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With the film Seymour: An Introduction, actor and novelist Ethan Hawke adds ‘documentarian’ to his résumé.
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From the mid-1950s to the 1970s, Seymour Bernstein was a celebrated pianist, but he quit nearly 40 years ago. Why did you want to direct a film about an 87-year-old musician?

I met him at a dinner table, and he was this guy who played concert halls all over the world and then suddenly stopped. So of course that would be interesting to me: What would happen if I had stopped? What did you gain by stopping? Do you miss it? All that stuff fascinated me.

Is abandoning your performing career tempting?

I think there’s a healthy part of anyone who’s a professional actor that has a little Greta Garbo in them. You know, if you want it too bad, you have another set of problems.

Which actors turned directors do you admire?

So many of the best directors I’ve worked with, if they’re not actually actors, they’re secret actors. They love acting. They wanted to be actors.

You say you struggle with stage fright in Seymour. I found that really surprising.

If it surprised you, imagine how I felt. Because when I was younger I had so much confidence, I was never nervous. I didn’t know better. I feel that the great bulk of my life is a war with my nervous system.

You have three girls and one boy, ages 3 to 16. Has fatherhood changed how you think about your work?

There’s something exciting about having something that I care about more than I care about acting and performing. When I was younger I didn’t have that. Terrible reviews for a play and my whole self-worth went right there with it. Now there’s something that gives ballast to the ship.

In Boyhood, you play a lousy father. And Seymour seems to be a father figure to you. Does that relationship inspire you as an artist?

Yeah. Even [my novel] The Hottest State is largely about a young man’s relationship to his father. Looking for mentorship and leadership is a big part of every young man’s life. We want to not be at sea, and we want to not be lost.

Your extracurricular activities open you up to charges of pretentiousness. Does that bother you?

I’ve been accused of being pretentious my whole life, rightfully so. I encourage young people to be pretentious because–if you have a sense of humor about yourself–it means you’re aspiring to something. You have to set goals for yourself, and they might as well be lofty.

You scored successes in scary movies like Sinister and The Purge. Is it strange that some fans see you only in that light?

I never saw a line between high art and low art. One of my favorite moments was when I was doing [Chekhov’s] Ivanov in this little 200-seat house in the East Village at the same moment that Sinister was opening.

Is it hard to balance being commercially viable with passion projects?

Most people have to find a way to balance what they really love with what the world will pay them to do, right? My friend Richard Linklater, I don’t think he’s ever compromised. As an actor, I’ve had to find ways to make a living and still be in touch with what I love.

You’ve been nominated for four Oscars. Do you write out a speech?

It always annoys me when people don’t. If you’re nominated, there’s a 1-in-5 chance that you might have to talk. It’s such a bore to listen to “I should have planned a speech.” That said, I totally didn’t have a speech planned this year because I knew exactly who was going to win my prize.


This appears in the March 23, 2015 issue of TIME.

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