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Ethan Hawke on His French-Speaking Indie Role and the Next Before Sunrise

Ethan Hawke. Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick Mcmullan

Ethan Hawke’s latest film, The Woman in the Fifth, leaves him stranded as an American in Paris struggling to reconnect with his estranged wife and daughter. But things aren’t always what they seem. His wife seems to be afraid of him and calls the police when he shows up, although he seems like a perfectly nice guy to us. His next-door neighbor in his hotel (with whom he shares a bathroom) turns up dead, with a toilet brush in his mouth, although he seems surprised that he’s the main suspect. And his lover — his alibi — may not actually exist. To top it all off, Hawke speaks French throughout most of this art film, which gives it an otherworldly air. To shed a little light on this project and update us on others, Hawke chatted with Vulture about wanting to kill your roommate and getting French lessons from Julie Delpy.

You’ve lived at the Chelsea Hotel. Were you able to draw upon that?
Does the Chelsea Hotel remind me of the hotel in the movie? [Laughs.] The hotel in this movie makes the Chelsea Hotel look like the Ritz Carlton.

When did you start to learn French?
We’re so American — they learn so many languages, and so much earlier. But I started in high school, and when I did the two movies with Julie [Delpy] — Before Sunrise, Before Sunset — she helped me learn more. So I really have no excuse for not being better at it. I’ve tried at various times to get better and this was one of them. And Miss Delpy did help me with my vocal training, but since my character doesn’t have to be fluent, I just had to do my best. I’ve always been impressed with Alessandro Nivola [who did Coco Before Chanel in French]. He’s fluent. I just stumble my way through it.

The hard thing would be to improvise in a language you’re not fluent in. It’s hard enough to keep up a proper conversation, but to improvise with other actors?
Yeah, and I had to improvise with a kid, who would make fun of my French. [Laughs.] It was fun. I would work on my French all day long, too, but it’s difficult. The only compliments I get on my French are from Americans who don’t speak it, so if I actually got a compliment from a French person, that would mean something. Julie hasn’t seen it yet, so I need to see what she thinks, because I want to know if I did okay or if I got it wrong. I mean, my character is estranged from everything. He’s detached. Cut off. He can’t see, he can’t speak, he can’t understand, so my not being fluent helped with the alienation of the character.

Your character’s not just alienated — he’s possibly insane. Even possibly dangerous. But it’s hard to tell for sure, because he doesn’t seem to know what’s going on. Did you think of him as a split personality?
I didn’t underline or highlight that. Everyone knows what’s happened by the end, but he’s a completely unreliable narrator. He’s a danger to others. He’s not well. I don’t think he knows he’s not well until the very end, and when he’s writing that letter to his daughter and choosing to stay with Kristen [Scott Thomas]; I think he’s basically killing himself and doing it for the betterment of others. At least, that’s my interpretation. He’s a wreck. I mean, he’s carrying a stuffed giraffe for the rest of the movie, and to me, that’s just a symbol of his madness.

Your character shares a toilet with someone who doesn’t flush, which ends badly for that party. Have you ever had a roommate situation like that, which made you want to kill someone?
[Laughs.] I think it’s the reverse. But I think I’m not that type anymore.

Although if he were in Vigilandia, it would be okay to kill your roommate. It’s about state-sanctioned murder?
It just reminds me of a Philip K. Dick short story. In a way, it’s the best of what sci-fi has to offer, because it’s just totally brilliant. I love it, because it’s completely out to lunch. It’s a futuristic tale, and in order to cure violence, violence is allowed during certain days of the year. So if you were that mad, you just wait until the 15th of the month, and then you kill them. It changes the whole dynamic of the way we live. [Laughs.] It’s really ballsy.

Who are you in all of this?
I play the leading salesman for a security company, because the whole thing is a metaphor for class warfare. The wealthy can afford home security, and the ghettos go up in flames. So the rich people are fine. I live in a gated community, with my family, and I think I’m safe. But obviously, no one is. That’s what I love about genre movies, the subtext — “Wait, the zombies are the braindead among us!” I think it would work as a thriller and a great Friday night at the movies. It could be a great triple-feature: Gattaca, Daybreakers, Vigilandia.

Another great triple-feature: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and the third one you’re doing. What are you going to call it?
Before We Go Crazy
? [Laughs.] We’re still figuring it out. But it’s great, because we’ve been playing these parts for so long, and we know what our roles are. We’re like a band, me, Julie, and Richard [Linklater]. You know what’s required and we love and respect and encourage each other. But it’s so difficult to make intelligent romances, so you want it to be really rewarding, really strong.

And you’ve been doing this twelve-year project with Richard for ten years now.
It’s just been one of the most fun things. I cannot wait to see it, and show it to you, and talk to you after you’ve seen it. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. We made a short film once a year, where we follow a boy as he becomes a man, from the age of 6 to 18. Patricia Arquette and I play his parents. It’s a movie about time. It’s about growing up, and you’ll watch him grow up and watch us age in real time.

You’re about to direct and star in a play by Jonathan Marc Sherman, called Clive. What’s that about?
Jonathan took this beautiful Bertolt Brecht play Baal, and updated it to be about rock and roll in New York. And I’m doing Chekhov’s Ivanov in October, so it’s like I’m going back to grad school. I feel like I’ve been studying the classics. I saw their production last year of Three Sisters with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, and Josh Hamilton, and it was the best I had ever seen, so I wanted to work on Chekhov, and when Austin [Pendleton] offered me the part in Ivanov, I had to say yes. With Baal, Jonathan and I got talking about other plays that used rock and roll really well — Once was inspiring, and so was Sweeney Todd — and we found ourselves riffing on doing Brecht, so he did the adaptation. I think we can do it with everybody onstage all the time.

By the way, how did your cameo in Total Recall turn out?
I’m not in the final movie. I learned that huge scene, and I went and did it that day, and we goofed around, we figured it out, but it’s not going to be in the film. Maybe it’ll be a viral video.

Ethan Hawke Got French Lessons From Julie Delpy