Ethan Hawke’s goal as an artist is to connect meaningfully with the world — avoiding artifice is essential in terms of his acting, directing, and writing.
By Tim Jackson
Ethan Hawke doesn’t like to call his new film, Blaze (screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and Embassy Cinema), a bio-pic, but it is inspired by the life and times of Blaze Foley (1949-89), a country music singer-songwriter whom he had heard musicians talking about for years. Foley’s music is used as a counterpoint and commentary, so Hawke’s film ends up rambling on like a good country ballad about a life gone awry.
Foley was a homespun philosopher, a crafty songwriter with an unfortunate aversion to conformity and success. Since his death, shot at the age of 39 nearly twenty years ago, he has become something of a musical legend. Blaze focuses on Foley’s late career. It is content to hint at his difficult upbringing as well as his discomfort with the compromises of fame, or at least with the marketing required to take his music to the next level. Fueled by liquor, Foley became self-destructive. Alternating club performances with more personal scenes, acted by seasoned musicians, amateurs, and professionals, Hawke probes the flawed heart of the music and its creator.
One thing I was curious about was Hawke’s experience directing a cast that mixes professionals with less experienced actors. He was part of a similar dynamic as an actor in Richard Linklater’s 20-year epic, Boyhood. He was anxious to talk about Benjamin Dickey, who plays Blaze, a novice actor, but a music veteran with many years’ experience performing in small clubs. Hawke explained: “Where monologues are something you can practice, moment to moment listening and responding is where the musician comes in. Ben understood instinctively how to fill pauses, how to create rest, how to listen. A good musician is always playing and listening.”
I asked Hawke about his excellent staging of the late Sam Shepard’s play Lie of the Mind in 2010. Dealing with that script, a surreal portrait of damaged American families, taught him a lot about directing. It also involved extensive use of roots music.
“I’ve learned a lot about directing actors doing stage work. One thing that is really important about Sam Shepard is his relationship to music. The whole production was scored with old instruments. Ben saw Lie of the Mind. In Blaze, we got Ben to think about how to preserve the integrity of his character and facilitate something larger called the ‘work’. What we got Ben thinking about is – I get so excited about it – is how to stop thinking ‘am I good or bad’, ‘am I going to cry or laugh’, ‘am I gonna be funny’, ‘are people gonna like me’? Instead, it’s like you’re playing X, I’m playing Y and we’re both serving Z. And if your mind is on Z, you can get out of the way.”
Alia Shawkat pays Blaze’s Jewish girlfriend, Sybil Rosen, who Blaze unofficially wed in 1976. Rosen’s memoir, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley, provides a nuanced portrait of the man, going beyond the conventions of a traditional biography. “There’s macho element that makes your eyes roll about some country music. And seeing the story from a young Jewish woman’s point of view makes it much more interesting. When I heard that Blaze tries to convert to Judaism, I said – I love this guy.”
The chemistry between Shawcat and Dickey is also key to the film’s success: “Ben really liked Alia. He wanted to please her and it comes through in their chemistry on-screen. Things start to happen. He wanted her respect, like Blaze. You start letting those real feelings in ’cause you’re not ‘performing.'”
Hawke bought in veteran picker Charlie Sexton as Blaze’s drinking pal and fellow songster Townes Van Zandt. Josh Hamilton, (excellent as the father in Eighth Grade) comes up with another subtly effective performance as Zee, an amalgam of various friends and enablers of Foley. Hamilton also performed in Hawke’s production of Lie of the Mind. “Josh and I had a theater company when we were younger so I brought him in to be sort of a mentor to Ben. He and I go way back, so I knew what he could do. Josh is a ringer and an amazing performer.”
In 2013, Hawke acted in and directed the stage play Clive, Jonathan Mark Sherman’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s early play, Baal. Hawke was cast in the title role, updated to be a rock musician. The production was filled with music; it was also another ensemble piece. The NY Times described the character Clive as a “charismatic talent and with an equally magnetic destructiveness,” Hawke saw comparisons among Clive, Baal, and Blaze: “If you do Brecht’s Baal, you have to realize it’s not entertainment. Brecht was a young man at that point doing a punk rock song and doing it in a way that’s not meant to be enjoyed. It is made to think about how much you don’t like it. To talk about it. To have a discussion.”
While Brecht’s Baal is far more anarchic than Blaze, both challenge audiences to experience the world from an unfamiliar vantage point. Hawke’s goal as an artist is to connect meaningfully with the world — avoiding artifice is essential in terms of his acting, directing, and writing. In that sense, Foley and Hawke shared the same goal, to be authentic.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.