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Ethan Hawke's Life Was Changed By a Bruce Springsteen Concert

The veteran indie actor talks about the Texas in his blood and why he regrets dropping out of college.

In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's actor, writer, and director Ethan Hawke, who co-stars in the Sally Hawkins-led biopic Maudie, out this Friday in theaters.

My first concert as a teenager was Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA tour, 1984 at the Meadowlands. That was his poppiest album, and I was 14, so it was my first exposure to him. I was blown away by that concert. It changed my life, because I'd been hearing about rock 'n' roll as this important thing in the 70s—what it meant to the peace movement—but I didn't really feel how rock 'n' roll could change the way you think about everything until I saw that concert. Then I got The River and Darkness on the Edge of Town, which are much darker and, I would say, better albums. But they're all great.


It's very hard for me to separate my teenage years in New Jersey from Bruce Springsteen. When I think of Jersey and growing up, and I think of Springsteen, Seaside Heights, and roller skating rinks in Hamilton. Texas fits much larger into my personal identity than Jersey, because my mother and father still live there, and my grandparents are all from there too. When I was growing up in New Jersey, my dad lived in Texas, and it operated on a large part of my psyche—I was a Jersey kid who followed the Cowboys because my dad liked the Cowboys. So I identified as a Texan because I wanted to identify with my father so much.

One of the first things that made me want to really be interested in acting was John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in Sam Shepard's True West. It aired on PBS one night, I had an aunt that was staying at our house; she was 20 years old and really into Sam Shepard and John Malkovich, so my mom let me stay up late and watch it.

I didn't really see a separation between writing and acting. My first acting class in New Jersey was at the Paul Robeson Center, and Paul Robeson did everything! He was an activist, an athlete, a writer, and a singer. In my mind, you're either interested in the arts or you aren't—it's not like, "I'm interested in acting and that means that I'm not interested in writing."

One of the most exciting things about acting is getting to be in the room with the writer. Part of your job as a performer is to sell the writing—even if it's Shakespeare, you're out there selling it. "Isn't this a beautiful line? Check this out. Check how beautiful this is! This will fire you up, listen to this!" That's true whether you're doing an O'Neill play, or Boyhood. My job is to be the tip of the spear—to penetrate so the idea can follow. Acting, to me, was a way of learning a lot about writing. It's fun to write with Richard Linklater. We love to write together because we push each other to be better: "Is that thought passé? Is there a sharper way to say that?" When you're by yourself, you don't have that.


Dropping out of Carnegie Mellon to film Dead Poets Society was one of the biggest decisions of my life. I did this movie, The Explorers, when I was 14, and I was watching River Phoenix jettison to fame. Looking back, I was highly motivated by the success of Stand by Me and River's performance in Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty. River was my friend and peer—someone who I learned a lot about acting from—and I was apoplectic with jealousy, which was a big motivating factor. I found it very difficult to be in college, and I was dying to get out.

Young people are notoriously impatient—they think there's one pie, and if other people get slices, there won't be any slices for you. Five years later, I thought a lot about what I missed. I remember watching a lot of actors in my generation getting successful. Take Philip Seymour Hoffman—he completed his training and played a lot of supporting roles. He did a lot of it the right way, and he was lapping me. When I first arrived in New York, I was much more successful than he was—then, he developed into a fully matured artist, and I started to see what I missed, which I didn't see on the day when I left Carnegie Mellon.

One of the best experiences of my life is making the Before trilogy, where I actually got to write and act. It's not that often that somebody's writing something that personal and acting it out, but not directing it—they're usually doing it all, like Woody Allen. Part of the success of those movies is the fact that they're so personal to all three of us. Most movies have a male or a female gaze, but Julie's voice is so strong that the Before trilogy doesn't really have an author, so it doesn't really have a gender-based gaze either.

You have to have a nose for smelling out the difference between a superficial success and a meaningful success. If you give too much reverence to success, it leads you down many false paths. Maybe it was River's death, maybe it was my parents, maybe it was that I had such a serious interest in writing, but I thought that too much success as an actor wasn't going to be good for me. So I tried to be in what I considered interesting situations. If Richard Linklater offered me a film, I'd go to Vienna and do it. If there was an opportunity to do a weird Brecht play downtown, I'd do it.

I've been getting more interested in character acting in the last six years of my life. I don't exactly know why, but whether it's Chet Baker or Magnificent Seven or Maudie, I've been playing with all kinds of things that I was supposed to learn back in theater school: voice, costume, character from a third-person perspective. It's changing my acting, and it's been really exciting. It's stuff I didn't learn when I was a kid, and I'm trying to learn it now.

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