Ethan Hawke decided to be an actor in a single night—when he saw the PBS broadcast of Sam Shepard’s True West, starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. “That night I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life, and I didn’t even know what ‘that’ was,” he says. Now, Hawke stars opposite Paul Dano in the first revival of that Shepard work in 19 years.
Shepard has been dubbed “one of the most important and influential writers of his generation.” He won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Buried Child and was a Pulitzer finalist for True West in 1993. (Both plays also earned Tony nominations for the 1996 and 2000 productions, respectively.) He won 13 Obie Awards, a Gold Medal for Drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. But if you’ve ever witnessed a Shepard play, you may have a hard time breaking down his acumen. In his unconventional writing, Shepard propels the story in one direction only to veer with a hard left in the last moments.
“You have to understand that he’s not a dramatist who wanted to be on Broadway. He was not trying to be the Neil Simon of his generation—that his total orientation and the way he’s thinking comes from hanging downtown with jazz musicians,” explains Hawke. “He’s going out with Patti Smith; Alan Ginsberg and Bob Dylan are his heroes; he’s working with Joe Chaikin, who are radical and weird avant-garde artists. He’s often playing with your own expectations of what you think storytelling is supposed to be.”
The playwright’s merit lies in his subversion of the form. “He busts open the idea that anything has a beginning, middle, and end, because everything is part of a continuum,” Hawke continues. “He’s not trying to impress New York intellectuals; he’s trying to communicate something that he thinks is radical and might impress Bob Dylan.”
A Shepard thread weaves through Hawke’s career: Hawke pursued a role in Gary Sinise’s Steppenwolf production of Buried Child back in 1995, earning a spot in the cast and attracting young audiences thanks to his Dead Poet’s Society fame; he eventually directed Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind in 2010, earning a Drama Desk nomination for his work. But Hawke never wanted to touch True West, the perfection of it solidified in his mind.
“It’s even better” than he remembers, Hawke says. “I have known and loved this play for a long time and studied it now and I realized I didn’t respect it enough, and if we do our job right we can submit that to the audience.
“As a student of the play, I’ve come to feel that it’s like a diamond.”
What makes True West so perfect? “You know that feeling when you hear a song that feels like it’s always been there?” Hawke asks back. “When you hear ‘Let It Be’ or ‘Hey Jude,’ it almost seems like, ‘How could it have not existed?’” That’s True West.