Ethan Hawke’s documentary wins raves

11:41 PM March 15, 2015

NEW YORK—When Ethan Hawke was young, he was fascinated with Albert Schweitzer, a 19th-century philosopher and missionary who set aside years of his life for piano-playing before dedicating himself to helping others. Hawke made a similar pledge about acting.

“But 40 came so fast and I didn’t want to give it up at all,” Hawke said in a recent interview. “But I knew there was something to what Schweitzer was saying. You can’t spend your whole life indulging yourself and expect something good to happen.”


A midlife crisis is one way to put what Hawke, now 44 and a father of four, was going through. For the first time in his career, he was having performance anxiety. Having long considered himself an eternal student, Hawke—whose wide range of works (two novels, stage acting, directing) suggest his curious, exploratory nature—wasn’t sure exactly who he was anymore.

Gentle old man


“You start seeing how much of the road is behind you and then realizing that the next part is probably going to go just as fast,” says Hawke. “What does it mean?”

These questions rattled around his head when he joined what turned out to be a fortuitous dinner party in New York several years ago. There he met his friend’s piano instructor, a gentle old man named Seymour Bernstein. Though an accomplished pianist whose performances earned raves decades earlier, the 86-year-old Bernstein long ago retired from any public artistic life. Instead, from his humble Upper West Side studio, he has taught the piano and, his students would say, something about life.

Bernstein’s view of art for its own sake—amateurism over professionalism—resonated deeply with Hawke. Over the next few years, between other, more glamorous projects, Hawke made a documentary of Bernstein. On Friday, “Seymour: An Introduction” opened in theaters.

Warmth and wisdom

“I knew when I left that dinner party that a lot of people would enjoy the conversation that I just had,” says Hawke. In his quiet way, Bernstein had reframed Hawke’s anxieties, telling him they should be embraced, and that the crossroads Hawke felt he was at was really a single, continuous path. “And he did that for me in, like, 45 minutes.”

“Seymour: An Introduction” has won raves on the festival circuit, where Bernstein’s warmth and wisdom has struck a nerve with many, as it did with Hawke.

Says Bernstein: “Strangers come up to me and say: ‘I don’t know anything about music but everything you say in that film pertains to me. In Telluride, I was walking on the cobblestone street to lunch and we passed three people. They came over and gave me a hug and put their chin against my shoulder and cried. All of them did that!”


Though he has long eschewed the spotlight, the monk-like Bernstein is reveling in the attention. “I’m a star!” he chuckles. “I have so many interviews!” Hawke compares palling around with the newly famous Bernstein to “taking Greta Garbo to the mall.”

In the film, Bernstein is seen giving lessons and speaking about his career and music.

“Music is not just a means of expression for me,” he says. “I have learned to pattern my life after the harmony of music: the logic of it, the emotional import of it, the intellectual notation of it, the physical requirements of making it sound on the piano. It is a discipline that I then directed into everything that I do. It became a means of life for me.”

One reason Hawke wanted to make the movie was “simply to have an excuse to be near him.” He was drawn to Bernstein’s bubbling, unsullied joyfulness in his art.


Really old young person

“So many people, even some of the most widely successful people in my profession that I’ve met, sometimes seem eroded by bitterness and disappointment,” Hawke says. “And I’ve been trying to figure that out: So if you fail you lose, and if you win you lose?”

Bernstein says Hawke has rediscovered his identity: “It took about three years, but now he knows that the actor, the husband and the father are all the same person,” says Bernstein, “… all the same.”

Hawke agrees: “Instead of being a really old young person, I feel like a really young old person. And I’m happier here.” AP

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