Though he only plays a man of the cloth on the big screen, Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke felt a calling to give one of the best performances of his career by immersing himself in the physical dressings of a conflicted priest for Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader’s First Reformed.
“What I love about acting is putting myself outside my comfort zone. That’s what I’m always aspiring to do,” he tells EW of preparing for the religious drama, which sees him playing Reverend Ernst Toller, a minister at a small church in upstate New York whose troubling past informs his dire outlook on the future of his congregation and the world around him after meeting a young, expecting couple (Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger) anxious about birthing a child into a world on the brink of environmental chaos. “Wearing the collar is a very powerful thing. Even the way people talk to you at the lunchroom changes. It’s strange thinking about acting these accouterments of personality…. people talk to you differently if you wear a priest collar, if you wear a doctor’s outfit… as an actor you experience these things.”
One of the most powerful things he experienced while shooting the film, he says, was the project’s resonance amid trying political times.
“I think the reason why First Reformed is finding an audience [is] we’re in a void of spiritual and political leadership, but in particular the relationship to the environment,” he says.
Toller’s descent into emotional instability, Hawke says, provides the film with its thematic core — one that revolves around the priest grappling with his ex-military history and the casualties of war that rerouted his life and his spiritual connection.
“One of the things that’s hard for some people is if you aspire to be a really good person and you fail, the anger and the self-laceration that can come from letting yourself down, it’s intense, and all that desire to be good turns into a darkness,” he says. “It’s mysterious how that stuff works, but that’s the most challenging part of playing that character.”
But the challenge paid off, as the film has received multiple year-end accolades on the awards season circuit. In particular, Hawke has been recognized by the Critics Choice Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards for his performance. But getting there wasn’t easy.
“Toward the end of the movie, he goes down the deep end of the drain, and when you’re forced to press the outer reaches of madness and despair, it’s hard to take your mind there because a lot of ways acting is like a guided meditation,” he says of Toller’s unraveling. “You kind of have to hypnotize yourself. If you hypnotize yourself, there’s this opportunity for the audience to come along with you. But if you don’t hypnotize yourself, they’re not going to come. If it’s a dark trance, it’s difficult to guide yourself away from it. Sometimes it’s easier to fly into a flame, but flying out of the flames is hard.”
First Reformed is available now on Blu-Ray and digital rental services. Watch EW’s interview with Hawke above.