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'True West' stars Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano on Sam Shepard's 'profound sensibility'


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Judy Woodruff: Next: the revival of a modern classic of American theater, Sam Shepard's "True West." The play has been a magnet for great actors since it was written in 1980.

At the famed Sardi's Restaurant, Jeffrey Brown recently spoke to the latest duo to take it on.

It is part of our regular series covering arts and culture, Canvas.

Paul Dano: I want something of value. You got anything of value, Lee?

Jeffrey Brown: "True West" is a tale of sibling rivalry spiraling to the breaking point.

Ethan Hawke: I am about to kick your ass out of here in one minute.

Paul Dano: : Oh, now you're going to kick me out? Oh, oh, now I'm the intruder.

Jeffrey Brown: Going at it nightly in a new Broadway production by the Roundabout Theatre, 48-year-old Ethan Hawke as Lee, menacing, a petty criminal and drifter, and Paul Dano, 34, as Austin, a buttoned-up, straight-arrow, Hollywood screenwriter, two brothers locked in a psychological and eventually physical battle of wills while house-sitting their mother's Southern California home.

Hawke was first approached about the revival several years ago.

Ethan Hawke: I was planning to say, I'm the wrong guy. And between the phone calls to plan the meeting and the meeting, Sam passed. So the meeting took on a whole different tone.

Jeffrey Brown: Sam is Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor who died in 2017, and was known for his portrayals of rootless characters making their way at the fringes of the American dream.

"True West," which premiered in 1980, is considered one of his masterworks, and has seen notable stagings, including on Broadway in 2000 with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, and an earlier production at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, one that was filmed and shown on PBS, where a 14-year-old Ethan Hawke first saw it.

Ethan Hawke: And I had seen or heard nothing like this play, and it was half-rock concert, half -- I didn't know whether it was Malkovich I love, you know, Steppenwolf, or Sam Shepard, or was it the Hank Williams song in the beginning? What was it that was so good?

Jeffrey Brown: But it did something to you?

Ethan Hawke: It did something. And then I went to library and I got seven plays, you know, and I just started chasing all this stuff.

Paul Dano: The more times I have read the play, including throughout our entire process, the more there was to be mined. And that's the most exciting thing.

Ethan Hawke: Sam Shepard is unbelievably funny, and he's a deeply spiritual man. And he's got a profound sensibility about America, and it's not knee-jerk macho. It's many, many things.

He said it was the most authentic Western he'd come across in a decade.

Paul Dano: He liked that story, your story?

Ethan Hawke: Yes, what is so surprising about that?

Paul Dano: It's stupid.

Jeffrey Brown: As the play develops, the brothers' roles shift.

Ethan Hawke: Hey, that's my story we're talking about.

Paul Dano: It's idiotic. Two lamebrains chasing each other across Texas, are you kidding?

Jeffrey Brown: With older brother Lee encroaching into his brother's turf, writing, with unexpected and unwelcome success.

Paul Dano: Who do you think is going to see a film like that?

Ethan Hawke: All right, first off, it's not a film, all right? It's a movie. That's something Saul told me.

Paul Dano: Oh, he did, huh?

Ethan Hawke: Yes.

Sam was trying to write about a self. It's not that Austin and Lee are the same self, but each self is hurt and fractured, and we get these double natures, you know, these aspects that are spinning around and creating these cyclical, you know, cyclone that these guys are caught in.

Paul Dano: And parts of ourselves that we reject or that we're afraid of, or...

Ethan Hawke: Running from.

Paul Dano: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: By the second act, much alcohol has been consumed, and mayhem ensues. The actors, working with director James MacDonald, had to decide how to play it.

Paul Dano: That's not a scene that when, I read the play, that I can fully comprehend or dream, until we're throwing ourselves around and getting lost in. So that -- the way that stuff developed was really -- was fun, was challenging. And, God, we're so drunk by that point in the play.

Ethan Hawke: Yes, I know.

Each scene, we get a little drunker and a little drunker. And you start to feel drunker and drunker. It's a hypnosis. If Nina Simone, what makes her great is, she hypnotizes herself. And our job there is to hypnotize ourselves, and just be inside this play.

Paul Dano: And that's why we rehearse a lot, so you can get a little lost and still...


Paul Dano: ... hurt each other.


Ethan Hawke: Theater is thousands of years old, and there's something exciting about being a part of an ancient form.

Jeffrey Brown: Indeed, Hawke and Dano both started acting very young, and have sought a variety of different kinds of artistic experience.

Hawke has appeared in more than 70 films of all kinds, including a widely acclaimed performance in last year's "First Reformed." He directs films and plays, and has written three novels.

Dano, who first appeared on Broadway at age 12 and is known for films such as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Love & Mercy," made his directorial debut last year with the film "Wildlife," an adaptation of the novel by Richard Ford.

Paul Dano: Making a film is something I have wanted to do for a long time. And I was -- I'm so happy I got to go do it, you know?

And your brain just starts to dream that way. It is about learning. And that still is probably one of the parts that gets me off the most, is trying to figure out how to do it.

Ethan Hawke: The great challenge in an actor's life is, we're all only as good as our opportunity. When you see something, a piece of art at a very high level, it's a little bit like a North Star or something, where you go like, oh, right, I want to be a part of that, and I want to do that, and I know I'm not doing that at a high enough level yet.

And so you just go back to work.

Jeffrey Brown: "True West" runs through march 17 at the American Airlines Theatre.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Broadway.

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