Exclusive Interview: Ethan Hawke on Before Midnight

Ethan Hawke talks about writing Before Midnight, the ending of Reality Bites, his deleted scene in Total Recall and all of his upcoming movies.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Sometimes I include the opening intros of my interviews, if they’re really good or unique. For me, the casual greeting Ethan Hawke gave me, as if we were just catching up after all the decades I’ve been watching his movies, was too good for me to cut out. We were connected to discuss Before Midnight, which I’ve been thinking about since I saw it at Sundance. Hawke was game to analyze the deep discussions Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke) have in their third movie. Some specifics are discussed so we issue a spoiler warning, plus a follow-up to my Reality Bites question for Winona Ryder.
 

Crave Online: I’ve been ready to talk about Before Midnight all year. So the ending of Before Sunrise is bittersweet because we know they might not see each other again. Is the separation from his son that begins Before Midnight much harder to deal with?

Ethan Hawke: Yes, that’s kind of the whole idea of that opening, that everybody your whole life tells you to follow your bliss and follow your dreams and be true to your heart and true to yourself. One of the really complicated things about life, for Jesse and Celine, is that by Jesse doing that, somebody suffered because he did that. The movie opens with the repercussions of that choice.

Pretty much, if you were to watch them all like a novel or something, pretty much everybody who’s watching Before Sunset wants Jesse to miss that plane, including Jesse. When the third one starts off, you see exactly what was at stake. Was it a good idea or wasn’t it a good idea?
 

Or there might not even be good or bad ideas. You might have multiple blisses to follow and it’s a give and take.

Exactly, exactly. That’s exactly the point.
 

When it gets really heated, Jesse and Celine start talking about how he’s more rational and she’s more emotional, but is Jesse more emotional than he realizes?

It sure seems that way to me, don’t you think? And also, he’s more emotional than she realizes. She’s the one that keeps calling him rational. I think that’s kind of funny in a relationship. We take on the identity that the other one gives to us. He seems pretty emotional to me in that whole exchange.
 

And during that scene in the hotel room, if it were me, I would have started saying, “I love you, I love you” and reassuring her I still loved her. Then I thought I probably would have lost her if I’d done that. Is Jesse smarter for the way he handled it?

There’s a joke at the end of that scene when she says, “I’m an angry person and I hurt those that I love” and she repeats some of the things he said about her. And he says, “Ah, just my type.” In a functioning relationship, people’s weaknesses can be an asset. You’re inside a dynamic. I think that’s the point. Yeah, you probably would’ve never kept a woman like Celine because you might’ve been too nice to her or something, I don’t know. [Laughs]
 

Exactly!

And Jesse probably wouldn’t be with somebody who didn’t give him a hard time. We all create the dynamics we’re in and then we get grouchy about the parts of that dynamic that don’t make us happy 24/7.
 

Would you guys be emotionally raw after a day of shooting?

We were pretty emotionally raw during the whole writing and shooting the movie. It would be difficult not to be, particularly obviously that big fight scene. The whole movie for some reason, even when it’s not out in front, they’re sitting on it all and it deals with so many issues that are so real for me. They’re not far fetched issues.
 

How much has your real life over the past 20 years changed how you see Jesse and Celine since Before Sunrise?

It was a funny thing. Before we started writing this, we sat down, the three of us. We’d arrived in Greece and we had about a 20 page outline. We basically knew what it was about but we hadn’t really gotten down to the brass tacks of writing it yet. We sat in a little screening room at this hotel and watched a double feature of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

It’s a very strange feeling because I both felt like I hadn’t changed at all and like the person I saw in that movie wasn’t me, but was like a sibling I hadn’t seen in 19 years. It’s the same kind of feeling, you know how when the summer’s over you kind of feel like, “Did that go by really fast or really slow? I can’t tell.” With Julie and Rick [Linklater] and I, sometimes it feels like we have this imaginative parallel life. There’s a lot of overlaps with our real life, a lot of differences. It’s just this parallel universe that exists and we sometimes tap into it. I don’t if that sounds… I don’t know what that sounds like but it’s what it feels like.
 

It’s also interesting that you started out as actors and have become the writers of the series also. How did that transition occur?

Well, it really happened in the first movie. The truth is Rick workshopped, he had a script to the first movie which he basically was willing to throw away. He got Julie and I in a room and we kind of did a four week process where Julie and I rewrote that script because he really wanted to make the movie specific to Julie and I, to things we wanted to talk about and things we felt sincerely and things that were important to us. So he invited us into the process and I think it’s no coincidence that both Julie and I went on to write and direct movies after that experience because it was really empowering. Rick was super supportive and believed in both of us. So then the next time around, it just seemed obvious that we would all just do it together.
 

In Before Sunrise, you suggested the idea of doing a movie where you filmed a day in a different country for a whole year, and they’ve started to do that with certain projects like Life in a Day. Did you call it, and have you followed those projects?

It’s funny, I think whats true about that is at that time, it was all about to break. Digital video, movies, all film was about to change and I think all of us felt it, that this kind of reality show experience might start to be something of the future. It was just getting so much cheaper and cheaper to film in real life.
 

Would you do a scene in a state of undress like Julie does in this movie?

Oh sure, yeah. For me, that’s probably my favorite moment in the movie. It’s a really powerful portrait of a grown-up woman who’s topless, being interrupted from sex with a phone call from her stepson to discuss his science project. The way she carries that off I think is really beautiful, and I’ve done plenty of scenes with my shirt off so I know. I mean, it’s a little different for a man obviously. It’s important because I think our country makes such a big deal out of nudity and toplessness, but I think it’s a very triumphant moment.
 

It only made me concerned that if it were in reverse, the film might get an NC-17 if it showed you full frontal.

Yeah, but nobody wants to see a penis is the problem. It’s a problem.
 

And the point that struck me is we’re so enthralled by the dialogue of that scene that that’s what we’re paying attention to.

That’s what I love about it. How stupid would it be in a movie that’s trying to be naturalistic [if they avoided nudity]. I’m glad you liked that.