Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano in Black and White photographs
Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano in Black and White photographs

The Surprises and Challenges of Broadway’s Starry True West

Ethan Hawke is starring on Broadway in True West — and no one is more surprised about it than Ethan Hawke. “I never thought I’d do this play,” says the Oscar and Tony-nominated actor.

It’s not that he didn’t love True West, one of writer-actor Sam Shepard’s best-known works. As a young actor, Hawke pored over a video recording of the famous 1982 Steppenwolf Theatre production that starred John Malkovich and Gary Sinise — “I probably saw that movie 30 times” — and he later saw Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in the 2000 Broadway staging.

Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano in True West. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano in True West. Photo by Joan Marcus.

“I’ve long been a fan, but when I saw Phil and John C. do it, I kind of thought that that would be it,” Hawke admits. “I would never touch it again.” It was Shepard himself who changed his mind. “Strangely, Sam mentioned the idea of me doing the play about a week before he died in 2017,” the actor remembers. “So, in a way, I felt called to do it.”

He’ll answer the call later this month, when the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival begins performances at the American Airlines Theatre December 27. Hawke will play Lee, the older brother in Shepard’s sibling-rivalry tale, directed by the acclaimed British director James Macdonald (The Children, Top Girls).

For the role of Austin, the younger of the estranged brothers who reunite, explosively, in their mother’s house, Hawke felt there was only one choice: Paul Dano. “We started trying to think who would be an exciting actor who’s the generation below me, and Paul was the first person we thought of,” he says.

Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke in True West. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke in True West. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Both actors are indie-film regulars, and the two have been friends ever since Hawke directed Dano in Things We Want, the 2007 Off-Broadway play in which Dano first met the actress who became his longtime partner, Zoe Kazan. Dano once even played a younger version of a character portrayed by Hawke in the 2004 thriller Taking Lives. But the pals have never acted together.

“I was really excited to get a call from Ethan about this,” Dano recalls. “But I was equally — not hesitant, but cautious. It’s a great play with a rich history. I wanted to give it the respect it deserves, and make sure that I had something to give to it.”

After reading it “many, many times,” he was in. “Because Ethan and I are friends, it’ll be interesting and fun and also probably challenging to act together,” Dano says. “It’s actually sometimes scarier to work with someone who you know so well.”

The two actors come to True West with two very different experiences of Shepard. For Hawke, the artist is an icon. “I’ve been immersed in Sam Shepard’s work since I was 13,” he says. “My artistic education was Sam. I feel deeply connected to this material in a way that I don’t anything else in the world.”

In 1995, he appeared in a Chicago production of Shepard’s play Buried Child (directed by Sinise); in 2001, he starred Off-Broadway in the playwright’s The Late Henry Moss, and he directed Shepard’s play A Lie of the Mind Off-Broadway in 2010.

Dano, on the other hand, was much less familiar with Shepard’s plays, and has never seen True West — a contrast that could prove beneficial in the rehearsal room. “Ethan and I have a fun balance there,” he notes. “He’s an academic of Shepard, whereas I don’t have the weight of having seen it before.”

Both are excited to dive into the script, which feels particularly timely to Hawke. “Sam got at the kind of fracturedness of the American male in a way that I don’t think anyone else ever has,” he says. “I think True West gets at that war inside the average American male in its purest form. It’s simple, but it’s at the root of so much in this country. And it’s extremely relevant right now.”

Hawke (The Coast of Utopia, Henry IV) and Dano (A Free Man of Color) have appeared on Broadway before, but they’re both returning to the stage now after a particularly busy time of screen work. Hawke saw the release of three films this year alone (First Reformed, Blaze, Juliet, Naked), while Dano is coming off the limited series Escape at Dannemora (now airing on Showtime) and he recently directed Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal in Wild Life, a film he cowrote with Kazan.

They can’t wait to get back to theater. “It’s such a different sport, really,” Dano says. “Working with another actor in that capacity, with that intimacy. I am so excited to be hung out on stage for a couple hours with no escape hatch.”

For Hawke, theater is of prime importance. “The artistry that’s required to succeed on stage is just so much more challenging,” he says. “When you can succeed there, it gives you a lot of confidence going into the rest of your life. It’s kind of the purest form of what I do. It’s the center of the wheel for me.”

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