If Ethan Hawke were still in grammar school, his "what I did on my summer vacation" essay would have been a doozy last year. The actor married Uma Thurman, they had a baby and he learned to be Hamlet -- all in three months.
"Yeah! As it turned out it was a great thing," the actor proclaimed on a recent trip to San Francisco with Michael Almereyda, the writer-director of Hawke's brooding, modern Manhattan adaptation of the Shakespeare play. "I had a summer where I was just hanging out (with) the baby, studying 'Hamlet' the whole time."
He was speaking early the morning after the picture's premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and before they dashed off to catch a plane home Hawke (unshaven, chugging Evian and sporting a second-hand suede jacket) and Almereyda (smiling softly and running fingers through his tangled, prematurely graying hair) took a half hour to go a few rounds about bringing a post-modern melancholy Dane to the screen.
|Q (to Hawke): What was your first exposure to "Hamlet"?|
HAWKE: My first exposure to it, I think, was high school English class. I think they showed Lawrence Olivier's "Hamlet" -- you know the day in class where you really enjoyed it because you get to fall asleep while they show you a movie? -- and then slowly, over time, I really got turned on by Shakespeare. I think the first thing that -- to be candid -- really showed me that Shakespeare on film (could be) visceral was Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V." Once I saw that, I got turned on to "Chimes at Midnight" (Orson Welles' 1967 amalgam of five of the Bard's plays) and some of the other great Shakespeare films.
|Q: You were really inspired by Welles' "Macbeth," too, right? The low budget approach to Shakespeare?|
ALMEREYDA: I'm just inspired by Welles in general! I was inspired by this great throw-away statement he made about (that) movie being a rough charcoal sketch of the play. And in many ways it was an index for how you can do exciting work without having a big budget. His "Macbeth," as you probably know, was shot really fast -- in 21 days -- on an RKO sound stage. The irony is he took forever to edit it!
|Q: I understand you guys didn't have much rehearsal time.|
HAWKE: Michael rehearsed with me for months, on and off. We didn't have that much time, all of us together. Everybody worked with different people, then we all kind of came together and worked with Michael on a cohesive idea as to what style of acting he wanted. There are so many different styles for doing Shakespeare, and one thing that we were was all American. There were no RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) grads.
|Q: Because it was set in modern day New York, how did you feel about staying with Shakespeare's dialogue to the letter?|
ALMEREYDA: Well, obviously watching the movie requires a certain suspension of disbelief. People don't really talk like that. But the language has its own life and its own logic, and I hope you just get acclimated and you're in it, so you can just forgive words you don't understand or even words that don't seem quite right, because of the general sense and force of it.
|Q: Or famous lines like "Get thee to a nunnery" (Hamlet's mad reprimand of his lover, Ophelia) that don't make much sense in Manhattan.|
HAWKE: But they do! It's just taking everything to a really heightened, poetic level. The idea of "Get thee to a nunnery" is just saying "Stay away from sexual relationships. Go be chaste." That's an idea that is not unheard of in a modern setting -- that men will destroy you and you will destroy men. That's what he's talking about, and that's very much still true.
|Q: They say that the iambic pentameter helps you memorize lines. Is that true?:|
HAWKE: It is true, you know? It works in a rhythm, and the rhythm perpetuates itself. It's easier than learning that volume of contemporary prose. Also, (Shakespeare's) ideas are very logical. One thought does always lead you to the next. It's exceedingly well-written. The subtext of the characters is all right there in the writing. Everything they're thinking and feeling is presented for you. So learning your lines ends up becoming so much a study of what the character's consciousness is.
|Q: You had really good Shakespeareans in your cast, too. People are very knowledgeable about the play (like) Liev Schreiber (who played Hamlet on stage last year and is Laertes in the film)...Diane Venora (playing Gertrude)...|
ALMEREYDA: You know she played Hamlet (in a New York free Shakespeare production). And she played Ophilia with Kevin Kline. She knew the play better than anyone. She was good at barking at us if we were going astray!
HAWKE: I also think that I was the first Hamlet to play Hamlet with a Gertrude who had played Hamlet! Every once in a while she'd stop me and say, "Let me tell you how I did it..." It was both enlightening and frustrating.
|Q: So it was definitely beneficial to work with people who had done the play before?|
HAWKE: We had a nice combination of people who considered themselves experts and people who considered themselves amateurs. I hadn't played it before, I didn't know much about it. But the nice thing about it is that you can kind of throw a lot of love and enthusiasm at it. You know, you hear those stories about how if Paul McCartney had gone to music school he never would have written half those songs? I think Michael and myself both felt like, let's just throw ourselves at this and try to learn as much as we can and just do it. 'Cause if you fall under the weight of the tradition, and not kind of get charged by the tradition, you can, you know, kind of drown. There is something about the love of an amateur that can kind of...
ALMEREYDA: ...be undefeatable.
HAWKE: Yeah. Exactly.
|Q (to Almereyda): I'd like to ask you about adapting the script. Was it intimidating to try to set this in a modern world? What do you take out? What do you leave in?|
ALMEREYDA: It was incredibly natural. There's a terrific book that was kind of a simple overall guide, by a Polish scholar name Jan Knott called "Shakespeare, Our Contemporary." His point is that contemporary themes and ideas and trouble are either anticipated or embodied by the stories and characters Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago, and if you treat him as an equal he speaks very directly to you. So it never was a question to me whether it could be updated or if it shouldn't be updated. It just made a lot of sense, and it was the easiest and most fun part of the whole process, to type Shakespeare into my computer.
|Q (to Hawke): How did you feel about performing the "To be or not to be" soliloquy in a Blockbuster Video?|
HAWKE: I thought it was a great idea. It played so into Hamlet's dilemma, which is this idea of, you know, it looks so easy -- everybody out there being so active, doing all these things -- yet I feel so stuck and I don't know why. Not to mention that I don't think there's anybody who hasn't walked through a video store and thought that perhaps they should kill themselves.
|Q: I'm a big advocate of fiddling around with Shakespeare. I think if he intended for his plays to be interpreted or he would have put a lot more stage direction in the them.|
HAWKE: Also, people who get all caught up (thinking) he intended it a certain way are wrong because he never published the plays. The plays were published after he was dead.
ALMEREYDA: And aside from that, he was a popular entertainer. To say that these are plays that should be looked at through a glass case and they can only be done one way (is wrong). The greatest reverence for Shakespeare is (displayed) by being playful, by trying to bring yourself into an active relationship with it.