Be Like Tolstoy: Ethan Hawke on The Woman in the Fifth

The Generation X icon on his newest drama, early career choices and why he doesn't think he learned enough French.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


We had a chance to meet Ethan Hawke at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. His movie, The Woman in the Fifth, premiered there but it is just now hitting theaters and VOD this month (New York and VOD 6/15, LA 6/22). Hawke plays an American writer who moves to Paris to pursue his estranged wife and daughter. He ends up in a relationship with a mysterious woman (Kristin Scott Thomas) who becomes his muse but her secrets also raise a lot of questions. Introducing the film to the festival audience, Hawke admitted he was nervous to witness the live reaction. The screening went well though and he stayed for the Q&A. We met him the next day.


CraveOnline: What are your favorite secrets of Toronto and TIFF?

Ethan Hawke: I’ve shot a film here. I like this festival for that exact reason, that the city is really a part of the festival. Cannes, it’s all industry people. Sundance it’s all industry people. This festival seems like the people’s festival and makes it fun. But do I get to see the city? No. We see our little pockets. Making a movie here I really got to see the city.


Where would you recommend I go?

Well, what are you trying to do? If you’re trying to pick up ladies, women are always impressed by waterfalls.


Obviously it’s a coincidence that this comes out after Midnight and Paris, but would it be fair to call Woman in the Fifth in the vein of Midnight in Paris?

I think the only thing that they have in common is Paris.


And an American writer.

Oh, that’s true. He’s a screenwriter. So this is the upside down, the downside up version of Midnight in Paris. Our film is much more sexy, funny. Their film is obscure and dark and cruel and malevolent. [Laughs]


Was the bathing scene with Kristin Scott Thomas an interesting scene to shoot?

What’s interesting about it is figuring out what all these people are, both Kristen’s character and Ania (Joanna Kulig). She’s the polar opposite of Kristen, two separate kinds of muses and what they mean to him, what his response to them might be. It’s so kind of up for grabs. I think about different choices I could’ve made. It’s very rare in these days when we’re working and you really feel yourself inside a larger metaphor. It’s almost like you felt a little bit like a fly sinking into a web, this very appealing web of something. He’s in the bath and he’s being cared for and so maternal yet sexual. It’s very odd stuff.


Who are your muses?

That’s a good question. I’ll whisk something really, really corny which is that I rented the other day On the Waterfront, sat down, made myself watch it. That guy, Marlon Brando, there is a reason that he is famous. I mean, he really changed acting. If you sit down and watch that movie, that performance is so vulnerable, masculine, touching, smart, you realize why it changed acting. So much of modern cinema has been a response to that. Nobody’s touched it. The beauty, the poetry and toughness of it is just awesome. I realized when I watched it again, I remember when I saw Five Easy Pieces. I was like 18. I saw Five Easy Pieces, oddly enough, around the same time I saw Withnail and I. I remember thinking, “That’s what I want to do with my life. Whatever that is, I want to do that.” Some fire that burned in those things is the fire I’m chasing. Whenever I see that in anybody, people I know or other work or regular daily life, that’s what inspires me.


You were involved in the seminal pieces of cinema for Generation X: Reality Bites, Before Sunrise. Are you able to see the impact that’s had on audiences and other actors?

Sometimes, sometimes. If you live long enough you start to see yourself as part of a wave. You’re part of some kind of collective wave and what you do is so not up to each individual. In a lot of ways, Marlon Brando didn’t make Marlon Brando. The timing did. Olivier was part of a transition that was taking things out of presentational acting. Strasberg, Elia Kazan, you see yourself as part of a larger mass. So I can start to see what that wave looked like back then.


Do you see any connection between the Before Sunrise/Sunset movies and this?

There are some kinds of things like that. Tonally they couldn’t be more different. In a way, they’re two American writers in Paris so this is a darker version. Paris is about all they have in common.


Do you speak fluent French?



How did you learn it for the movie?

With much difficulty.


Just the lines for the movie?

Let’s put it this way. I wish I was much better at French. They weren’t complicated. What would be very difficult is to have to play a French person, have to play somebody who’s fluent. I made the bold choice that Tom wasn’t very good at French. Despite having a French wife, he never really put the effort he should’ve. But I had a lot of fun with that to be honest. For me it was a lot like working on Shakespeare. Half the time when I’ve done Shakespeare, I never know what the hell I’m saying. You just have to kind of get in touch with the language and say it with a gusto and know what you’re playing or what you’re feeling and then just sing it like a lyric.


Will you be directing again? Can we expect Chelsea Walls 2: Chelsea Harder?

Chelsea Harder, I like that. Chelser. I have no idea. I’d be very surprised if I never directed anything again but I’m not actively planning anything.


What tips would you have picked up from Pawel Pawlikowski as a director on Woman in the Fifth?

You know what, Pawel actually more than anybody I’ve ever worked with sees filmmaking as an intensely creative experience. More and more you run into people with shot lists and these ideas, they’re so controlled by money and time. I really felt like when we came to the set we were creating something, that we weren’t exactly sure what it would be. The movie’s not the script. The movie is the movie and in a way I always felt like if I could have done one thing differently with the movie it would be that my French would be better because I feel that I could have been more improvisatory for him. I was limited because I don’t think my French was as good as Tom’s should’ve been and it limited me in my interaction with people but in a certain way it also serviced the isolation. It was a truly creative act. We weren’t sure what we were doing and when he didn’t like something, we redid it. It was a wonderful feeling, kind of like the way you might write two pages of a book and go, “Oh, those two weren’t good. Let’s go back.” The scene is getting it right and it felt we had to figure out the tone together. We tried some things that we thought would be funny that were funny but that were not the right tone.


At what point during the screening did you feel okay with the audience?

One thing that’s nice about the movie is that it’s so beautiful to look at. The photography’s so stunning and I think it really helps when you’re engaging in a kind of lyrical movie where you’re not working in normal genre ways, using normal genre vocabulary. To have a movie this beautiful helps carry you along.


How do you feel when you see Dead Poets Society now?

I feel like that’s a different person. It seems like another lifetime.


How many different lifetimes do you feel you’ve lived: the early Dead Poets era, the Gen X films and moving into a more adult phase?

Three, there you go. Just life, for me life seems to work in weird chapters. I don’t know. There’s these different periods where certain friends show up or certain lovers. It’s kind of defined by something that’s happening. I think I’m still forming. My goal is to really form around 80 and then I’ll be somebody. I kind of want to be like Tolstoy. Then I’ll give the definitive interview and talk about all eight lives.