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Culture

Actor And Author Ethan Hawke: Writing 'Forces You To Think Through Things'

"Young people often have this desire to try to make their life interesting," says actor, author and director Ethan Hawke. "Life is so interesting all by itself. You do not have to try to goose life." He's pictured above in Paris on Nov. 25, 2019.
"Young people often have this desire to try to make their life interesting," says actor, author and director Ethan Hawke. "Life is so interesting all by itself. You do not have to try to goose life." He's pictured above in Paris on Nov. 25, 2019.

A famous young actor's marriage to a pop mega-star is crumbling. To get away from the real-life drama, William Harding immerses himself in the role of Hotspur in glittering Broadway production of Shakespeare's Henry IV.

The novel is called A Bright Ray of Darkness and the author — Ethan Hawke — is someone who might know a thing or two about what life for the main character is like.

A Bright Ray of Darkness
/ Knopf

This isn't Hawke's first novel — early in his writing career he tried to steer away from autobiographical fiction, and was frustrated when reviewers kept trying to "break down the smokescreen."

While on book tour in Berlin, Hawke met a German editor who gave him some advice: "He said, 'The problem is you're having the same dilemma that famous writers have at the end of their career ... You are not a famous writer — you are a famous person who's writing.' "

The editor suggested he just embrace it. "He advised me on my next novel not to run away from it, but to run into it ... and then, of course, it took me 20 years to do it."


Interview Highlights

On why he framed the story around Shakespeare'sHenry IV,a play he performed in 2003

I started trying to do King Lear, but I've never performed King Lear, and I realized that I just wasn't intimate enough with the play and that the play's themes didn't speak to my themes that I wanted to write about. You know, Henry IV probably explores fathers and sons and masculinity and the attempt to arrive at some kind of, quote unquote, manhood or adulthood about as well as literature can do. And that was what my story was.

So I kept kind of coming back to Hotspur. One of my favorite things about acting is seeing yourself as your character's lawyer and defending his position. And in the novel, I have this sense that William is trying to prove to himself — that he's the good guy and he's trying to do the same thing for his character and there's something kind of wonderful about that realization.

On revisiting a difficult time in his life – he was performing inHenry IVaround the time his marriage to Uma Thurman ended

I had a lot of growing up to do, and one of the things that I really love about writing is it forces you to think through things, and think through situations, and create a fictional universe where you can see things that maybe you can't see inside your own life. That's what the title is about, you know, "a bright ray of darkness" is the unity of opposites, so to speak, that we learn by suffering.

On the complex relationship between celebrities and their fans

I've spent so much time thinking about this because I experienced celebrity young. I've had a desire to break that glass wall. ... When I look at Michael Jackson, or Elvis, or any of these people who have reached extreme celebrity, it's like they're in some isolation tank and they're just going mad. And we're watching them, kind of loving watching them die.

When everyone else is staring at you, it's hard not to start staring at yourself like them. You start to see yourself in third person. You start to be writing the narrative of your life and it's just a toxic way of thinking.

And yet,it's fun to sell out a theater. It's fun to get a standing ovation. It's fun to move people and have them tell you they were moved. So the positives are this huge high and the negatives are just people chopping at your ankles. It's been very confusing throughout my life.

Danny Hensel and D. Parvaz produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.