Ethan Hawke and Liv Ullman at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Photo credit: A. Gallagher Dixon

A packed audience greeted actor Ethan Hawke at the Coolidge Corner Theatre last Friday for the premiere of his new film, Blaze. Hawke produced and directed the biopic that took viewers into the tumultuous life and career of country singer and songwriter Blaze Foley who died at 39 before he managed to become well-known to the public.

Blaze was a haunting yet subdued look at the life of the country musician with immense talent dealing with the dark demons of alcoholism and mental illness. Musician Ben Dickey, who virtually had no acting experience prior, starred as the title character with a limp, heavy-set walk and mumbling Texas accent.  Alia Shawkat portrayed Blaze’s lover and primary muse Sybil Rosen, a “Beautiful little Jewish girl, kinky hair,” and the real-life Sybil Rosen, an actress herself, portrayed Sybil’s mother. Foley’s moody, rumbling country tunes scored the two and a half hours long film.

Hawke stood on stage to take questions from a long line of audience members after the film ended. Hawke spoke of the creative kinship he felt with Foley even though his music did not gain recognition beyond cult status. “I thought telling a story about Blaze would be a way to tell the artistic experience of life,” Hawke said. “With this movie, I can teach people about his life while at the same time, introducing you to his music.” 

Photo credit: A. Gallagher Dixon

Hawke felt especially strong about shining a biographical light on a lesser known figure and his music this is not commercially recognizable. “We give value to money over and over again,” he said. “And over and over again, we’re taught that giving value solely to money destroys the planet, destroys life. We tell ourselves this over and over again. And yet, we tell ourselves that artists have no value if they don’t have followers.”

While Foley never became the household name that Hawke did, the actor Hawke did identify with Foley’s artistic struggles while going through a seven-year career slump after his big break in Dead Poet’s Society. “You walk away from something like that thinking, ‘You know, I think I’m a genius. Nailed it!’” he said. “Then seven years, go by, and I hadn’t done anything good. I learned a lot from the movies I did that didn’t work. I had the realization that when I”m failing, I’m learning. You just got to put yourself out there.” 

He also emphasized the challenges of the creative life when answering a Boston College film student seeking advice. “You realize that everyone isn’t rooting for you,” Hawke said. “It’s not their job to root for you. They’re rooting for themselves. They’re trying to carve their space. We’re under this mass delusion that we’re in competition with one another. You have to just realize that when things aren’t going your way is when you’re made to be so much stronger and when things are going your way, it’s the time to be careful because you may not be prepared for when the real challenges show up. 

During the Q&A, one audience member touched on the theme of fatherhood in the film. Kris Kristofferson briefly appeared in the movie as Blaze’s abusive father. Foley’s search for a father figure was a running theme throughout the film, but Hawke backed off from trying to paint Foley in any specific manner with his father as the culprit of his adult troubles. “Somewhere in our psychology is a mystery — something that is absolutely unknowable,” he said. “I didn’t want to avoid explaining Blaze, but I didn’t want to fully explain him either.”

One audience member complimented the film’s fluid structure, the way it went back and forth through time, from Blaze’s life to after his death. “One thing I don’t like about biopics is this idea that any of us can know the truth about someone else’s life or that anyone’s life works in a straight line,” he said. “For me, life is so much circular. I’m allergic to the plot! I hate plot! Life doesn’t have a plot!”

Perhaps Blaze’s most powerful component is the reminder that art is profound even if it never materializes into fame. Hawke emphasized this point repeatedly to audience members that Blaze Foley’s life was not just a biopic; it was about the creative life. “If you’re asking yourself, how can I be of service to my art, life gets really interesting,” he said. “If you’re asking yourself, what can art do for me, you’re only making yourself miserable.”

By Alicia Landsberg