse coming in from New Zealand; she’s such a big force, you know. I had never been around anyone like that. I had never been entrusted with a story by someone as accomplished as that.

"It really made me feel like an artist, that movie. Jane would say, 'This is like a restaurant that serves one thing; if you don’t want it, don’t come’. I just couldn’t get over that, the freedom of it.”

Meg Ryan receives the  Leopard Club Award at Locarno.

Meg Ryan receives the Leopard Club Award at Locarno.

That kind of freedom is the hallmark of Locarno, which is an unapologetically arthouse festival with huge retrospectives – this year’s subject is Leo McCrary, a Hollywood director of silent and screwball comedies – and programs of films from developing countries.

For Hawke, festivals are more important than ever in the era of Netflix, Apple TV and home-edited films that claim to be the next Slacker.

“So many things get lost through the cracks," he says. "It might take 50 years to curate what’s important right now. You guys are our curators.”

Juliet, Naked opens nationally on September 6 and screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 16 at the Comedy Theatre. First Reformed screens at Hoyts Melbourne Central on August 8 and Forum on August 15; Blaze is at the Forum on August 16 and the Comedy Theatre on August 18. The Age is a MIFF partner.

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