TORONTO — Ethan Hawke grew up in a church-going family.
His mother taught Sunday school, his father “is extremely devout,” his stepfather “is even more devout,” and his great-grandmother wanted him to be a priest, says the four-time Oscar-nominated actor and scribe.
“The wonderful thing about my exposure to the religious community was that my mother and father had very different opinions about things and it created not one rigid attitude in my brain,” Hawke said in a recent phone interview.
“As a young person, I couldn’t betray my mother and I couldn’t betray my father, and so I had to have a very supple and limber relationship to faith and became kind of allergic to dogma and zealotry.”
Such subject matter is explored in Hawke’s widely acclaimed new film, “First Reformed,” which hits theatres in Canada on Friday.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader, the dark drama stars Hawke as a minister going through a crisis of faith after his son dies. His beliefs are further tested when he tries to help a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) and her radical environmentalist husband (Philip Ettinger).
The dark story explores issues facing religion and the environment — two things that have helped inform Hawke’s current outlook on life.
“I would consider myself a transcendentalist, if I had to put a label on it,” said Hawke, who lives in New York but spends his summers at a place he has near Guysborough, N.S.
“I really love (Ralph Waldo) Emerson and (Henry David) Thoreau and these people who are rooted in the Christian orientation that is seen through the prism of being a part of nature. That’s been my great love and joy,” Hawke continued.
“It’s one of the things I love about going to Nova Scotia — the land is so much a part of your day and the weather is so much a part of your day.”
Upstate New York is the setting for “First Reformed,” which looks at the influences a capitalist society has on the church, politics and environment.
The story highlights a systemic problem and how “society sometimes makes it harder for us to live up to our best selves,” Hawke said.
“When people have a lot of money, they can really make a lot of noise,” he explained. ”I went to the Standing Rock march, for example, and one of the problems is they don’t have a lot of money.
“If you made a movie about Standing Rock…. Nobody would be crying salty tears for the giant mega gas company that’s drilling underneath their water. But yet we let it happen. We let it happen because it’s easy to let it happen, and it’s hard to do something about it because of the money.”
Hawke said he was drawn to the genuine portrayal of a religious figure in a film world where such characters are often “made fun of or evil.”
He portrayed the role in an acting manner he’s been employing since his 1995 film “Before Sunrise”: by not acting.
“I guess it’s kind of a philosophy about blurring the line between character and performer to such an extent that there is no line, that there is no ‘performance,’ that you’re inhabiting and living in an imaginary space but that while you’re there you’re really doing it,” Hawke said.
“One of the first acting jobs that I ever had was ‘White Fang’ where I had to act with this wolf, and it’s kind of the greatest teacher that I ever had, because the wolf doesn’t act. The wolf just deals with the circumstances that are in front of it, and if you start acting with the wolf, the wolf gets totally freaked out and wonders why you’re so weird.
“So when parts are well written, you can disappear into them.”