by Chesley Turner
photography by Randall Slavin
Don’t ever mistake Ethan Hawke for taking words, issues, themes, at face-value. He looks beyond the words to the meaning behind them, spinning erudite answers that simultaneously clarify and complex-ify his thought process. This man is a thinker.
So what does this thinker have to say about power?
“Much to people’s shock, the essence of power can be powerlessness. Some of the most deeply powerful people were the most deeply humble.” Right off the bat, Hawke turns this issue on its head, redefining power and reclaiming it for the meek. “Think of St. Francis. What an awesome guy. He spent the bulk of his life trying to end the Crusades, doing work to establish contact with the Sultan and increase understanding. He failed. But I’m amazed by how deeply humble this person was, and how radically un-materialistic and un-powerful. He sought dominance over no man. Over no woman.”
Citing a Catholic Saint whose been dead for centuries as an icon of Power might seem a little crazy. People thought St. Francis was a little crazy in his own time. Maybe the similarities between Hawke and Assisi’s most famous denizen would be better explored in cinematic form? Because it seems that the world could learn a lot from this modern day actor’s interpretation of powerlessness-as-power. “We associate power with arrogance today. But true power requires humility, and the ability to EMPOWER others.” And who better to know about empowering others than a mother? Hawke quotes one of his own mother’s axioms for Moves: “You have to do the good you have the power to do, and not worry about what you don’t have the power to do. Whatever power you have, use it for good as you define it.”
Power is a fickle thing, and its misuse has branded it a high-risk entity for all of human history. Hawke is quick to point out the downside of worldly, commodity-driven power. “I think power is a dangerous word. It makes me sick to my stomach to see the words, 100 Most Powerful People, because so many people aren’t using their power in any substantive way.” Without naming names, one can begin to think who tops the Powerful People list, and who falls into the subcategory of Powerful Idiot. “When you see assholes ruling the world and ignorance leading the way for active injustice, it makes you want to have the power to make a change.”
How do people who have succumbed to the siren song of materialism usually end up? Even amidst the glitz and glamour of Hollywood? “Most of the rich people I’ve met are really, really, profoundly unhappy. They’re not nearly as happy as they were when they were auditioning. In the pursuit of power, you can lose love. If you cultivate love over any superficial notion of power, you end up with a very different set of values.” Beware, ambitious New Yorkers. Don’t sacrifice love in the pursuit of “making it” in this world.
Examining the idea of power lies just a short step from examining the idea of women in power, and Hawke has empowering – if idealistic – words about the meteoric rise of the powerful woman. “As women are more and more educated and confident, and when equal rights becomes the more unwavering reality, the real hope is that women can help lead the men away from ‘might makes right’ toward something more sacred.” America is an aspiring country, with trailblazers and stride-takers from all demographics. But Hawke doesn’t think we should get too boastful. “There are women and black people leading all over the world. We break our arms patting ourselves on the back like we’re so noble and enlightened and progressive.” Despite our many assets, America still isn’t perfect. What’s important is that we keep trying. “We are in a place where the best idea seems to end up leading us. The sailboat sails left, the sailboat sails right, veering one way and then the other. But in the long run, the course is straight.” And there are a lot of people on that boat.
“As a person in this world, I get very interested in our collective power. Not my own power.” Seeing the people in this world as parts of a whole is something that Hawke considers imperative to his job as an actor. To portray people, in their infinite differences and their precious individuality, he must keep an open mind. It seems that the world would be a better place if political leaders and heads of states saw their constituents in a similar manner. Think of how different the minefield of Foreign Relations would be if personhood was held in the highest regard, rather than import/export deals and arms race dominance. “But that’s an easy thing to say. Not seeing human beings as statistics when you get in a position of leadership is very difficult.”
It’s difficult for all sorts of men. Hawke points out that our presidential roll call contains a gamut of personalities. “I watch George Bush at the Texas Rangers games, in a stadium built with taxpayers’ money and then sold as a private entity,” (a fact that infuriated Hawke’s grandfather, who was once in the Texas State Legislature). “Then I see Jimmy Carter on 60 Minutes, and I know he’s been hassled for his choices in office, but if you look at the quality of his character and how he’s applied himself in his post-presidential life, he’s a fascinating human being.” So what’s the answer? What kind of man, or woman, are we looking for to see the world for its individuality and not as a whitewashed mass of humanity? Hawke’s thoughts move too fast for his words. “Does leadership invariably— Can you not be—” and then he finds true icons of effective, benevolent political power. “How did Nelson Mandela do it? How did Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, lead large amounts of people and see them as people?” His empathy for all these characters brings up several important questions that may mediate our anger about how our political leaders, both the good and the bad, run the country. “Would you want to handle the Afghan war? Could you begin to try to stop poverty? As an actor, you don’t have to solve these problems; you just ask a lot of questions and provoke thought.” Actors, Hawke says, have the full-time job of inciting thought, just like the couple of guests you invite to your dinner party for their uncanny ability to spark interesting conversation.
Seeing people as people, and having empathy for them, seems to be a quality that runs in the family. Hawke’s mother is currently in the Peace Corps, thousands of miles across the Atlantic, living out the Hawkean interpretation of “Power” by empowering the powerless every day. “My mother joined the Peace Corps at 49 years old, fell in love, and has spent 10 years of her life there. For some reason, here in the US, we equate the blind pursuit of money with success. She didn’t want that kind of success, and she didn’t enjoy being perceived as unsuccessful.” So she’s rewriting the dictionary in Romania, working for Gypsy Rights and trying to change the way the world views the Roma people, particularly the children.
Stateside, Hawke does exactly what his mother advised him, “doing the good he has the power to do” in the way he best can: through his art. He has authored two novels that illuminate the human condition, The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday, and is ready to write again. But he is perhaps most widely known for his acting. “The value of the performing arts is to alleviate shame, to somehow tell stories and through these stories allow people to understand their lives better. That’s the function.” Though we know him from a wide range of films, Dead Poets Society, Reality Bites, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, for which his co-writing earned an Academy Award nomination, and Training Day, Hawke has most recently been treading the boards in old New York. He directed Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind earlier this year and will soon open in a new production by The New Group called Blood From A Stone. “This play I’m doing right now is swinging from the rafters, diving into the human psyche and the soul. If we do it well, it could be very enlightening.”
And for an actor and a thinker, enlightening isn’t too far from empowering.