Skip to main content

Interviews with Ethan Hawke and Seymour Bernstein about the IFC film Seymour: An Introduction

How did you first meet Seymour?
I met Seymour at a dinner party. We were seated next to one another and I began confiding in him immediately. There is something magical about him that invites honesty.

When you first met Seymour, did you immediately think, "I should make a movie about this man?"
It wasn't really my idea. He invited me and a few friends over to his apartment and he played for us. I was transported. His friends seemed to have the same reaction. We knew he wasn't giving any more public concerts - so a documentary leapt to someone’s mind, who started pressing me to do it. I thought I would find someone else to do it, but then slowly realized I wanted to.

Had you ever considered making a documentary portrait of anybody before?
I'd written a profile on Kris Kristofferson once for Rolling Stone and enjoyed that – it felt a little bit like making a doc. I enjoy the process of meditating on the lives of artists that I admire.

How did Seymour react when you approached him with the idea?
We just talked about it once. He's a teacher- he's always excited to teach.

You've made several fiction films previously, and you've been an actor for decades. Was it a much different experience directing a documentary?
It was more different than I could have ever imagined. I felt really lost with it. My respect for the form has exploded; it’s much more like writing, easy to get lost.

What's your musical experience - do you play any instruments?
I am a simple fan. I love music like some people love church.

Do you have to be a musician to benefit from Seymour's lessons?
My hope is no. My hope is that by watching anyone excel in life there are profound lessons to be gained. Playing the piano, throwing the football, building an engine… if you do anything well the secret to the universe seems momentarily unveiled… My hope is that what Seymour has to say about the piano- could be relevant to being a good parent, friend, co-worker, anything…. and if you are interested in the arts – I have no doubt that what he has to say to speak to you.


How old were you when you first started playing piano?
When I was three years old, my parents took me to visit Aunt Ethel. There I had my first encounter with a piano. Sounding tones on that old upright brought me into another world, a world where I somehow knew I belonged. When I was six, I begged my mother for lessons. Someone gave us an old player upright piano, and it was not only that my lessons began; as it seemed to me, my life also began at that moment.

What was performing publicly like for you when you were younger. What can you tell us about when and why you decided to stop?
I performed a lot in school. But I didn't perform publicly until I was in my teens. My career advanced quite rapidly and very successfully. Soon I became very disillusioned with the managerial world and with the commercial aspects of performing. I also longed to have more time to compose and to write. With practicing 6-8 hours a day and teaching, I had very little time for creative work. So at the age of 50, I decided to call my performing career to a halt. I arranged a farewell concert at the 92nd Street Y. My final piece on my program was a major composition I wrote entitled AMERICAN PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION. Of course I continued to give lectures and master classes and performed a great deal during them. I have been exceedingly happy ever since.

What in your career do you take the most pride in?
I take pride in my ability to interpret music. I have a sense of intuiting what the composers had in mind in expressing human emotion. I also take pride in my ability to impart my knowledge to my pupils. My greatest pleasure is to help my pupils feel good about themselves.

Do you remember the first time you met Ethan, and what your impressions were of him?
I first met Ethan at a dinner party hosted by my pupil Tony Zito. The conversation that ensued at the dinner table could best be described as revelatory and explosive. Being performers, we shared to pros and cons of our profession. I was struck by Ethan's openness with me, even in discussing performance anxiety, which plagues all performers. I immediately felt a deep kinship with him. Of course I never dreamt that this would lead to Ethan directing a documentary about me. But in a sense, it is also a documentary about Ethan, since we have probed the deepest areas of why we have devoted ourselves to our art, and how that devotion has influenced our lives.

What did you think when Ethan approached you about the movie?
I was dumbstruck when Ethan approached me about making a documentary. I wondered why I was so special to receive such an honor. He explained to me very succinctly that his intention was to demonstrate to the public, and especially to young people how a devotion to an art form can influence our lives. He then asked if I would agree to give a recital for his theater group. I was 84 at the time and hadn't given a public recital in 34 years. Something in Ethan's manner, his interest in me, and his desire to share something with his colleagues made me say yes. I practiced for that recital exactly as I did for my New York debut. Saying “yes” was one of the best decisions I have made in my life.

What was it like having cameras tailing you?
The first session was somewhat unsettling, as this was the first time I was part of a serious film. But after around the 3rd shoot, I enjoyed every aspect of it, especially my rapport with Ryan, Heather, Greg, and Ramsey. We enjoyed a combination of seriousness and humor. Of course I was extremely nervous in anticipation of my recital. But I became deathly calm once I entered the Steinway rotunda. There was Ethan who gave himself over to each aspect of the documentary with the dedication and zeal that informed his own extraordinary performances. There was no way I would let him down.

What do you hope most that somebody would learn, or think, after watching
this introduction to your life?

I believe that the essence of who we are reveals itself through whatever talent we have. I want people to know that a dedication to that talent, or whatever passion interests us, has an ultimate reward: by integrating our emotional and intellectual worlds, and in the case of instrumentalists, actors, and dancers, our physical world as well, we can actually integrate or harmonize our personalities.