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Ethan Hawke and Keira Knightley on Their Early Roles and Handling Criticism

Ethan Hawke and Keira Knightley both achieved fame at a young age; he for “Dead Poet’s Society” and she for “Bend It Like Beckham.” The pair have since moved on to successful careers as adults, and they reflect on their early roles — and how they handle criticism.

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Knightley: What was the first role that made you feel like you were an actor?

Hawke: That question is tinged with a little sadness, because I was 18, in “Dead Poets Society” (with) Robin Williams. He wrote on a chalkboard: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.” And there’s a scene where he was supposed to drag a poem out of my character. We did this scene, and slowly Robin is just spinning me around and talking, and suddenly this poem was supposed to come out. And there was just kind of a weird high that I had when the day was over, which I think I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing.

Knightley: The first (time) I really played a character was when I was 12. It was on a TV show called “Coming Home,” with Peter O’Toole. I was doing a scene with him at a dinner table, and just watching him (like), “Wow, that’s how you do it.” Every day, we would go on, and he would forget who I was. By the end of the day, he would say, “Nice one, beauty.”

Hawke: Peter O’Toole died last year, and he died while I was doing “Macbeth.” He had done, famously, this terrible production of “Macbeth” that people didn’t like. And — it’s hard to imagine — but some people didn’t like my production, either. To make myself feel better, I went and read some of Peter O’Toole’s reviews for his “Macbeth.”

Knightley: We’re they really bad?

Hawke: Oh they were so bad! I felt better just reading them. But as I read them, they started making fun of how drunk he seemed. It seemed like he was actually walking into the wall. And then, I said, “Wait, wait, are they talking about, you know, Act 5, Scene 1? That’s a great idea!”

Knightley: You always believe bad ones. It’s absolutely guaranteed that even if you get all of them good, and if you get one bad one, then it’s —
Hawke: They’re the ones who saw the truth.

Knightley: I try not to read any of them. I can always guarantee that it will be completely random (that I’ll run into one of them). I’ll be at the hairdresser, and there will be a paper from like three months ago, and I’ll be flipping through it, and it will be the worst review of anything.

Hawke: My grandmother thought it was so awesome that I was an actor that she’d send me any clipping. So I’d be in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and it would be “The Worst Actor Ever Shames Fort Worth!” And my grandmother would be like, “Isn’t it amazing?”

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