Actor Ethan Hawke—star of films as diverse as Dead Poets Society, Reality Bites, Training Day and the Before Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight trilogy—spent the last two days at Ringling College of Art and Design, teaching and interacting with filmmaking students on Tuesday and addressing college supporters and the media on Wednesday. He discussed the struggle to balance art and commerce, the pleasure he gets from working with young artists and students, and how collaborating with a diverse crew of highly regarded directors like Richard Linklater, Alfonso Cuarón and Sidney Lumet shaped his approach to making movies.
Hawke appeared as part of the college's Studio Lab program, which brings filmmaking professionals to the college and also connects students and graduates with real-life work in the movie industry. Along with Semkhor Productions, the college's partner in the venture, Ringling will celebrate the completion of its new soundstage facility later this month. Hawke talked repeatedly about the role colleges and universities can play in improving the way that movies are made, offering a counterweight to a commercial system increasingly focused on the bottom line and nothing else.
"There is no high or low art," Hawke said during a media roundtable held before a public Q&A at the college Wednesday. "It's just people who put thought into what they do and people who don't." Hawke is clearly the former, digressing at length to discuss every phase of his career, from teenage gigs that led to young stardom to more recent projects like Blaze, a biopic of outlaw country musician Blaze Foley that Hawke co-wrote and directed, and which several Ringling College students helped shoot.
Hawke busted several myths about the idea of success, talking candidly about commercial failures in which he's starred and the need for young artists like those at Ringling to not get caught up in the quest for immediate attention. "Often when you learn about the arts, you learn about somebody who's trumpeted or heralded," he said, "and it lets a lot of young people feel like they've failed if they haven't made it by 35, which I kind of call 'the talent myth,' this idea that some people are so talented that they don't have to work hard."
Working in a diverse range of genres with a diverse mix of directors has also been important to him, he said. Collaborating with directors like Cuarón (who shot Great Expectations with Hawke here in Sarasota before making Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men and Gravity), Linklater (the two have worked on nine movies together) and Lumet (who made Before the Devil Knows You're Dead with Hawke after classics like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon) helped him realize there's no one way to make a movie. "I always like to tease directors, because they've never been on anybody else's set," he said. "Richard Linklater thinks every set is a Richard Linklater set. He doesn't know how different it is to make a movie with Sidney Lumet."
He urged Ringling students and aspiring filmmakers to study acting as well as the more technical aspects of film production, and to absorb the classics. "A lot of young people now think that because they're watching television shows that they're watching the screen all the time, but oftentimes they're not watching the screen as a work of art," he said, "the way that Bergman would demand you watch a film. And it changes you if you're forced to watch those movies. They ask a lot more of you."