Ethan, you are soon to direct a feature film adaptation of Camino Real by Tennessee Williams, a play in which you acted at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1999. What drew you to this particular play?
I’d be willing to bet anyone who has performed in Tennessee’s Camino Real has become at least a little bit obsessed with the play. There’s something at the center of it that is so profoundly beautiful, crazy and seemingly nonsensical, that your brain keeps trying to make sense out of it. I remember one night being on stage as Kilroy, and feeling like we’d rung some bell – some magic bell, that is near impossible to ring – and I’ve been chasing that sound ever since.
As a great-nephew of Tennessee Williams, at what age did you become aware of this fascinating family connection, and do you think this finding influenced your first choice of career of writer, in any way, consciously or subconsciously?
I remember when I was a young teenager, my grandmother told me that we were related to Tennessee Williams. It did have an impact on me. It let me know, in the deep recesses of my brain, that it is possible to have a career in the arts – which so many young people assume is improbable. I recall her saying that he was a “particularly strange fellow,” but not knowing exactly what she meant by that.
As a novelist, and a screenwriter, what are your usual writing habits…a particular time of day, a favourite chair, listening to music, or silence etc. How do you get into the writing zone?
I really write out of necessity. The life of the actor is so up and down, you are so consumed one moment and then have no anchor the next…Having writing projects to fall back on lends balance to my day, my year, my life. The best thing to get me into the habit of writing is usually reading.
Who are some of your favourite writers, and have you read any special books recently?
My favorite writers are a lot of the usual suspects: James Baldwin, Somerset Maugham, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, all the Russian greats, Joan Didion, Raymond Carver….have been mainstays in my life. I just did Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums for Audible and I am currently recording Big Sur. Recently I loved The Lot by Bryan Washington, Tommy Orange’s There There, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Aron, and Deacon King Kong by James McBride.
Looking back, was there a defining moment when you knew that you were going to pursue an acting career?
After the experience of Dead Poets Society, it would have been unimaginable for me NOT to pursue an acting career.
Music has played a big part in your filmmaking career; from Reality Bites to Born To Be Blue where you played Chet Baker, to the Blaze biopic about country musician, Blaze Foley, which you directed, to your documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. Are you drawn to studying the relationship that musicians have with their music? What musical instruments do you play, and what kind of music do you like to listen to?
The honest answer, is that I flat out love music. I love listening to it. I love reading about it. I love learning about new music. I love watching documentaries about it. I love playing it. It brings me a tremendous amount of pleasure. It is the only thing that makes sitting in traffic something to look forward to… I am currently learning the mandolin for a part – it’s tough, but I love it.
In your documentary, Seymour: an introduction, about the classical pianist, Seymour Bernstein, which sparks so many wonderful discussions about the role of the artist in society, or the piano as a metaphor for life. Did making the documentary about Seymour who seems such a wise and conscious gent, ‘answer’ any big life questions for you? Are you drawn to any particular spiritual practices?
My main spiritual practice seems to be listening to music.
What do you think is the most challenging character you have ever played, either on stage or screen, and you can share with us why you think that was? Conversely is there a character which you are most fond?
The truth is that the most challenging characters are often the ones I am most fond of. On stage, it would probably be Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or Chekhov’s Ivanov. On film it would have to be my most recent role of John Brown, based on a true character, redrawn in a delightful way for a powerful and funny novel (THE GOOD LORD BIRD).
If you have a spare evening, what kind of films do you like to sit down and watch, and who are some of your favourite filmmakers?
That question is extraordinarily difficult for me to answer, because I like almost every film I see. I like any film that anybody put a little bit of thought into. Films with a secret sewn inside them. I like films that make me laugh, those about women, ones that show me about parts of the world I don’t know about. I like a great action sequence, a killer kung fu move, a great score, a film that makes me think about God, a film with a little bit of nudity. I like a film that’s about humans, or landscapes. I like old films and new films. I like Criterion Collections films, animated films, films directed by friends of mine. I like any film with John Leguizamo.
You have shared the most amazing and ambitious adventures in filmmaking with Richard Linklater in The Before Trilogy, and Boyhood in particular. What do you think it is about Richard that convinced you to embark on such unique, unprecedented journeys; Before trilogy over a period of 18 years, and Boyhood, 12 years? Can you tell us a little about the writing process and the dynamic between you, Richard and Julie Delpy when you wrote the Before Sunset and Before Midnight screenplays? Was it difficult for you and Julie to switch hats, from collaborating as writers, to working together on the material as actors? Why do you think people feel such an affection for the characters of Jesse and Celine?
I think most romantic movies are generally geared towards men OR women. What might make The Before Trilogy stand out for audiences, it that it does something unique – the point of view is near gender-less – Because Julie and I are both co-writers, there is a very serious attempt for both the masculine and feminine to be represented and balanced. I think it makes people feel that they are not being lied to, or manipulated. Linklater invited us into his process and his whole methodology is oriented around hunting for a universal truth.
In regards to Boyhood, it was just simply one of the most perfect experiences of my life. It was an ideal moment, that lasted 12 years.
You have performed in plays by Chekhov, Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard, Sam Shepard to name a few. Are there any iconic roles in classic or modern theatre you would really love to play? How did it feel to play the lead role in Hamlet on film, at such a young age in 2000?
I was really thrilled to play Hamlet when I was not yet 30 years old. That character makes a lot of sense when played by a young man (or woman). To play that character on stage requires incredible discipline, experience, and education, but on film it is much more manageable – so I felt lucky.
I’d love to be in more plays by all the writers you mention. And part of the joy of acting is celebrating writing, so it would be satisfying to work with a young writer on a new play. Something no one has ever seen before….
In Tesla, you’re working once again with Hamlet director, Michael Almereyda. Did you find that there were similarities in approach with a reimagined Nikola Tesla and the sense of making him contemporary whilst maintaining the biographical and historical nature of the subject? What attracted you to him and the role?
Michael, who is incredibly talented, has been a good friend and extremely supportive of me throughout my career. I was really most attracted to working with him. Nikola Tesla deserves to have about 18 films made about him – but this is the best one I’ll be in.
Can you tell us about your upcoming portrayal of abolitionist, John Brown, in The Good Lord Bird, based on the book of the same name by James McBride, and how the project began?
Top Secret. Can’t tell you a thing. Going to have to watch the show…
But if I was to give you an inside scoop – The Good Lord Bird is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read and I was desperate to put it on film. As systemic racism has reignited itself as front page news, the story of Onion Shackelford’s ride with John Brown seems more relevant than ever.
**Warning label: this is not your school librarian’s John Brown, he’s a historical figure but reimagined by McBride. Imagine if Huck Finn were a cross dressing mixed race boy and crazy God fearing “Jim” was crazy God fearing John Brown and instead of a paddle and a raft they had a six shooter and stallion.
From a young age it seems that you have never been afraid to diversify or take risks; as an actor and director in both film and theatre, as a screenwriter, as a novelist, as a musician, or as an artist director of a theatre company. What fuels that desire to keep on moving, changing, and fearlessly exploring different creative mediums?
Some of it is by necessity, some of it is by happenstance, some of it is by design.
I feel incredibly grateful to get to do all the different things I do, and I continue to enjoy them all. There’s been no grand plan. I’m like a cat – just happy to still be alive.
Tesla is released in theaters and on demand, on 21 August. View trailer here
The Good Lord Bird will premiere on Showtime on 4 October. View trailer here
For the latest news, visit Ethan’s official website here