Directed by Aisling Walsh, Maudie tells the story of folk artist Maud Lewis (played with both heartbreaking and heartwarming beauty by Sally Hawkins) and the unlikely romance between Maud and hardened reclusive bachelor Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke). With hands crippled from arthritis, Maud’s desire for independence led her to Everett’s doorstep, and even though he’s initially hesitant to hire her to help take care of his house, she soon finds herself going from painting doodles on the walls to working on canvas, and the partnership that the two develop helps turn her into a famous folk artist.
During the film’s press day, actor Ethan Hawke spoke to Collider for this 1-on-1 interview about why he wanted to get involved with the film, how people are magical even in dire situations, what Everett’s life might have been like without Maud, and why he’s finding more freedom in character acting. He also talked about co-writing and directing Blaze, about the life of country western musician Blaze Foley, doing a comedy adapted from a Nick Hornby novel, why he’d like to do a comedy with Will Ferrell, and playing a pimp for Luc Besson in Valerian.
Collider: The real-life story of these people is just so incredible that it almost seems like it can’t be true.
ETHAN HAWKE: Yeah, but people are kind of magical, even in dire situations. I can’t think of a better word than magical when it comes to Maud Lewis and the transformative power of art through her. Her ability to take an astonishingly depressing situation and make it beautiful is really cool. There’s something magical about it.
When you read this script, what was it about this story and this character that made you want to be a part of it? Did you sense that magic when you read it?
HAWKE: There’s a level of excellence to Sally Hawkins work that really inspires me. I really like to watch her act. So, when I saw this script and that she was attached to play this part, I read it imagining her and saw an opportunity for her to do something really great. I thought she could do something with this role that would be worth watching. That’s really what I felt. I am also lucky because I’ve been traveling to Nova Scotia for the last 15 years of my life. I love it up there. I have a place up there, so I know men like Everett. I read it and I could hear his voice and I knew where he lived. I could picture it all. That’s what it takes for me to have half a chance at playing a character. That’s where it generated for me.
Had you ever heard of Maud Lewis or seen any of her artwork before?
HAWKE: No. I met Aisling Walsh, the director, and I’d seen one of her movies. She did this movie about Dylan Thomas (A Poet in New York) that was amazing, and the performances in that movie were off the hook. So, I was really inclined to like her, and she brought in a bunch of books of Maud’s work. I’d seen images online, but I hadn’t really thought much about it. And I didn’t know about it before. Funnily enough, I should have known about it. People had told me about the house that’s at the Halifax Museum, but I never went and saw it. When you do see it, it’s clearly her master work. It’s an incredible thing, the little house she lived in. It’s layers upon layers of flowers, squirrels, birds and fairies. It’s truly a sight to behold. It lets you know what we’re capable of. She changed that house. But, I didn’t know her work until I started working with the movie.
Maud and Everett were two loners and outsiders who found each other. What do you think it was that drew them together, and how different do you think Everett’s life would have been, if Maud hadn’t knocked on his door?
HAWKE: His life would have been a really lonely one. I think what drew them together was mutual need, a powerful loneliness on both of their parts, and a lack of options. They did the hard work that a relationship needs because they didn’t have any options.
Did you get any rehearsal time for this, so that you could work on this relationship together?
HAWKE: Sally, Aisling and I met in London months before, and we were all on the same page about it. We were supposed to have this very intense rehearsal period, but I had been doing another movie that kept getting pushed and I got delayed, which went into our rehearsal time. By the time I got there, right before we started shooting, Sally was already deep into character, deep into this movie, and deep into the world. It was really inspiring to arrive to set and see her. She was working on what juvenile arthritis is like, she was working on the accent for the period, and she was working on painting and getting that right. The whole world was so beautifully drawn. It was pretty nice to disappear into this. It was very lonely out there, where we were shooting, and there was really nothing else to think about than Maud and Everett. So, Sally and I gave into it, worked on our script, and tried to make each scene as good as possible. We tried to cut as many lines as we could because we wanted the movie to be as non-verbally expressive as possible. It was really exciting because it’s rare that you get an opportunity where the movie is really all about the people. So often, I’m asked to pay people that are in service of a plot. This movie is just about the people and their relationship.
Were there any challenges specific to playing Everett?
HAWKE: The last five or so years of my life, as an actor, I’ve been really pushing myself towards more character work, whether it’s this, or Chet Baker, or The Magnificent Seven. I’m just trying to deepen my own relationship with what I do and explore a different kind of acting, in that way. I’ve been enjoying that.
What prompted that shift for you?
HAWKE: That’s a longer conversation that probably wouldn’t interest anybody, but it started when I worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman. He and I arrived in New York together, when we were young. Watching him, he played a lot of supporting parts and learned a lot by playing the supporting parts. I was cast in leads from a young age, and I learned from him the value and freedom in character acting and what it can do for you. That planted a seed in me that’s been percolating for the last ten years.
You also co-wrote and directed a movie called Blaze, which sounds like a real labor of love. What interested you in the life of country western musician Blaze Foley, and what made you want to write and make that film?