The Inverse Interview

For Ethan Hawke, Making Wildcat Was an “Act of Faith”

Directing daughter Maya Hawke in his portrait of Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor, Hawke interrogates why he makes art.

Steve Squall
The Inverse Interview

Ethan Hawke is a man of faith.

That’s not to say the beloved actor, author, and filmmaker is devout in a strictly traditional sense. Though Hawke’s mother was Episcopalian and took him to church as a child, she raised him to think about belief in all its manifestations, to internalize the writings of great American playwrights and poets as intently as sermons from local priests.

His great-grandmother wanted him to become a minister. Hawke heeded a different calling. Now 53 and a four-time Oscar nominee, Hawke sees his lifelong dedication to the arts as its own, deeply spiritual form of exploration.

In Wildcat, his fifth feature as a filmmaker, “human creativity is an act of faith,” he tells Inverse in a wide-ranging conversation about career setbacks (including the box-office failure he still loves), directing his daughter, and balancing villainous roles with experimental cinema.

A fervently impressionistic portrait of Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor, Wildcat (in limited theaters May 3, expanding nationwide May 10) finds Hawke directing his daughter, Stranger Things actor Maya Hawke, who plays O’Connor as well as six characters from her short stories. The author often used humor, grotesquery, and violence to interrogate her Catholicism along with the bearing its tenets of redemption and morality had on the harsh realities of the American South.

In that vein, Wildcat weaves in and out of O’Connor’s headspace to colorfully examine and confront the relationships between her imagination, faith, and circumstances. For Hawke, who co-wrote the film with Shelby Gaines, O’Connor’s reputation as one of the great American writers was only part of what made her such a rewarding subject.

“There isn’t one good way to make a movie.”

“She’s a great artist who manages this magic trick of using her faith and her devout nature to make meaningful, substantive art without proselytizing, without trying to sell you anything, or convince you to sign some dotted line or join her sect,” Hawke explains. “She was just using her faith and her writing to develop herself. To me, that’s really exciting, and that is what I want to do with my work.”

No longer the bright-eyed, boyish charmer of Before Sunrise, nor the marquee attraction behind Gattaca and Training Day, Hawke has instead sustained a strikingly individual career away from Hollywood, marked by more cult classics and indie gems than bona fide blockbusters. Chasing his own muse hasn’t always been easy, but Hawke’s learned to trust his instincts and come to believe that expressing himself thoughtfully, through work he believes in, is what matters most. Whether acting, writing, or directing, Hawke now sees art as a form of worship, a way of giving meaning to life’s mysteries.

With Wildcat, he’s made a film that grapples — intently, directly, and ferociously — with that idea. Perhaps entering Hollywood at a young age is part of what led him in this direction; whether or not that’s the case, Wildcat left Hawke convinced his daughter is following a similar path.

A Career That Failed the Market Test

Ethan Hawke still considers Gattaca, a commercially unsuccessful 1997 sci-fi drama, to be among the greatest films he’s been involved in.


Across his 40-year career, Hawke has enjoyed a longevity few of his Gen X peers can rival and made films in every genre — horror (The Purge, Sinister), sci-fi (Gattaca), thriller (Training Day), romance (Before Sunrise) — while continuously retaining the element of surprise through his choice of roles.

Collaborations with acclaimed filmmakers like Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), and Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society) have played a part in his staying power. “As an actor, you get a little education all the time,” Hawke says about working with such a variety of filmmakers.

Much of what he’s absorbed from these directors, Hawke reflects, is a sense of agency over his own career and an understanding of the importance of not compromising his own artistic vision, nor second-guessing his decisions, just because of what Hollywood might make of them in the moment. Being driven by curiosity and pursuing his own passions has served him better, Hawke is convinced, than coveting fame and following the money ever would have.

Today, Hawke looks back on the films he’s proudest of in his career, and he counts at least one commercial failure among them: Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca, a sci-fi thriller that’s grown more prescient with age in its exploration of human genetics engineering. Hawke, who calls the film “brilliant,” was stunned when it underperformed at the box office.

“Some of my favorite movies I’ve ever done wouldn’t test well.”

“That’s one of the great learning lessons of my life,” he says. “It’s very strange. We live in a time where people are market-testing everything to know if people like something. It’s a misguided needle, when I think about the movies I’ve done that have lasted. All of them tested poorly: Before Sunrise, Gattaca, First Reformed... Some of my favorite movies I’ve ever done wouldn’t test well.”

If the only films made are ones that “pass that gauntlet,” Hawke adds, the film industry is “robbing people of all these voices,” in a way that constrains artistic exploration. “That’s when you start realizing each generation of the audience makes up so much of what the art is,” he says. “If people aren't going to see thought-provoking art, thought-provoking art won’t be made. If radical art is being absorbed into mainstream culture and being talked about, we’ll get radical art. If all we want are pop tunes, that’s all we’re gonna get.”

Hawke’s gratified by how often he hears about Gattaca, even now. “I loved that movie,” he recalls. “I was so proud of it. And then I was in shock that nobody liked it. But, in a way, it makes me believe in myself. It’s been so nice to watch that movie age, how much people talk to me about how much they love it, because it feels like I’m not insane. It also helps me navigate the ups and downs of this profession, because a lot of times what’s perceived as a failure won’t be perceived as a failure 25 years from now — and what’s initially perceived as a success won’t be either.”

Ethan Hawke on the set of Wildcat.

Steve Squall

How did he maintain faith in his own choices in the face of that failure? Hawke’s admiration for Martin Scorsese might have something to do with it. He recalls seeing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull in his late teenage years; both films marked major turning points in his relationship with cinema. Hawke, then a breakout star thanks to Explorers and Dead Poets Society, found himself falling deeply more in love with the creative process through Scorsese’s spiritually bruising studies of masculinity, both written by Paul Schrader (First Reformed).

And yet audiences at the time struggled with the violence of those films, and with the fury and suffering of their characters. “Just because you’ve been misunderstood, that doesn’t mean you said anything wrong,” Hawke reflects. “People sometimes don’t want to hear it.”

How Scorsese “follows his bliss,” from making a film about the Dalai Lama (Kundun) to mounting a revisionist Western epic (Killers of the Flower Moon), has been a particular inspiration for Hawke. “You really feel him jumping off a high dive and trying to figure out how to land,” he says. “I find that exciting, versus a lot of work — even good work — that feels safe. It has an audience it’s directed towards, it’s always going to figure itself out, and it’s just less interesting to me because of that.”

In Wildcat, a Creative Leap of Faith

Ethan Hawke, on the set of Wildcat.

Steve Squall

Wildcat is an exciting, experimental portrait of O’Connor, one that will fare better with critics than general audiences, given the poetic license it exercises in blurring fact and fiction to offer a vivid impression of O’Connor’s untamed imagination. For Hawke, making mainstream art about an outsider artist held absolutely no appeal at all. Unconventional as it is, his film marks a confluence of sorts — and is precisely the creative leap of faith he needed at this point in his life.

A disciple of cinema who cites Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, Italian fantasist Federico Fellini, and German playwright Bertolt Brecht as imaginative influences, Hawke has learned about the lives of great artists from watching them work. Wildcat filmed in Kentucky right after Hawke wrapped production on Pedro Almodóvar’s Strange Way of Life, in which he and Pedro Pascal played two gunslingers who passionately reunite after 25 years apart. “Almodóvar’s relationship to color was something I’d never really thought about,” he says, but that too was carried forth into Wildcat.

The film was also a highly collaborative process, which Hawke — who’s quick to credit Maya as both the originator of the project and its driving force — eagerly welcomed. “One of my great teachers and mentors was Peter Weir, who was so confident that he really encouraged collaboration,” Hawke says. “He wasn’t going to take a bad idea, but he was always fighting to let the best idea float up in the room, as have a lot of the best people I’ve worked with.”

“How much is unknowable?”

The inspiration for Wildcat first came years ago, when Maya was searching for an audition piece for Juilliard and, having become enamored of the writer in high school, assembled a monologue from O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, a ruminative text filled with diary entries that the then-still-unpublished writer addressed to God. After Stranger Things made her a household name, she was close in age to O’Connor at that time and set out to make a film about her. “Using Maya’s passion for this portrayal, and trying to build a film around that, was exciting,” Hawke says.

He’d already felt personally connected to O’Connor. For Hawke’s mother, who grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, “Flannery was someone who wrote so brilliantly about the South, white women, and Christian hypocrisy,” he explains. Hawke has long owned a copy of A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a gift from Before co-star Julie Delpy, who gave it to him while they were making Before Sunrise together in the summer of 1994. “I’ve had a lot of the important women in my life talk to me about Flannery O’Connor,” he concludes.

Maya Hawke stars as Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor in Ethan Hawke’s Wildcat.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

As such, Hawke has come to treasure her work as well. “There’s a mystery to her writing, an awareness of this unknown element that spins the earth, that creates the sun and fire,” he explains. “And what that does is it opens your brain up to the mysteries around you all the time. How much is unknowable?”

O’Connor obsessed over these questions, which drove a wedge between her and others living in her lifetime. The tension between individuality and community, and what this contributes to an artist’s creative life, is another subject of Wildcat.

“Flannery was forced to fly alone,” says Hawke. “But she had just enough support from people she admired to keep fighting the good fight,” he adds. “That’s what I wish for all of us: that ability to hear your own voice, get enough support, and have the humility to hear the criticism but not to let it break you.”

Ethan Hawke drew critical acclaim for his role as abolitionist John Brown in Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird.


As Hawke tells it, his daughter approached him about Wildcat after seeing him portray abolitionist John Brown in The Good Lord Bird and pastor Ernst Toller in First Reformed, two men of God moved to drastic action by the greatest sins of their respective societies.

“I don’t know if it’s my age, or what’s happened, but Reverend Toller, John Brown, and Wildcat are all part of this chapter of my life, and they’re all portraits of human beings and their relationship to their maker and how that affects their community,” Hawke reflects. “John Brown is an activist and a radical, Reverend Toller is a priest, and Flannery’s an artist, but each was about different ways in which the inner life guides us, forces us to rebel, and humbles us.”

Hawke believes the parallels between these projects are far from coincidental. Each reflects the tests of faith he’s grappled with personally, especially since turning 50. In questioning what’s next for his career, he’s had nothing but time to consider what motivates him as an actor, an individual, and a spiritual human being. Wildcat gave Hawke the chance to craft a portrait of an artist who meditated upon grace in complex, bracingly peculiar fiction, no matter how isolated this left her from the commonly held beliefs and practices of her time.

“When we’re young, we’re all so scared to be odd or eccentric,” Hawke says. “In the pursuit of covering up what we perceive as eccentric about ourselves, we devalue ourselves. Our fear of being judged is so powerful. We all want to be liked, to be understood or respected. And yet, society in general is not a reliable judge as to who deserves respect and who doesn’t.”

Adapting to a Changing Industry

Ethan Hawke cites his performance in First Reformed as part of the spiritual exploration that drew him to Wildcat.


Maya’s not finished with Stranger Things just yet, but filming for the Netflix series’ fifth and final season is currently underway, and Hawke knows the show’s conclusion will mark a transitional point in her career. Working together with his daughter on Wildcat was a cathartic experience for both of them, but Hawke’s struck less these days by the pressure to offer her guidance than by the conviction he has as much to learn from Maya as she does from him.

“I often feel like my job is to be my character's lawyer.”

Often, Hawke looks to his daughter for answers around audiences’ viewership habits — how and where people are consuming entertainment, and what types of projects they’re most excited about. “I'm doing my first TV show this year,” Hawke says, referring to his upcoming lead role on FX’s The Sensitive Kind, a Tulsa-set noir from Reservation Dogs creator Sterlin Harjo, which will mark his first ongoing series commitment. “That’s partly because I've just learned from her about what people are watching.”

Hawke recently showed up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, appearing in the Disney+ miniseries Moon Knight as Arthur Harrow, a religious zealot and cult leader; though he’s far from an obvious choice for the superhero sandbox, this, too, was a consequence of him taking Maya’s advice. (“Maya would say to me, ‘Why are you sitting on the outside and telling everyone their sandbox is bad? Why don’t you go into their sandbox, play with them, and show them what you have to offer?’” Hawke told Indiewire ahead of that series’ debut.)

Ethan Hawke recently appeared as Arthur Harrow in Disney+ series Moon Knight.


“The industry has changed so much,” he says with a sigh. “I remember Sidney Lumet saying that to me: just stick around, and it’s all going to change. Now, I’ve lived long enough to watch it happen. All those walls are breaking down. They were so clearly defined when I started out. Now, they’re just not.”

Hawke’s also aware he’s entering another stage of his career as an artist, which might account for why he’s been more willing to take on villainous roles lately, from Moon Knight to The Black Phone, in which he plays a serial killer of children.

“I probably wouldn’t have done The Black Phone if I was 35,” Hawke says. “It’s the Jack Nicholson rule: I’m not sure the world could ever unsee The Shining, you know? It’s always there, in the back of your head. You’re waiting for him to be crazy. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”

Still, he’s been enjoying the heel turn into villainy, which will continue next year with a sequel to The Black Phone. “I often feel like my job is to be my character's lawyer,” Hawke says. “I try to see the world from his point of view, why he’s doing this. I don’t worry about the fact that he might be hurting other people. This is why he has to do what he has to do.”

Ethan Hawke recently played the Grabber, a serial killer of children, in The Black Phone and is set to reprise the role in a sequel.

Universal Pictures

“It’s fun to play a character people like,” he continues. “It feels good. But I’ve always been dubious of that, even as early as Reality Bites. I didn’t worry about whether anybody liked Troy. I just tried to worry about who I thought he was. Sometimes, you see people’s performances, it feels like they’re running for office, and I just roll my eyes.”

Hawke’s grown more comfortable with his work as a director, as well. Though his feature directorial debut was more than two decades ago, honing his craft in recent years — with folk-musician biopic Blaze and televised documentary series The Last Movie Stars, about the love affair between actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward — brought Hawke greater clarity around what he has to offer.

Maya Hawke stars as Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor in Ethan Hawke’s Wildcat.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

And working with his daughter on Wildcat, he says, was an experience that allowed him to truly believe in the power of his own artistry, at a time when he’d been questioning his ability to keep exploring the faith that’s long been intrinsic to his sense of self. Maya “was aware of how that question was impacting me and on my mind, of how I could make what was happening inside me be a part of my artistic life,” Hawke explains. He remains grateful they made Wildcat together.

“There isn’t one good way to make a movie,” he says. “There’s a lot of ways that it can work, and there’s a lot of ways to go wrong. And there are strange things that psychologically impact how you think about it, but you ultimately have to throw it all away to think about your story and what it’s doing. How will it be different from any other film? How can I hear my own voice?”

Wildcat is in limited theaters May 3, expanding nationwide May 9, via Oscilloscope Laboratories.

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