Interview: Ethan Hawke on Good Kill and His Very Good Year

Interview: Ethan Hawke on Good Kill and His Very Good YearThere’s no denying that actor Ethan Hawke has achieved another level in his career in recent years, keeping himself in demand as a leading actor, both in major studio releases and smaller indies. Part of Hawke’s success could be attributed to the fact that he often works with some of the same filmmakers like Boyhood’s Richard Linklater and that’s also the case with Good Kill, Hawke’s third movie with Andrew Niccol following 1997’s Gattaca and 2005’s Lord of War

Good Kill puts Hawke into the role of Air Force pilot Tom Egan, who has been grounded to a command station just outside Las Vegas where he can monitor and fight the Taliban using drone technology. The job turns out to be even more stressful than flying an airplane as Egan sees a lot of things going on that he can’t do anything about while his seemingly corrupt handlers are more concerned with taking out terrorists than the collateral damage their drones create.

Also starring Bruce Greenwood, January Jones, Jake Abel and Zoë Kravitz, it’s another thriller from Niccol that allows him to comment on world politics, this time using a hot topic that’s very much ripped from our headlines.

Back in September, had a chance for an extended interview with Hawke up at the Toronto International Film Festival where Good Kill was screening a few days after its premiere in Venice. How many times have you been to Toronto now?

Ethan Hawke: A bunch. I haven’t even counted, but I know the first time I was here was 1992 for “Waterland”—this is going back a while now—and I’ve been here a million times. I was here with “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” and I was here with “Woman in the Fifth” and “Gattaca” and “Training Day” and I was here with “The Hottest State.” I’ve been here a bunch of times.

CS: Coincidentally, Antoine and Denzel are back up here with “The Equalizer,” too, but “Gattaca” may be the best reference because you’re here with your third movie with Andrew Niccol. When he’s writing a movie like this, does he contact you along the way and say, “I’m writing this. I want you to do it” even before he has a finished script?

Hawke: We’ve known each other so long, but no, he never talks about projects that he’s writing while he’s writing them. I think the writing process is a very insular one. He gets obsessed with something, but he called me when he was done and said, “I just wrote this. I’m really curious what you think of it.” I read it and I was like, “I hope he wants me to play this part” because I’ve read a lot of his scripts, a lot of them that don’t have parts for me. I remember reading “In Time” and I thought it was great. You have to be under 25, but when read this, I really wanted to play this role.

CS: I feel you’re very politically minded and you pay attention to current affairs and have an opinion on things. Obviously, drones have become more conscious and in the zeitgeist in recent years.

Hawke: It was started under George W., but it’s something Obama has really used to get us out of Afghanistan. It has been a positive in that way. You know, it’s been the tool used to… the troops will come home, but the drones won’t, you know? The drones will still be there. So, that’ll be interesting.

CS: And we don’t really know much about the people operating them.

Hawke: Yeah, I didn’t know anything about the drones program. I mean, that’s part of what interested me so much about it, that we would read about a drone strike here or a drone strike. I heard there’s a drone strike in Yemen, but I would have no idea what that meant. I thought it was maybe like a laser from a satellite. I don’t think I had a concept of how it all worked. For me, I did my first war movie in “A Midnight Clear” years ago, a World War II movie, and to get to make a movie about where warfare is right now is very interesting. The ethical questions the soldiers are put up right now, I just haven’t seen this movie before.

8E9A6195.CR2CS: I think the first time I had any kind of inkling what could be done with drones was in “Syriana,” when they had a scene where things are being blown up and you don’t really know how. The next time was in “Call of Duty,” where players will have operated these drones without realizing what was going on, but they start blowing people up. These things are not perfect and sometimes there’s collateral damage and this shows how it affects one operator. Did you or Andrew talk to any of these people?

Hawke: Well, I was really lucky because Andrew is so meticulous in his research. His script is so beautifully-written and so thorough in the way that he teaches you about everything, even the script, and then also, he’s my director, so I could talk to him every day. Then, he did bring in two ex-drone pilots for us to talk to. They’d built the GCS (Ground Control Station) model off the exact blueprints that he found. The pilots walked us through and showed us how to use everything. So for me, it was kind of awesome. I was spoon-fed my research by a meticulous director.

CS: But you’re not completely against drones and you think maybe they do have a use?

Hawke: Oh, you can’t be completely against them. It’s like saying, all these things that technology is giving us are tools, but how are we going to use them? The over-watch programs are unbelievable. You know, they can watch soldiers and protect soldiers on the ground. They can do surgical strikes in a way, I mean, like Andrew said, we’re not napalming the whole sides of mountains and we’re not carpet-bombing. Look at what we did to Dresden. In a way, civilian damages are getting less, but it brings up other ethical questions like, “What will it be like in the future when more countries have drones? How would you feel if a drone was over your house?” It makes war incredibly easy and cheap, and the public doesn’t seem to care when we’re killing people if they don’t see any of their own coming home in caskets. We want to be careful when we let our government just willy-nilly kill people, you know? I mean, that’s my point. I’m a filmmaker, you know, so I don’t feel like my opinion matters a damn whether I think it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but what our job in the community is to start interesting conversations.

CS: Well, this movie is definitely going to start conversations. It’s very much about the people behind it, and I think it gives a different perspective on it other than blowing things up from far away.

Hawke: Andrew and I had to remind ourselves–we’re working so hard today, but we made this movie so that we could do this. You have to remember like, “This is the point,” so I’m really excited about showing the movie tonight because we don’t have a distributor and we screened it a few days ago in Venice, and it went incredibly well and I’m very proud of the movie. I am going to be curious what people in North America feel about it. How do Americans feel about it? How do Canadians feel about it? That’s why you make something like this, not because I have some political agenda with the audience, not because I’m running for office or I’m trying to stop the drone. I don’t know. It’s up to us, but we can’t have a realistic dialogue if none of us know about it. The government’s spending a lot of money on it. If our government’s doing it, you can be better sure that other governments are going to be doing it, too.

CS: It’s eerie to think that we can have these drones watching you, just flying over New York.

Hawke: You can and they will. They could kill you and I in a second, if they wanted to. 

CS: So how did the Venice audience react to the movie and how was it seeing it in a theater with an audience?

Hawke: I can always feel it, you know, especially with a big house like that, when you show a movie, you can kinda feel whether or not it packs a punch or not. I felt really, really happy about… I just think most people don’t know this story. They don’t know what happened, and it’s been a long time. There’s so much fear in Hollywood about making anything that might be perceived as critical of the government and to be called unpatriotic. One of the greatest things about being American is that you should have the freedom of speech to discuss whatever you want, but when nationalism gets high, then any bit of critical dialogue is seen as possible heresy, and that’s what scares people.

CS: It’s been like that since 9/11.

Hawke: It really has. I mean, it’s funny, when I was younger it was all these Oliver Stone movies that would pack so much political punch and all these different other filmmakers doing things, but a lot of the movies have really lacked any teeth, especially in regards to anything that could be perceived as critical of soldiers or of the government, you know? That’s not free discourse. We get in danger when we don’t feel that we can talk freely, even when you feel you can’t say something stupid. You should be able to say something stupid. I mean, we’re human beings. 

8E9A4233.CR2CS: These days especially. There’s so much outrage about everything these days. You can’t make a joke anymore. I’m curious to see it tonight with an audience because you probably know as a filmmaker that this will probably be the biggest and most attentive audience, which is kind of sad.

Hawke: Yeah, I remember I did a movie, another one that was here, it was “What Doesn’t Kill You.” It was with Mark Ruffalo. Probably the best night of the life of that movie was here at Toronto. We had a full house. People loved the movie. Then the movie never got released. It was just such a wonderful night. We never had a night like that. My hope is if this is well made enough and it’s such an interesting subject matter that we will find an audience. But look, it took 10 years for “Gattaca” to find an audience, you know? When “Gattaca” first came out, nobody gave a sh*t about it. Now everywhere we go, people love it. It’s both wonderful and confusing.

CS: One of the things I talk a lot about in interviews is that art is something that doesn’t go away and these movies will still be around years later.

Hawke: Yeah. Often, what is really popular one year is completely dismissed a decade later, you know?

CS: I wanted to talk about your other movie, “Seymour,” because that fits in the same conversation where that’s such a personal movie and a special film, and it’s generally going to play in arthouses. It will play amazing at Lincoln Center. How much does that matter to you, as far as it having a theatrical life or do you feel like you’re satisfied with the movie you made and that’s all that matters?

Hawke: Would it make me happy if it played for six months at Lincoln Center? Hell yeah. You make these things because the subject matter is something you care about. But at the same time, I loved making “Gattaca.” It doesn’t make it any less of experience that certain critics didn’t like it or it didn’t make money. Like you said, over time, it has found its audience. My hope is whether “Seymour” plays for two days or two weeks or two months, I feel confident that there is a hunger out there for what Seymour Bernstein has to teach and that people will be grateful to hear it, however they find it.

CS: When you act in a movie, you shoot it, the director goes off and does his editing and submits it to festivals. It’s a different type of level of personal commitment, whereas with a movie like “Seymour,” you are so involved.

Hawke: Yeah, and my wife produced that movie and it’s a family project–something I really believe in.

CS: How long did the doc take you to make? When did you first start shooting that?

Hawke: A few years. But that’s the thing about documentaries, you never really finish them. You just decide to stop working on them. Yeah, because you can always shoot more.

CS: “Boyhood” is pretty amazing, because you worked on this movie for 12 years and no one knows much about it, and when it finally comes out, people find it and love it. That must be very gratifying for both you and Rick (Linklater).

Hawke: It is.

CS: But also, to have Ellar really kind of explode like he did.

Hawke: Look, it was our eighth movie together. We’ve had several at bats with this. This one feels really good. I don’t know. It was our secret for more than a decade, and it was something I really believed in and that we all did. No matter what else I do in my life, this film stands alone as a unique experience. It’s unlike any other project I’ve ever worked on.

CS: Over the past 12 years I’ve talked to you, and every once in a while someone will say, “Oh, what about that movie?” “Yeah, we’re working on it.” You were very casual about it, so it’s amazing how it turned out.

Hawke: I’m really proud of it. I mean it. It represents so much of what I believe in. I mean, it has a simplicity to it, it’s love.

ethanhawkesinisterCS: It’s also a very personal story for Rick, too, and it’s amazing to have something so personal become IFC’s biggest hit after “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Hawke: (laughs) It’s crazy.

CS: You’ve been keeping pretty busy since last we spoke. A couple years back, you had a big hit with “The Purge” while “Before Midnight,” obviously was a really satisfying conclusion or we assume it’s a conclusion. We don’t know.

Hawke: No, I guess we don’t. We won’t really know. I think so; it feels finished to me.

CS: You’d have to do “After Midnight,” “After Sunset.”

Hawke: I had that thought, too. We could start a new trilogy.

CS: I know you’ve reunited with other directors recently, too.

Hawke: I’ve got my Michael Almereyda double feature now. I’ve got my Spierig brothers double feature, too.

CS: That’s right. I saw “Predestination” way back at South by Southwest.

Hawke: Isn’t it an interesting movie?

CS: It’s one of those movies that really got me thinking after I watched it and I felt like my head might explode. In some ways it’s a pretty odd take on time travel.

Hawke: I love it. I think Sarah Snook’s performance in it is just incredible. It’s such a mind bender of a movie, but yeah, it’s been probably the best year of my career, getting to make a political movie like this and a science fiction movie like “Predestination” and “Boyhood” is kind of an accumulation of 20 years of work with Linklater, and finishing my documentary. It’s been a wonderful year.

CS: I think last time we spoke was before “Sinister” and I remember asking about your attraction to genre movies. When I finally saw that, I was really impressed because it showed that you can make really good genre and horror movies with decent actors, script and director, which isn’t a common thing.

Hawke: I’m proud of that movie. There’s no blood in that movie. It’s a very simple ghost story, really. It’s scary as hell, but I loved that character, so that movie, it’s interesting. I’m happy with that movie.

CS: When you’re doing these movies that could be a potential franchise, you’ve got to make sure your character doesn’t die.

Hawke: I make sure they DO die.

CS: That’s not a very good way to go about things.

Hawke: “The Purge” and “Sinister,” I don’t have to be in the sequels. I only say that because I don’t really like sequels in general. Obviously, the “Before” trilogy is its own thing, but I think the ending of “Sinister”–the way my character dies is kind of like, “Daddy, you’re going to be famous again.” 

CS: What have you been working on lately?

Hawke: I just finished a Western with Ti West. It’s a full-blown spaghetti western. It was me trying to talk Jason into expanding the genre because what he’s doing–he’s giving directors total creative freedom if they work under a certain budget and getting them a studio release, which is a little victory of sorts. So I was trying to say that he wanted me to do another horror movie and I said, “No, what I really want to do is a spaghetti western.” He was simultaneously trying to get Ti West to do a horror movie, and Ti West said, “Ah, I don’t want to make another horror movie. What I really want to do is a spaghetti western.” Jason said, “Wait a second. You’ve got to meet Ethan.” So Ti and I got together and we felt mutually inspired. Ti just came back to me with this unbelievable script. I can’t wait for people to see it

CS: Have you been inspired by working with Jason to try it yourself, directing a lower-budget movie with him producing?

Hawke: Directing? You know, I don’t know that I have the necessary skill set to be a good genre director. The movies that I want to direct are too weird. We’d just turn it into an art film somehow. 

Good Kill opens in select cities on Friday, May 15.

(Photo Credit: PNP/


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