Aug. 9-29, 2002
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Actor Ethan Hawke shares his artistic talents with U.Va.

Ethan Hawke
Photo by Stephanie Gross
Ethan Hawke read from his new book, Ash Wednesday, and answered questions.

By Jane Ford

The crowd was not the star-struck giggling teenagers who visit the many Web shrines dedicated to Ethan Hawke. Ranging from college students to retirees, they gathered at two events at the University on July 29 to learn about the latest artistic projects of the Academy Award-nominated actor, director and writer.

The afternoon screening of Hawke’s directorial debut, “Chelsea Walls,” attracted a sold-out audience of movie devotees interested in the making of the experiential film about the famed New York Chelsea Hotel, where many artists found refuge and inspiration.

In the question-and-answer session following the screening, the unassuming and seemingly at ease Hawke characterized the Chelsea Hotel as a metaphor for the creative life. Some of the residents — Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac and Arthur Miller — are immortalized in bronze plaques on the building. Others never achieved their dreams of renown.

The poetic, esoteric movie, influenced by the filmmakers of the Beat generation and shot in digital format, allowed Hawke to explore a quilt-like assembly of characters and situations in a slice-of-life format that has no story line. “Each scenario is set in a different decade,” said Hawke. “And they have their own color. But all are happening at the same time.”

Richard Herskowitz, director of the Virginia Film Festival, said, “I admire Hawke for taking such a risky approach with his first film.” The festival’s Virginia Film Festival Society sponsored the screening.

Best known for his character portrayals on the other side of the camera, Hawke catapulted to fame and teen heartthrob status with his role in “Dead Poets Society.” His credentials as a serious actor have grown over the years, culminating in an Oscar nomination for “Training Day.”

Hawke is also serious about writing. His visit concluded with an evening reading from his just-released second novel, Ash Wednesday, to a crowd of almost 200 in the McIntire Amphitheater. Sponsored by the University of Virginia Bookstore, the University Programs Council and WMRA Radio, Hawke’s dramatic reading of the book’s first chapter conveyed his ability not only to create a scene alive with visual detail but also to capture the inner feelings of the story’s protagonist.

Following the reading, one fan asked if Hawke used his own life as material for his novels. The protagonist’s fear and feelings of inadequacy came directly from his own feelings as he approached parenthood for the first time, said Hawke.
He added that fear plays a big part in his acting. Even getting up in front of the audience to read filled him with fear, he said. But he feels it is the attempt that has value and his belief in the importance of art.

When asked about the difficulty of juggling careers, Hawke said they were all about storytelling, sharing and communicating.

As the light began to fade from the sky, a line of fans, books in hand, stretched three-quarters of the way around the balustrade at the back of the amphitheater. Some were already reading chapter two as they waited to have their few moments, one-on-one, with Hawke as he signed their book.


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