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The Ethan Hawke Actors Studio

At one point, Hawke recalled how, when he worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2006, he’d stare at Hoffman and wonder, Why you? They’d known each other back when they were in their twenties, and Hoffman was a script-reader at auditions and Hawke was a movie star. Now Hoffman is arguably his generation’s greatest actor. And Hawke wanted to know: Why?

“It’s been harder for Phil than it was for me. That’s what’s made him so great,” Hawke says. “Playing smaller parts. Doing two scenes in a movie. And all those years that Phil’s doing that, I’m off doing White Fang and I’m getting paid and girls are asking me to sign their pictures. And I’m taking it for granted that I’m allotted this slot. Working with Phil, I realized I needed to work harder.”

Not long after, when Hawke was contemplating joining the Bridge Project, he asked Richard Easton, the great stage actor with whom Hawke had worked in Henry IV and The Coast of Utopia, for advice: “Do you really think I should play two supporting parts for a nine-month commitment for no money?”

Easton answered, “If you want advice on being a star, call somebody else. If you want advice on how to have a substantial life in the arts, and then you’re going to tell me that you’re somehow above working on Shakespeare and Chekhov for nine months of your life—that your star is so bright you can’t be in ensemble pieces anymore—then I don’t want to talk to you.”

“I got what he meant,” Hawke says.

It should be said that this is not the simple story of a young pilgrim who, when tempted by the tawdry lure of celebrity, nobly turned his back on Hollywood. For starters, Hawke is a celebrity, and you can go see him in a vampire movie right now. (And, you know, as far as vampire movies go, it’s pretty good.)

Rather, it’s the story of a question: “What does it feel like to survive a lifetime in the arts with your integrity intact?” This isn’t a question I ask Hawke. It’s a question he asked Kristofferson. The answer was simple and appropriately koanlike: “What is even more difficult than failure,” Kristofferson told him, “is when you are perceived as a ‘success’ and you are failing.”

“When you work in a Hollywood movie, they have all these things they want from a Hollywood actor, and I’ve never been terribly interested in that,” Hawke says. “But it’s misleading to say I wasn’t interested in the success of it. I have a pervading noise in my head that if I’m not at least minorly successful in the movies, the whole thing will all go away. Do I get to direct this play because people have heard of me? Do I get a book published because people have heard of me? There’s a lot of great actors in America, and I got to be in Tom Stoppard’s play at Lincoln Center. The movies helped me get that part. No one’s denying that. If that goes away, does the whole thing get shut down?”

So he makes his movies, which allow him to be here, on the fourth floor of a midtown office tower, in a room that looks like an abandoned squat. A few mismatched plastic chairs surround a thrift-store coffee table, and a naked mattress on a cot serves as a couch. In an adjacent room, his musicians, Shelby and Latham Gaines, are bent over their homemade slide guitar. Whaley is waiting, with a rifle slung over his shoulder and an American flag folded in his arms. This is the home stretch of rehearsals for A Lie of the Mind. “You’re about to witness an exciting moment,” Hawke whispers conspiratorially. “I’m going to fire Frank.”

He’s kidding.

Whaley starts into a monologue. The two musicians pound out a percussive rhythm on the strings of the guitar. Hawke stands by, bobbing lightly. As he watches he pulls the gray tweed page-boy cap from his head and kneads it in his fists, worrying it like a rosary. When Whaley finishes, and the musicians stop, Hawke says, “Yes. Yes! I think that was badass.”

Later, over dinner, Whaley says to Hamilton and Hawke, “To sit in that room, it feels like the same rehearsal room we were in way back then.”

“But the best of what we were going for then, we’re still after,” says Hawke.

“We can think about things rationally, without the egos involved,” Whaley says.

“Now that we have families, it’s a little less complicated,” says Hamilton.

“It’s the kind of work we always dreamed of doing together,” says Hawke