Ethan Hawke on First Reformed

Since starring in sci-fi comedy Explorers as a teen, Ethan Hawke has been ubiquitous on our screens. Three decades later he gives perhaps his finest performance yet as a priest going through an existential crisis in Paul Schrader's First Reformed

Feature by Kelli Weston | 02 Jul 2018
  • Ethan Hawke

Veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader, still best known as the writer of Taxi Driver, but whose own storied directing career includes fantastic but underappreciated titles like Blue Collar, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and madcap crime picture Dog Eat Dog, is a true Hollywood survivor. His latest drama, First Reformed, is a stark, austere unraveling of faith and extremism with a centrepiece performance from Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller, the haunted, ailing, whisky-guzzling pastor of First Reformed church.

Toller is still grieving the loss of his son, who died in combat and whom Toller encouraged to enlist in the military. Chronicling his thoughts in his own personal book of revelations (while quoting the actual Book of Revelations) in a journal he plans to keep for a year, Toller spends the film wrestling with his convictions and the bureaucracy that keeps his church, with a congregation of barely ten, afloat. If that premise sounds at all familiar, the film quickly whisks its viewers down one surprising path after another until the audience arrives at what will surely go down as one of cinema’s most memorable climaxes.

Hawke could not have achieved the longevity he has without consistently delivering weighty performances in roles that have each demanded something different from him. His turn here in First Reformed is nothing short of fascinating; a skilled, masterful performance that all at once requires deep passion and immense restraint. We recently sat down with Hawke to discuss how he prepared for the role and working with Schrader.

This film is so much more about questions rather than answers. How do you begin to prepare for a character or construct a character that’s full of so much uncertainty and doubt?

With a character like this, your life prepares you or you’re never gonna get prepared. In a lot of ways, I felt when I read the script I felt really ready for this part. I was really happy that he sent the script to me because I don’t always feel this way but I felt that I was the right person for this job. One of the opening things in the script talks about the books on Reverend Toller’s desk and they were all books that were really important to me. And I knew like, oh wait, I know this character. I know this guy. In particular, the books of Thomas Merton, which my mother gave me when I was 16. So my life prepared me for this part.

What type of film role grants you more freedom as an actor? You bring a real authenticity and sincerity to romantic dramas and romantic comedies, but you also do a lot more serious roles like this. Do you prefer one over the other or do they simply demand different things of you?

Well, you know, I really like doing different things. I find it really exciting to put yourself in a position where you’re not sure how it’s gonna go. And so, you know, that’s why I directed a documentary, or I wrote a graphic novel, or I directed a play, or act in Shakespeare then do a horror movie. I like to put myself in situations where I’m not sure what to do. Because it helps it stay fresh for me and helps me maintain my curiosity and my joy. I think if all I did was play brutal, self-lacerating characters like Reverend Toller, I think I would get really tired. But I think if all I did was light comedy I’d get really bored as well. There’s something I really enjoy over the period of my career, dancing around inside a lot of different kinds of art. And I think that’s what really brings me pleasure. The perfect scenario for me in a lot of ways is the Before trilogy because they’re both light and serious. I enjoy that tone where it’s both things at the same time.

Can you talk a little bit about how you prepared for First Reformed's final sequence and what physical and emotional challenges that presented for you while filming?

Well, Paul Schrader has a great expression he would say when I would ask him about the end of the movie. He’d say: “A great film starts as you’re walking out of the theater.” And that the importance of the ending is kind of to ring a bell and to have that bell vibrate in the audience for as long as possible depending on how well you ring the bell. So a good movie all works up to that final moment. So we put a tremendous amount of thought into it.

For me, the whole movie is on this razor’s edge of hope and despair and how those two sides of the same coin interact with each other. I don’t know what to say about it without giving it away, the ending, but one of the joys of working on the movie was working with somebody who so clearly had something they wanted to say and express, and that ending is a big part of what he’s trying to express with the movie.

You know, the last thing I’ll say about it is that it really poses the question, an unanswerable question, and I really like that. So many movies try to dictate to you what you’re supposed to say or what you’re supposed to think, and Paul – [doing] what a lot of great writers do – is giving voice to a question that is on the tip of all our tongues.

Paul Schrader doesn't strike us as the most playful guy in the world. Do you have something fun or light to share about working with him?

The lightest thing I have to say about Paul Schrader is that the answer to that question is a resounding NO [laughs]. I’ll tell you one thing, the other day we were backstage – we were doing a Q&A for the movie – and Paul has a detached retina that’s hurting him a lot. And the funniest thing he said was, "Well, the good Lord gave me one more good movie and took back his eye!"

First Reformed is released by Picturehouse on 13 Jul