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Interview: Ethan Hawke on Building His New Docu-Series About Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

The Last Movie Stars premieres July 21 on HBO Max.

The Last Movie Stars is a new six-part documentary series from CNN Films and HBO Max that chronicles the careers and decades-long relationship of icons Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Working from interview transcripts that were to form the basis of Newman's own unpublished memoir, director Ethan Hawke brings their stories to life in vivid detail, showcasing their devotion to their individual crafts, their philanthropic work, and their 60-year-marriage.

Here, Hawke tells us about the new series, which begins streaming on HBO Max on July 21, and which the director calls "the first time I ever felt something absolutely break my brain."

Ethan Hawke
(© David Gordon)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I sat near Paul and Joanne at a Broadway show once when I was a teenager, a few years before he passed. I asked him for an autograph and he was happy to do it. I think a lot about how this person who was the epitome of a Movie Star, and a legend at that point, was so kind to this kid who was just a fan. The series is a great tribute to that overall feeling.
Well, that's what we set out to do. It felt like the universe was forgetting about them for a minute. We have so few positive role models, people who lived a substantive, meaningful life and had a good time. I just liked knowing that this path had been carved and that it could be done. They had a natural humility about themselves. Paul was always the first one to talk about how lucky he was. He was aware of that deeply, and I think he felt a responsibility to give back.

It's loosely based on his uncompleted memoirs, and transcriptions of interviews with friends, colleagues, family, of the tapes that were subsequently destroyed. Take me through the process of building a series out of it.
He interviewed nannies, assistants, Robert Altman, Kazan, producers on The Color of Money, Karl Malden, who'd been in an acting class with him and helped him on his auditions. They were really varied, to cast as broad a net as possible to write this memoir. I think Paul was trying to provoke his own memories, and also get other people's points of view. I was so disappointed not to have the audio. I was pulling my hair out, going "If I had these audio tapes, I could make a great documentary." And then it seemed so obvious, like, I'm an actor. Let's re-create them. We're making a movie about actors and show people.

George Clooney plays Paul, which seemed an obvious choice to me. He was the first person I thought of and he said yes immediately. There are very few people who have sustained that level of excellence at the absolute apex of my profession, so I thought he might have some insight as to the things Paul was saying, thinking, and feeling.

Laura Linney, who plays Joanne, we were in The Seagull together on Broadway, and I just admire the actor that Laura is, much in the same way that I admire Joanne. And Joanne was Laura's great mentor, so they knew each other. I was just trying to build connections.

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman
(courtesy of CNN/HBO)

What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned about them over the course of this process?
The most interesting thing is that they were actually the people I thought they were. The image that came forward from them was authentic. Obviously, there were things that suprised me. I would've never believed you if you told me that Paul was as insecure in his younger years as he was. And I think it's really surprising how hard it was to navigate this industry from the female point of you, looking at it through Joanne's eyes. That was enlightening for me.

What I also find interesting was that during their generation, when they were starting, America was full of famous acting teachers. Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner. That doesn't exist anymore, that celebration of the profession. There aren't famous acting teachers right now. There are teachers who make a big difference, but as a culture, we don't honor the profession as much as we treat it like a cult of celebrity. But I've certainly dedicated my life to the same thing that they dedicated their life to. So in that way, we belong to the same monastery, so to speak.

What was it like for you to put this whole thing together, and now go back and watch it and talk about it?
It might have been the first time I ever felt something absolutely break my brain. It was so big in scope that it would have been easier just to make a documentary about the 1950s or the Actors Studio. But yet, their life is so magnificent. It's their life seen in its full context, which is so remarkable and revelatory. We could take certain artists and say that one of their works was so breathtaking and defined the others. That's not really true for Paul and Joanne. What's breathtaking is the sustained excellence.

What's your favorite Newman's Own salad dressing?
Original Italian is the one I like!

Paul Newman, circa 2005
(© David Gordon)

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