When Ethan Hawke got a phone call from Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman’s daughter asking him to direct a documentary about her parents’ lives, he knew that he couldn’t say no — even though it was an undertaking that would surely “hijack” his life. So he buckled down and made The Last Movie Stars, out today on HBO Max.
“I remember vividly. I answered the phone — I couldn’t believe it. I remember pacing my bedroom thinking, ‘I can’t do this,'” Ethan Hawke told MovieMaker in a video interview, which you can watch above. “This is going to hijack my life, this phone call, you know? And I tried to figure out a way to very gracefully say no and recommend who I thought would be good at it. And I couldn’t get the word ‘no’ out of my mouth. And I think I tricked myself into thinking — you know how you do that sometimes — like, oh, yeah, I can run a marathon, it’ll be easy.”
Hawke was hoping just to make a feature-length documentary, but he ended up with a six episodes limited series.
“The more I scratched the surface, the more interesting it became, and the more interesting their love affair became,” he said. “Yes, they are remarkable actors. But it’s actually the love affair that demands the deep dive into a documentary, because their life and their community, seen through the lens of that love affair, becomes wildly interesting.”
The Last Movie Stars draws on hours and hours of interviews with Newman, Woodward and their closest friends. But if you’re expecting to hear Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s voices in the docuseries, you’re in for a surprise. Yes, there’s tons of gorgeous archival footage of the pair who were once Hollywood’s favorite couple — but because of a rash decision that lead Newman to burn all of the original audiotapes, the only thing that remains from those interviews are meticulously typed-out transcripts.
But Ethan Hawke had an idea — why not hire some of today’s biggest actors to read the transcripts as if they were in a play?
So, he got George Clooney (Ocean’s Eleven, Burn After Reading) to read for Newman and Laura Linney (Ozark, The Truman Show) to read for Woodward. And the rest of the voice cast is just as star-studded, including: Melanie Griffith (Body Double), Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Billy Crudup (Almost Famous), Sally Field (Forest Gump), Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Mark Ruffalo (13 Going on 30) Steve Zahn (Joy Ride), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (U.S. Marshals), and Oscar Isaac (Dune).
“I just followed my gut, you know? I really didn’t know how I was going to make this documentary. I didn’t know if that idea would work,” he said.
But he knew Laura Linney, and he knew that she had known Joanne Woodward personally and considered her a mentor.
“I thought that Laura could speak for Joanne in a way that she might enjoy. And she’s such a beautiful actress, I knew that she could help the documentary through her insight and through her work,” he said. “Likewise, I kind of thought, well, who’s a card-carrying icon who’s dealt with how hard it is to be shoved into that position, who’s political and outspoken? Clooney’s in the very rare air of what his life experience has brought him over the last 25 years, and you know, what he’s done as an actor and as a director and as a citizen of the world. I thought that he would really understand — he could speak for Paul in that way.”
Hawke got the rest of the cast by calling on his friends. And he knew he wanted Zoey Kazan to be involved because her grandfather, the famed film and theater director Elia Kazan, had spent a lot of time and worked with Newman and Woodward.
“I didn’t want it to be me looking back on Paul and Joanne, I want it to be our generation looking back on the generation that came before us and see that we’re all connected,” Hawke said.
Watch the full interview with Ethan Hawke above.
The Last Movie Stars premieres on HBO Max on July 21.
Main Image: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in THE DROWNING POOL directed by STUART ROSENBERG in 1975. Credit: WARNER BROTHERS / Album