The term “Renaissance man" gets thrown around far too much these days, but over his career, Ethan Hawke has really done it all and done it well: actor, screenwriter, director, and novelist. He's been nominated for a slew of accolades including Academy Awards as both a writer and actor. Now, with the publication of Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars, he can add another title to that list: graphic novelist.
For Indeh, Hawke collaborated with acclaimed artist Greg Ruth to tell the story of the bloody Apache Wars, telling the story primarily through two figures, the famed Geronimo, and Naiche, son of the Apache leader Cochise. Each page brims with the result of in-depth research, but this is no staid history lesson. Hawke handles the themes of revenge, war, and cultural upheaval with incredible grace.
Of course, a polymath like Hawke isn't doing just one thing at a time. He also took some time to discuss his upcoming role teaming up with Training Day co-star Denzel Washington in the upcoming remake of The Magnificent Seven.
As a huge comic person, I was really surprised by how moved I was by Indeh.
That means a lot. Greg Ruth is a majorly gifted individual. He is as steeped inside the world of graphic novels and comics and that kind of art as a person really can be. I have just learned so much from him. I feel so proud of his work and just to be working with him.
His approach adds to the mood and makes it very evocative. I thought the choice to have it in black and white was pretty smart.
We went back and forth on that a lot, as you can imagine. Because there were a lot of compelling arguments that people thought when doing the West you're going to want all those oranges and reds and yellows of the sun and everything. But Greg and I both felt that if you attacked it in black and white, you would get the mythos of it better and it would almost have a Japanese art feel to it. Which would make it more expansive and not play into the cliches of white people doing a Native story.
There are so many stereotypes with Native Americans in pop culture whenever we actually get to see them in pop culture. You avoided them.
That's part of the obstacle of why the stories don’t get told. A: The cliches. And B: The white guilt. It's a dangerous line to walk. You don't want to be appropriating culture that isn't yours, and at the same time you want to be able to celebrate a love of history and a love of our country. These stories are part of the fabric on which this country is built. I think so many people even who live in these areas where these things happened don't know what happened there. I kind of felt like it was a weird line to walk between feeling like the story needs to be told and wanting to avoid all the obvious places to fall. And one of the keys to that is actually the subject matter itself. Which is Geronimo. He's a very complicated person. He had a lot of his own demons. You avoid the cliche of the Hallmark card of the Indian crying on the hill. Geronimo went down swinging every step. He killed a lot of people. He was a lot of different things. He could be a great man; he could be a terrible man. When I was pitching this idea to Greg I was telling him what a Shakespearean figure he is.
That's a good point.
I was always so moved by this notion that he says in his own short autobiography — this idea that he thought he had this great blessing in this life when he had a visitation that told him he could never be killed. When he was a young man, he thought it was a blessing, but by the time he was older, he saw it as a curse. Because he outlived not only everybody he loved, he outlived the world he loved. If Shakespeare had that, I don't know what he would've done with it.
Indeh looks beyond the myths we're used to hearing about Native Americans. This comes at a very good time since there are so many conversations about diversity and whose stories are being told. You touch on it in your afterword, happening upon a reservation with your father. But I am curious to hear a bit more about what drew you to this story and why you're so passionate about it.
First of all I appreciate everything you just said because I agree with it all, about how stories are told and whose stories are told. Because I had a lot of exposure to these stories as a young person I assumed they were all well-known. For example, my mother's sister, my aunt, is named Bonwyn. I thought Bonwyn was a really common name. Then you grow up and you don’t meet another Bonwyn. So, you always kind of think "Well there's a Bonwyn in my family, everyone must have a Bonwyn in their family. It's not a weird name." Not to be as simplistic, but in the same way I kind of thought everyone knew about Victoria, Lozen, Cochise, Naiche, and Geronimo. I just read all these books about them as a kid for fun. The older I got the more I realized that people really didn’t know these stories.
I remember they made a movie called Geronimo. It was with a really good director, Walter Hill, who I admire. It starred Matt Damon, Jason Patric, Gene Hackman, and Robert Duvall. Can you imagine if they made a movie called Malcolm X and it starred Matt Damon, Jason Patric, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman…
That would be a problem.
That would be a huge motherfucking problem. With the Native American community, you can do it. It bothered me so much. In a perfect world, we'd do a graphic novel addressing a lot of the different tribes. When there is a huge amount of white guilt in the room when you try to tell these stories, people don’t even want to hear it. You tell them, you know who Geronimo is? They say, yeah. Well, what do you know about him? Not much. Well, do you want to know? Uhhh, is it going to be really sad? That's kind of the reaction you hear.
Acting is a very strange profession, you get exposed to a lot of unique things. I was 18, 19 years old making White Fang. There was this wonderful actor named Pius Savage who played this character Grey Beaver. He invited me to the reservation and I got to hang out there. I started reading Sherman Alexie books. I had both the historical point of view on Native American history as much as any white person. I don't know it first-person; I know it as a reader. Then I got to have these wonderful experiences working with a lot of Native American actors on the westerns I've made, and it's been really interesting. More and more felt this story was just a great story and a real part of American history that a lot of people don’t know. It’s so interesting, there’s so much not in this graphic novel that’s ripe for telling as well.
I'm curious, because you've written novels before, but why did you tell this story as a graphic novel? What about the form attracted you?
I really wanted to make it a movie. I wrote the script with this guy named Charles Gaines. I researched the hell out of it. I was really excited about the opportunity of getting to tell that story. Of course when I was finished with the script, it had all Native American leads and it was extremely expensive. I just couldn't get the movie made anywhere. It was depressing.
Something that bothered me a lot when I was thinking about making it a movie was Geronimo has a scene where he talks to a goshawk. Well, in a movie, is it a male voice or a female voice? Does the hawk speak English? Does the hawk speak Apache? Is it an old voice? Is it a young voice? There are these weird things where you could blow it.
I started thinking of it as a graphic novel, and I thought, "Oh, wow, we’re just inside the head of the character, and all those questions are gone." I started thinking about the problems with how expensive the movie was with time and aging actors and huge set piece scenes of horses and battles. The graphic novel could do it a lot better. It could also enhance the poetry.
One of the things you learn working on a graphic novel is how time consuming it is. When you’re working with someone like Greg, he can do two, three panels a week tops. If you want the art to be of a certain quality, it becomes very very time consuming. So then the pressure becomes, "How much can I simplify my story and still keep the meaning?" It was like turning the script into a poem.
That's a beautiful way of putting it.
We have been working on it six years I think. When this thing arrived in my hand, I just got it a week ago, I held it in my hand. I just couldn’t believe it.
It's definitely one of the stranger projects. When I would tell my friends I was working on a graphic novel, they were like, "Ethan has really done it now."
But you work on a lot. You've written novels, done theater, obviously you're known first as a film actor. I'm actually wondering where you get all this energy from. You do a lot of work in a lot of different mediums.
That's the key thing, you don’t want to do a graphic novel and be a dilettante about it. You have to put in the time. Choosing your collaborators is huge. Greg is a perfectionist. He's an artist of the highest order. He demanded a high level.
We drove through New Mexico and Arizona. We put a lot of ourselves into this, trying to do it right. I think a lot of it has to do with because I started acting so young I've always had to take breaks from it. If you lose your curiosity in the arts, you start to atrophy. If you start to become a professional, something about it dies. The best creativity is just born of joy and gratitude anybody has trying to express themselves.
What drew you to the upcoming remake of The Magnificent Seven? Especially since you seem to be really into westerns?
I do love westerns. I went to the premier for The Equalizer to show and support Denzel and Antoine Fuqua, who I'd done Training Day with, and they told me they were remaking The Magnificent Seven. While I was immediately nervous that it would be a really difficult movie to remake, if they were gonna do it, I definitely wanted to be involved. I didn’t want it done without me. I just asked to be involved. I can happily report that I am one of a handful of people who have seen the first cut of the movie, and I couldn’t be happier. If you love Seven Samurai and [original] The Magnificent Seven, you will love this movie. It’s not a straight-up remake of the original western or a straight-up remake of The Seven Samurai — it has Antoine's vision stamped all over it.
It's so wonderful to see Denzel taking over John Wayne's America. It's so fun. When you start thinking about instead of having James Coburn as a knife-thrower, why shouldn't it be one of the great Korean actors of the modern time? Antoine's idea is that we’re a bunch of badass ragamuffins from all over the universe. We have this great Native American character. We have this wonderful Korean actor, Latin actor, crazy Italian Vincent D'Onfrio. You have me playing a former rebel soldier. You have Denzel as an African-American from the North. You have Chris Pratt representing white America [laughs].
I’m very excited.
I don't remember ever feeling this way about a movie I’ve been in. But the second it's over, you kind of want it to start again. That’s how I'm feeling anyway.