Ethan Hawke Reveals 'Secret' to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward's 'Lifelong Love Affair'

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Joanne Woodward
Joanne Woodward

Darlene Hammond/Hulton Archive/Getty Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in 1958

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward's long-lasting romance continues to captivate fans, including Ethan Hawke.

Hawke directed the new six-part HBO Max docuseries The Last Movie Stars, which chronicles the lives of Newman and Woodward through never-before-seen transcripts. Back when he was toying with the idea of a memoir, Newman, who died in 2008 at age 83, interviewed many of his friends — but later destroyed the audio tapes forever.

However, the conversations were transcribed before they went up in flames, and Hawke, 51, was tasked with repackaging those intimate discussions in documentary form.

"One of their daughters called me up a couple weeks before the pandemic started and said she really wanted to make a documentary about her parents. She thought hiring an actor would be a good way to do it," Hawke tells PEOPLE. "From there, my intimacy with them got deeper."

He says that seeing the icon's movies as a young person "formed my idea of what an actor could be." Explains Hawke, Newman "was an example of somebody who'd spent 50 years doing this, who wasn't destroyed by celebrity or by ego. He's an inspiring figure."

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Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman on Their Wedding Day
Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman on Their Wedding Day

Getty Images Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman on their wedding day in 1958

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Newman and Woodward, now 92, met through working on Broadway's Picnic in 1953. They became costars again for the 1957 film The Long, Hot Summer, and a year later Newman had divorced first wife Jackie Witte and married Woodward.

Settling not in Hollywood but in Westport, Connecticut, the Oscar winners had three daughters — Elinor, Melissa and Claire — and Newman also had three children with Witte: Scott, Susan and Stephanie. Newman and Woodward remained married for 50 years before his death from cancer.

What made their romance endure? Now somewhat of a historian on their lives, Hawke guesses it was their sense of humor and a mutual respect.

"I think we're all inspired and hypnotized by a lifelong love affair, and how you make love stay, make it last. How do you make it mutually nourishing over a lifetime? If any of us knew what that secret ingredient was, we would have an easier time cultivating it in our own lives," he says. "But they had a tremendous amount of respect for each other."

The Black Phone actor continues, "Joanne has a line that I love, where she says, 'I have my ego and he has his ego; then there's this third element called our ego,' the ego of their relationship. If we can each put that first, then we make it, and they seem to do that."

Looking back, Hawke says the "last years of their time together was probably the happiest" for the couple: "It lives like a North Star in my brain that that could be true. We're told so much, over and over again how the 'best years of my life are when I was 22.' It's nice to see people in their 70s having the best years of their life."

Hawke adds that he wasn't aware beforehand just how funny the two were.

"If I had to guess what the secret of their happiness was, it was a sense of humor — and they seemed to apply it to just about everything. They had a natural humility that brought a lot of laughter into their life," he tells PEOPLE. "I don't know what we can attribute that to, but they were really funny. I watched all these hours and hours of interviews and they always had their wit about them. They didn't take themselves too seriously."

To bring the transcripts to life for The Last Movie Stars, Hawke enlisted some of his famous friends to read them. To play Newman and Woodward, he scored George Clooney and Laura Linney. The cast also includes Sam Rockwell, Billy Crudup, Bobby Cannavale and Zoe Kazan.

Ethan Hawke
Ethan Hawke

Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Shutterstock Ethan Hawke

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And he says Clooney, 61, had a built-in understanding of what Newman's life was like.

"It's very difficult, in this age, for people to really understand how famous Paul Newman was," says Hawke. "And George, I thought, would understand intimately what the challenge is of maintaining that level of excellence, what it's like to be a public person, what it's like to be celebrated and what it's like to get hate mail."

"There's very few people that could understand what Paul Newman went through, and I think George Clooney is one of them," he continues. "He's a director as well, he's outspoken politically, he's a fan of the man. I just felt like there would be a lot of things he could relate to about it, and he obviously did. He cares a lot about Paul Newman. And I think Paul was kind of a hero to him. He took it really seriously. It was a privilege for all of us even to have a chance to read some of these things that were private of Paul's, his private thoughts, and to try to articulate them."

If Newman were to see these transcripts reaching the light of day today, Hawke hopes he would appreciate the final product he painstakingly compiled. But he'd probably just be "totally bored" by it, as Hawke imagines.

"At the end of his life he was really bored with the celebration of the individual. He was really seeing us all as more of a collective, and I think he would be happy," says the Moon Knight actor. "I tried to make the documentary in a way that I thought I could imagine him at a premiere and feeling proud that we didn't just treat it like a red-carpet, hero-worship thing, but really make it a portrait of two artists who did their best, and how hard it is to be the best. Everybody fails, and it's how you handle your failures that's interesting. If you don't talk about the failures, if you don't talk about the shadows, there's no light."

"So I hope that they would like it," Hawke adds. "But I have a feeling he would want to watch a lot of things before he would want to watch a movie about himself."

The Last Movie Stars debuts Thursday on HBO Max.