Venice: Ethan Hawke Says There’s a ‘Lot of Myself’ in ‘First Reformed’

In Venice to present “First Reformed,” leading actor Ethan Hawke and director Paul Schrader said Thursday that the movie marked a kind of coming of age for both of them and reflected on their own religious upbringings.

Schrader said he had always been fascinated by the themes of religion, spirituality and  transcendence discussed by authors such as Robert Bresson but “was too excited by the depiction of violence and sexuality” in his earlier films to work with these authors. The turning point, he said, was a conversation with director Paweł Pawlikowski, whose “Ida” won the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 2015. “I told myself, it’s about time for you to write one of these movies,” Schrader said.

Hawke, whose performance as a grief-stricken ex-military chaplain from upstate New York has been applauded by critics at Venice, said at the film’s press conference that he had never been asked to play a priest before. But religion “was a very important dialogue in my head,” he said, having been “surrounded by it my whole life.”

“When I was born, my great-great-grandmother had a clear sense that I was going to be a priest and told everyone that I should be paying attention to the calling if it ever came. So I used to pray that the calling wouldn’t come. And thank God it didn’t,” Hawke recalled.

As for his role in “First Reformed,” Hawke said that “it wasn’t hard for me to get into this character….because I can put a lot of myself into it.”

Speaking of his upbringing, Hawke said his “family had a very strong mistrust of celebrity and fame and its ability to blind people’s nature of reality.”

In acting, said Hawke, “there is reenactment involved, and that’s something I love about acting. It has a shamanistic quality.”

Hawke also spoke of the timeliness of “First Reformed.” “I’ve been wondering to myself where do these religious communities stand with their moral leadership with regards to the environmental crisis we’re all facing, and why they’re so quiet about it,” said the actor.

Schrader talked about the darker aspects of Christianity.

“We as Protestants, we suffer from the same pathology as Catholics,” said Schrader, prompting chuckles in the room. “If you’re raised in the church, whether you’re Protestant or Catholic, you’re raised with the idea that through blood you can become clean. Well, that’s a dangerous idea when you think about it, but it is part of the program that you receive as a Christian.”

Amanda Seyfried, who starred opposite Hawke as a church member married to a radical environmentalist, said “First Reformed” also marked a milestone for her.

“One of first reactions I had [to the script] is that it scared me and floored me. Of course, I’m always trying to explore myself, but you don’t always ask yourself the hardest questions in fear of what they provoke.

“I feel so lucky to have been able to read a story like this,” Seyfried added. “It’s been living inside of Paul for so long, and I also liked to feel so connected to the feelings of confusion, the struggle and the hope – all of that combined.”

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