Ethan Hawke examines the lives and legacies of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, one of Hollywood’s greatest couples, in “The Last Movie Stars.”

The six-hour documentary charts their relationship and meteoric rise to the top of the movie business, but it also serves as a meditation on the art of acting. Woodward and Newman were part of a generation of performers, reared in the Method approach, who brought an exciting vitality and realism to their work in movies like “The Three Faces of Eve,” “The Hustler,” “Hud” and “Rachel, Rachel.”

To tell the story, Hawke assembled a collection of his contemporaries such as Laura Linney, Sam Rockwell, Oscar Isaac and George Clooney to read the couple’s journals and interviews on camera, as well as the reflections of people in their orbit such as director Elia Kazan and writers like Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. The first chapter of “The Last Movie Stars” debuts at SXSW on March 14. It will show exclusively on CNN Plus later this year. Hawke spoke to Variety about why he decided to take on the sprawling project and the reason that Newman and Woodward’s story needs to be told now.

Why did you want to make a movie about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward?

I got a call from the youngest of Paul and Joanne’s kids asking me if I would make a documentary about their parents. My first thought was to try to help them find somebody who would be really perfect for the job, and then I ended up deciding to take it on myself. But I was nervous. Their careers are so huge, and their life touches so many aspects of American history over the last fifty or sixty years. I knew it would be very challenging to make a documentary about them, especially when they’ve been covered so much and been in the public eye. It would have been really easy to make a simple, straightforward red carpet, “aren’t they wonderful” documentary, but to really do something in-depth and worthwhile, I knew would be difficult. But I had no idea how difficult it would be. It’s been a long process where I tried to make a feature length documentary before I realized that the story was just too big for two hours.

There’s a wealth of interviews and films to draw on when making the film. Was all that archival material helpful or daunting?

Archival material helps you build a collage, but the problem is it’s unending. On most feature films, you shoot so many hours of footage, and that’s it. There a limited amount of material that you’re editing. This project is an unlimited amount of footage. It’s a piece of string that keeps rolling out. That made it incredibly difficult to find the narrative spine of the story because these people have been interviewed all over the world for 50 years. You can find interview with them at a film festival in Italy in 1959 and you can find interviews with them at the Oscars in the 1970s or 1980s.

The film is about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s lives, but they were at the forefront of a shift in acting style from a more performative approach to a more naturalistic one. Did you see them as a way to tell that larger story?

Absolutely. Their generation changed American acting. What happened in the fifties with the Actors Studio with Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams is a pivot point in the history of performance. It radically changed the way that we tell stories and we’re still reacting to it. The great performers of the last five decades are students of this period. You can’t tell the story of individuals without telling the story of their generation. We are all a part of our community and our community interacts and affects us in ways that are inexorable. To really tell Paul and Joanne’s story you have to look at what was happening in the different decades and what was happening with gender roles or race roles. What’s happening in the culture informs whats happening in the arts.

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Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman in 1958’s “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!” Everett Collection / Everett Col

Actors are lucky to have careers that last a decade or two. Their’s stretched on for over 50 years. How were they able to remain relevant?

A couple of decades is a hall of fame career. You’re lucky to get one good part. Look at two of Joanne’s greatest performances: One is “Three Faces of Eve” and the other is “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.” They have 40 something years between them. And Paul is one of only a handful of American actors to be nominated for an Academy Award in five different decades. They had a relationship with craft and work that was not rooted in a celebrity culture. It was much more rooted in the way that we see more common with British actors, where they have a real love and respect for learning and for the work itself. They also had each other and that’s where the magic comes in. They pushed each other to be the best versions of themselves and not give in to self satisfaction or self pity. They kind of polished away each other’s narcism. If you look at Paul’s peers like Brando, James Dean, Monty Clift, most of their lives ended in some form of tragedy. Instead Paul Newman ended up having the best period of his life at the end of his life when he’s giving away hundreds of millions of dollars and doing some of the best work of his career with “The Verdict,” “The Color of Money,” and “Nobody’s Fool.” His marriage was at its peak happiness. How do you arrive there? Likewise for Joanne, she was running a theater company and living a really exciting and artistic life in her seventies. That’s the miracle of them.

What can we learn from their example?

It’s worth revisiting now in 2022 is that they are two white people who are born with a lot and who do a lot with it. They’re an example that you can be a part of the solution. It is possible to get what you want and have love and be a good citizen and not be selfish and also excel. it is possible to do all that. In that way their lives are relevant today.

It’s also astounding because Joanne Woodward was giving masterful performances in her fifties and sixties. There was so much sexism in the industry at the time that it seems like many other female stars were basically forced to retire after they reached middle age.

I don’t think Joanne was allowed to age on screen. She took the opportunity. She worked hard for that chance. When they got married, Joanne was winning the Oscar [for “Three Faces of Eve”] and Paul was just one of many up and coming young actors. She went through a crisis that is unfortunately not terribly original for the female experience in Hollywood, which is they can’t get enough of you when you’re an ingenue and they don’t know what to do with you when you’re a grown up. She had to go through the middle years of her life finding a way to maintain the love of her craft without giving into cynicism and bitterness. At the same time, her husband was being poked and prodded and put on billboards. He was the biggest star in the world. A lot of people don’t get their dreams, but it’s a little weird to get your dream and then have it taken away from you while your husband gets it in spades. That’s a peculiar torture chamber to be in. It’s ultimately her love of acting itself that carried her. She loved doing it anywhere she could — in little playhouses and Broadway stages, in big movies and little movies. She loved going to acting classes. She loved teaching acting class. She loved actors.

The first chapter of the series makes the point that Paul Newman was married at the time he met Joanne Woodward. They had a five year affair. Did they have a lot of guilt about that?

Being a human is hard. The thing about that generation is Paul Newman came back from the war, got married and had a couple of kids. He wasn’t even close to 30 yet. He didn’t know who he was. We all go through a lot of changes. It’s hard to grow up. It doesn’t come easy. The first chapter, for me, is about them falling in love with each other and falling in love with acting. That’s what happened to them in the ’50s. Unfortunately, that road was hard. To say they had an affair for five years is true, but it was off and on. They would meet each other and then they would get hot and then they would break up and he would try to make his marriage work. Then they would meet again and it would flare up. He clearly met the love of his life, but sadly she wasn’t his wife at the time. She didn’t want to break up a family, but she was in love with this man and they understood each other in a deep and profound way. Time proved that they made the right decision, but it came at a great cost.