Ethan Hawke chats new novel, optimism about country's future: 'It does feel like the sun is rising'

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A quick look at the summary of Ethan Hawke's book might make you think it was his memoir: "Love, fame and heartbreak – a searing story of a man making his Broadway debut as his marriage implodes."

But it's not. It's the movie star's fourth novel, "A Bright Ray of Darkness" (Knopf, 256 pp.), out Tuesday, imbued with elements of his real life. An elementary school detective could scroll through his Wikipedia page and discover he was married to Uma Thurman from 1998 to 2005 and that he made his Broadway debut in "The Seagull" in 1992.

"I thought if I could use my experiences and weave them together to create a fictional version of reality, I could tell a story that might have a larger point in my own life," Hawke ("The Good Lord Bird") tells USA TODAY over the phone.

The book – which Hawke had the idea for 20 years ago – chronicles William's preparation for and ultimate performance as Hotspur in Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part 1 and 2" while dealing with the fallout of cheating on his rock star musician wife, Mary. The first-person approach makes it read like a memoir, and like a book only an actor could write (especially an actor who's played the role of Hotspur himself).

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“A Bright Ray of Darkness,” by Ethan Hawke.
“A Bright Ray of Darkness,” by Ethan Hawke.

"There's an intimacy you have with a play when you've lived inside that imaginative world," Hawke says. "There's just little things you know about it that you don't know about a play you haven't done."

It helped, too, that the play's themes tied to what he was trying to write about: fathers, sons, forgiveness, healing and the difference between a good guy and a bad guy.

"It just seemed like the perfect play to hold this novel," he says.

Hawke wrote in his experience as a film actor turning to theater; he landed in "The Seagull" amid the buzz of "Dead Poets Society."

"I was really insecure about my right to be there," he says, and mentions that Laura Linney was in it and had just graduated from Juilliard. She was more facile and equipped for that experience, he says.

Ethan Hawke of "The Good Lord Bird" speaks during the Showtime segment of the 2020 Winter TCA Press Tour.
Ethan Hawke of "The Good Lord Bird" speaks during the Showtime segment of the 2020 Winter TCA Press Tour.

William endures a negative review for his role in the novel, something Hawke experienced firsthand for "The Seagull."

"It's a hurtful experience when you do what you love and people mock you for it," he says with a laugh. "It's a process one has to grow through. In truth, it actually makes you much stronger. But it doesn't mean it's not painful."

Not getting to do what you love at all proves difficult, too. Hawke has "spent my whole life from 13 on acting pretty much constantly. So for me to stop that river, for that river to dry up, has been really painful in a lot of ways."

But that hasn't stopped him from acting. He's been working on a Zoom production of Samuel Beckett's iconic postmodern play "Waiting for Godot" for The New Group. And yes, you read that right: not a reading, but a production.

He rehearses a few hours per day with co-stars John Leguizamo ("When They See Us"), rapper Tariq Trotter (aka Black Thought of "The Roots") and Wallace Shawn ("Marriage Story").

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Hawke will be playing Vladimir, one of the characters "living in perpetual uncertainty, insecurity, anxiety and loneliness," per The New Group – in case that sounds familiar. "We're rehearsing it as if it's like people Zooming each other in some post-apocalyptic world," Hawke says (streaming date TBD).

He says that audiences will be surprised how interesting the production is in light of the pandemic: "The same way what Beckett was writing about the ravages of WWII, we've had our own ravages we're living through. It speaks to my ear, at least in a new way that makes it really worth revisiting."

In real life, Hawke would love to get a COVID-19 vaccine and finds the current state of the country exciting given the change in leadership.

"The combination of this toxic grifter who was running our country being gone and a vaccine? It does feel like the sun is rising, doesn't it? You feel it all over," he says.

He notes, of course, that we are not done with the pandemic. "The sun is not coming up as fast as we want," he says.

Speaking of the sun – will another film be added to the Before series?

Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight" romance films starring Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Céline have come out every nine years since 1995 – meaning a fourth movie, in theory, would be due in 2022. "I'd love to see Jesse and Céline quarantining," Hawke says. "I don't know, where they'd be, some apartment in Prague, or some strange city they find themselves trapped in."

He does admit that we'll all be pretty sick of pandemic art pretty soon, however, and is looking forward to the day he can stand onstage again.

"The next time I get up on stage, I'll just be so grateful to be in that room with those people," he says. "I never knew that we had so much to be grateful for."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ethan Hawke chats personal new novel, optimism about country's future