Ethan Hawke explores the personal and moral costs of fame and celebrity in his first novel in 20 years, “A Bright Ray of Darkness.” Hawke’s young narrator makes his Broadway debut in “Henry IV” as his personal life goes up in flames. Hawke has performed in more than 80 movies, directed a long list of plays and films, and recently portrayed the abolitionist John Brown in Showtime’s adaption of “The Good Lord Bird,” James McBride’s prize-winning novel. Hawke will talk about his own book virtually at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 20. Tickets are available from Harvard Book Store.
BOOKS: What have you been reading?
HAWKE: I just read Andre Gregory’s “This Is Not My Memoir.” I just loved it and was so happy for someone to be a flagrant intellectual. My business has been so consumed with commercial success. We really need people like Gregory in the theater.
BOOKS: Are memoirs by actors a regular part of your reading?
HAWKE: God no. I read a few biographies when I was a kid. I remember Alec Guinness’s “Blessings in Disguise” and David Dalton’s biography of James Dean, “The Mutant King.” The best memoir by an actor is Errol Flynn’s “My Wicked, Wicked Ways.” He recounts these outrageous tales about fighting in wars in Papua New Guinea and making love to heiresses on boats. My other favorites are Klaus Kinski’s “Uncut,” and David Carradine’s “Endless Highway.”
BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?
HAWKE: I have read only the first 20 pages of a ton of books. I’m the same way with plays and movies. My wife can’t believe it, but I often fall asleep in movies. It’s just that if something is not engaging to me, I instantly turn off. “The Good Lord Bird” was a book that did instantly grab me by the scruff. When I fall in love with a book like that, I feel like I’m making a friend. Then I will spend 18 months or 2 years looking for another friend.
BOOKS: What are some of the books that have been your “friends”?
HAWKE: I’ve spent some of the pandemic rearranging my bookshelves and found my old copy of “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers,” an early Larry McMurtry novel. It’s incredible. I love McMurtry. If you want reading to be fun, read “Lonesome Dove.” Right before the pandemic, I did the audio book of Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums,” which, to my shock, holds up. That book meant so much me at 19, and to read it at 50 was like time traveling back to my teenage brain. I thought I’d roll my eyes at my younger self, but I didn’t.
BOOKS: What books did you read to play John Brown?
HAWKE: In my office I have a shelf full of books I read, some about Frederick Douglass and the Underground Railroad. Tony Horwitz’s “Midnight Rising” is incredible. So is Russell Banks’s novel based on Brown, “Cloudsplitter.” Ultimately my springboard into that character was McBride’s novel.
BOOKS: Do you read plays just to read them?
HAWKE: No because the second I like them, I start thinking of doing them. When the pandemic started we lit a fire and I cast my kids in “Waiting for Godot.” We did a reading, and that was so fun. No sooner did I do that, I then started planning a Zoom production of the play.
BOOKS: What kind of reader were you like growing up?
HAWKE: The kind who read about the Dallas Cowboys and preferred comic books. I loved the graphic novel of “Moby-Dick” but wouldn’t touch the actual book. I even had graphic novels of Shakespeare plays. I didn’t know what a book could do to you until I read “Catcher in the Rye” and then James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
BOOKS: What’s on your to-read pile?
HAWKE: I want to read Wally Shawn’s new book of essays, “Night Thoughts,” because he’s in “Waiting for Godot.” I have Steinbeck’s “The Long Valley.” A friend of mine gave me a novel, “The Motel Life” by Willy Vlautin. I started “Texas By the Tail” by Jim Thompson and have “Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor. I also have Leonard Cohen’s “Book of Mercy,” Mikhail Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time,” a Thomas Merton’s poetry collection “Cables to the Ace” and about 15 copies of “Waiting for Godot.”