Interview: 'The Woman in the Fifth' Star Ethan Hawke

A relationship on the rocks, the seedy streets of Paris, strange supernatural forces -- Ethan Hawke’s latest film, “The Woman in the Fifth,” is a thriller with a hair-raising sixth sense. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (“My Summer of Love”), it stars Hawke as depressed, down-and-out writer Tom Ricks and costars Kristin Scott Thomas. Hawke spared us a few minutes of his time and his thoughts on the film, learning to speak French, scary movies, his "Total Recall" cameo and much more.

Did you have to learn French for the role, or were you already fairly fluent?

You know, I've been trying to learn French since like the 10th grade. And I've done these two movies with Julie Delpy [“Before Sunrise” and "Before Sunset"] and she insisted that I learn French. She helped me work on my pronunciation for this film. She was my vocal coach. But like your typical dumb American, I've never been able to master another language.

Well, it seemed like you'd mastered it well enough in the film.

No … thank you.

“The Woman in the Fifth” definitely doesn't fit the blockbuster mold. It has elements of a psychological thriller but with a supernatural twist. What drew you to this story and its character?

The filmmaker. He's this Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlowoski, and I saw his movie[s] “The Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love,” and I just thought they were brilliant. And I met him and he really wanted to make a movie that was a meditation on depression -- which is what this movie really is. My feeling is if you can just put yourself in the room with talented people enough times, you'll wind up making a couple good movies.

Ricks is obviously depressed -- but when people start dying around him, you wonder about his psychological state, how trustworthy his perspective is. Was it challenging to portray that complexity?

You know what I do, I try to figure out what the reality is. The movie is so kind of surreal and odd, and he's definitely not a reliable narrator. You're absolutely right. What I tried to do was, figure out exactly what was really happening and play that. And let the movie be weird and let Pawel figure out what things he wanted to show the audience, and what things he didn't want to show the audience. I think the guy's definitely bipolar, schizophrenic, you know, probably a very dangerous person. But the question is, when you figure that out, it's at about the same time he figures it out, which I find so interesting.

He's not fully self-aware.

Yeah! He sees himself as a victim.

Though the film is, as you suggested, a meditation on depression, it seems like it’s the kind specific to artists. In the film, Ricks' lover Margit says all writers have a price to pay, and being down and out in Paris he has the makings of a real tragedy -- in other words, a successful book if he plays his cards right. Do you think actors have the same price to pay for their art?

Oh, definitely! All of us carry around a little of that myth, you know, that with great suffering comes great art. You know that part of what made Brando so amazing was that he was utterly miserable and crazy. That what made Picasso such a genius was that he was a ruthless prick. My personal belief (and maybe I tell myself this to feel better) … I think all those guys were gifted despite their madness, not because of it. But there certainly is that feeling out there.

Preparing for the role, was there a suffering writer or artist you channeled?

Well … there's so many. In a way, I never knew the person, but from all reports David Foster Wallace really struggled with depression. One of the differences, I guess, with this character is that this character's not really successful. I guess one of the ones I did base it on a little bit was Hart Crane. We even put that in the movie, where he's looking for Hart Crane's letters at that book store. What he's really thinking is, how long are Hart Crane's poems going to be in print? Is there any chance my things will be in print if I kill myself? Will it help my legacy if I kill myself? So I guess Hart Crane is a better answer -- that's who I was thinking.

Some people shy away from dark or depressing subjects like this. What would you say to convince them to see the movie?

Well for me, it's beautiful and it's intelligent. There's a certain kind of person that only wants to read a happy story. There's a certain type of person that likes to read something that challenges their mind, you know. One of the things that was fun for me about working with this director is he's a ferocious intellect. He comes from a long history of cinema, of not looking at cinema as a business at all. He made the movie for himself. And there's something really exciting about being on a set and having no one around who's interested in what the audience is gonna think, but just solely about how well we're articulating what we're trying to say. And are we doing it subtly enough? Are we doing it beautifully enough? Are we doing it interestingly enough? But not, what does this mean to the audience? I think the best poems, the best writing, the best paintings and the best movies are the ones where you feel like somebody's trying to get something out of their soul. I'm not saying that's what this movie succeeds at, but that's what it's aspiring to be.

You have another upcoming film, "Sinister," again a story about a novelist who encounters the supernatural.

They're two very different movies, but yeah, I think that for some reason, what happens to me a little bit is directors have a character who's a novelist and think, "Oh, Ethan Hawke -- you wrote a novel!" So they come to me with these projects. It's not really me whose doing that. It's just the best jobs I get offered. It kind of seems like I'm hunting for them, but I'm really not. It's like, snow movies and novelists -- that's what they think of me in.

How do you think your experience writing a novel influenced your taking the “Woman in the Fifth” role, or preparing for it?

I think I know what that experience is like. It's not difficult for me to imagine it ... I know that lifestyle well and the details of it. The boredom and malaise that can happen. The moments of sublime happiness …

What about the supernatural? Do you have any experience or interest in that? Do you believe in ghosts?

You know, I'm always shocked how superstitious people are. Fear is a huge part of our life, that's for sure. I don't know. I have no comment to that. I have no idea. In regards to that movie “Sinister,” I'd never done a full-blown scary movie before and I was pretty much against the idea. Then I met this filmmaker Scott Derrickson and I was really impressed by his view on the role of fear in our live and how making a movie about such a thing could be valuable, and the value of ghost stories and midnight tales. I really wanted to work with him. It's very different. “Sinister” is a full-blown Friday-night scary movie. Whereas I would say “Woman in the Fifth” is … you know it's just something else.

It's far more intellectual.

Yeah, exactly.

Why did you originally not want to do a scary movie like “Sinister” -- was it not a serious enough role?

No, not that it wasn't serious enough. I think I thought making a scary movie would be terrifying experience … I had an offer to play Macbeth and I was worried to take it because it seemed so scary to act out all that stuff. It probably sounds pretty silly in retrospect. I was relieved playing the part in “Sinister.” It was a lot of fun making that movie in that there's a kind of a math and a science and a sense of humor to making a good scary movie. Once you get inside of, it becomes kind of awesome.

So scary movies were new to you. Are there any genres or roles that you'd like to tackle that you haven't yet? Or aspects of filmmaking?

I've really never done a full-blown comedy. I would really enjoy doing that. I want to do a comedy and I want to do a Western.

Aren't you also doing a cameo in the upcoming “Total Recall” remake?

I had like a tiny little cameo. I did that as a favor. I'm not really in that movie. I worked about an hour and half on it. I have no idea if I'll be in that movie.

What do you think about them remaking a cult classic like that?

The original movie was an original. It was based on Philip K. Dick’s short story -- Philip K. Dicks is a genius … I have no problem with them remaking that movie. It's like saying, "You can't remake Romeo and Juliet." Why the hell not? And old movies, the effects are already outdated. I'm not saying whether or not this one's going to be any good, or they'll do a good job -- I have no idea. But, I have no problem with the fact of them doing it.

If you hadn't become an actor, do you think you would have been a novelist?

Yeah, I do. I do. 'Cause I've written two, and I'm working on several other things. When I was younger, that was the pull. I sometimes think if “Dead Poets Society” hadn't been so successful … You know, our lives sometimes happen to us, you know what I mean? I feel like I never really made a conscious decision to be an actor. It just was the thing that most … the most opportunities came my way from that direction.

So today you might be a famous novelist instead of actor?

I doubt I'd be famous. I'm sure I'd be a failure. But I just think that I had a lot of interest in that area.

Were there authors that inspired you personally, to write?

Yeah tons, what are some of your favorites?

So many. I think Ray Bradbury, who recently passed away.

I know, speaking of “Total Recall” and science fiction, yeah. “Fahrenheit 451” is one of my favorites. And I just read a great book about jazz called “But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz” by Geoff Dyer. He's an amazing writer.