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Ethan Hawke on the lasting legacy of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward: “To be original is to be yourself”


To Ethan Hawke, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were towering figures within the acting community – accomplished performers who not only took their craft seriously, but also supported the work of other artists in their field. But then he started his five-part HBO/Max documentary series The latest movie stars, Hawke started to realize that his project wasn’t just about celebrities who often found themselves in the spotlight – it was their private lives and their 50th wedding anniversary that made the most impact. Hawke spoke with THR about why he approached his larger-than-life subjects first as wives and then as celebrities to avoid telling the fairytale version of the couple’s lives, careers and lasting legacy.

Ethan Hawke

Remember when you first knew who Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were?

People say they have their feel-good dinner or whatever; whenever I was depressed or felt lost in my life, going back to Cool Hand Luke would always put me in a great place. When I fell in love with acting and moved to New York City, he was right here in town. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, they co-run New York City as a kind of guide to what a life in art might look like. They supported theater and dance companies, she directed and ran the theater company in Connecticut. It did show that it is possible: you can be a great artist and not be a fool and lead a meaningful life. They made a big impression on my 25 year old self.

How did the sery get started?

Like many things in life, it developed slowly. (Paul and Joanne’s oldest daughter) Nell Newman and I went to the same high school. We didn’t know each other there; she was a few years older than me. This is probably the real answer to your first question: I saw them on my high school campus and it shocked my brain that they walked the earth. Nell called me and said, “I really think someone should make a movie about mom and dad.” She felt that another artist, especially an actor, should make a movie about them. That was compelling, but I still didn’t feel I had to do it – it seemed like a big responsibility. I kept recommending other people to her and she said, “I think you would do better.” In the end I just said yes. But when I started I realized I couldn’t make a long documentary about the two of them – their lives were too big. So I fooled myself into thinking I was making a two hour movie. I sent part of five hours to Richard Linklater and asked him how he could get two hours out of it. He said, ‘You have to add more. You left out this and this and this!

Did you have to talk Their children in a warts-and-everything approach to their parents’ lives?

The first thing I told them was that I don’t find fairy tales very interesting. There is the old expression that without shadow there is no light; I like (their true love story) better than the myth, because it involves a lot more work and a lot more freedom of choice. Sometimes when we see couples who have been happily married for 50 years, you think, “God just loves them more. They have magic dust in their lives.” It’s really not the case with them. They’ve worked really hard on developing their love, figuring out what love and what forgiveness means. These big themes of grace, maturity, forgiveness — these are aspects of the self that need to be developed as you want to keep growing up. I started to realize, “Wow, this movie is about how to grow up, but it’s disguised as a Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward documentary.”

as an actor looking at another actor’s career, wif that’s a weird experience?

I was making a documentary about two people who took the same vow (as I did). The actor’s vow is that it calls for a profession, for a craft, for a life-and-death venture. I realized that if you don’t understand that vow, you don’t really understand their lives, what artists go through, what they’re trying to do. Why do they want to go on stage? Why do they want to go through all these ups and downs? Why is it valuable to them to portray something beautiful? What does that mean for them? And then, of course, what does it mean to me? I felt like I had a guardian angel because it was the perfect medicine for a 50-year-old actor.

The film has conversations between you and many of the actors you’ve cast to voice excerpts from memoirs and interviews with Newman, Woodward, and some of the figures in their lives. You talk about your job as an actor in a very grounded way – it’s not all Hollywood glamour.

The only way to be original is to be yourself, right? As soon as you try to be original, you’re kind of fake. I had to rely on what I naturally found interesting. And I’m allergic to iconography. I’ve seen so many people become hero worshipers, only to fall back to humanity. I’ve seen how the heat from the floodlights caused people to think room temperature was frigid. I’ve seen the negative aspects of goosing the truth. I showed my mom an early draft and she said, “The funniest thing to me (is that) you managed to make two people that I greatly admired and looked up to to be just like you and me.”

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward with daughter Nell

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward with daughter Nell, as seen in The latest movie stars.

Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

It is funny you say that: my mother has been a huge Newman fone since she first saw him on screen. She told me that this doctor was her first confirmation that he and Woodward began their relationship when he was still married to his first wife. Did you feel like you were busting a myth about their love story?

We live in a scandal-obsessed society. Paul and Joanne worked very hard to avoid a public scandal. Everyone inside the house knew what was going on. That humanity of it is really beautiful. This is a man who comes back from the war, goes into summer stock, falls in love with the first woman he meets, marries her 18 months later, and then they have two kids by the time he’s 24. That’s a lot of pressure on a young couple who didn’t really know each other. And then he meets Joanne Woodward, the love of his life. What should he do, live a quiet life in desperation and not hurt his children? It’s a terrible choice to make. They followed their love. And they have worked very, very hard to repair the damage they have done. The reality of that is something we can learn from – while the myth of Paul and Joanne riding off into the sunset because they are perfect people is of no use to anyone.

How did you choose the actors to voice Newman, Woodward and others? I have a feelingMany were friends or people you worked with.

One of the blessings of being 50 is that I’ve been in this profession for over 30 years – I know a lot of people. (laughs.) I was actually thinking about people I most wanted to talk to about that person. Linklater is a giant Scorsese acolyte, and I thought, “If I must talk about The color of money, I need to talk to Rick. LaTanya Richardson Jackson is an actor who worked with Joanne, and she has a husband (Samuel L. Jackson) who is really famous. I knew she’d say something great (as Woodward’s aunt, Maude Brink). Who could play Paul Newman? The obvious person is George Clooney. There are very few people who have remained at that level of excellence who have the same swagger, political interest, insight and understanding of Paul’s experience on this planet – but George does. And I was surprised all the time. For example, Zoe Kazan’s honesty when she said (when she was approached to voice Newman’s first wife, Jackie Witte) “I have to admit I don’t know who Joanne Woodward is.” That applies to many people. And that touches on the sexism of our industry, which movies are celebrated and who becomes an icon – and who doesn’t.

Are you worried about what is being celebrated today? Is that part of the evolution of the industry, or have we changed the way we consume media?

The people who control money on this planet learned very quickly how much money could be made from entertainment. And it’s a lot of money – big business has appropriated the art form of cinema. When I think of the films that would have been celebrated when I was younger, I wonder: Is there a place for Eric Rohmer today? Would Wings of desire to come outside? Would Paris, Texas find audience? It is very difficult for artistic performance in cinema to keep up with commercial wants and desires. I would have thought that films would have become more expressionist, more artistic, more avant-garde. But because it’s so relaxing to switch off your brain and let a movie do all the work for you, we’re getting more and more of that. There’s a quote from Flannery O’Connor that I love: “I’d rather have one reader in 100 years than a million today.”

Stream is a double-edged sword. So much is available to us, but that’s it overwhelming. And nobody seems to know if something is a success.

We lost the curators. I’ve spent hours of my life watching things that absolutely don’t interest me. Or, if it’s right there on your television, you can turn something off in 20 minutes if you don’t like it. I’m leaving out the obvious ways it’s better – all of these things are readily available, but we’ve lost something. Revival cinemas curated for their audience. When I was younger and wanted to see a movie, I had to leave my house to find it. I was forced to engage in a higher conversation. And I do miss that. We need curators telling us, “Hey, look here.”

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a standalone May issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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