Why ‘Seymour’ haunts Hawke

Ethan Hawke found himself at a dinner party a few years ago, seated next to a man more than twice his age, a pianist, composer and teacher named Seymour Bernstein. By evening’s end, Hawke was so taken with his fellow New Yorker that he felt the need to meet again, to continue the discussion about art, music, acting and life. Then the Boyhood and Training Day star started thinking that what he really needed to do was make a film about the man.

Seymour: An Introduction is that film, which opens Friday at Miami Beach Cinemateque and O Cinema Miami Shores.

“I was turning 40,” says Hawke, recalling that dinner and how he started spilling his guts to the stranger by his side about career anxieties. “I’d always been the youngest in the room, and all of a sudden I really wasn’t anymore, and I was being expected to deliver and be a professional. … I just felt a certain pressure to take off the student cap — and I really didn’t want to.

“And Seymour has an incredible ability to listen and key in on what somebody’s trying to say. … But I realized, talking to him, how any issues of anxiety or pressure in acting are really a fraction of what a concert pianist experiences. The pressure and intensity of one performance, one memory slip, one physical misstep, and your performance at Carnegie Hall is forever ruined.…

“So he knows that feeling. And when I left, I felt really privileged. That was the feeling that ultimately led to making me want to do this. I felt an obligation that more people should get a chance to meet him.”

Bernstein, now 87, is indeed worth meeting. The conversations Hawke has with the octogenarian musician are illuminating. So are the moments when Bernstein is filmed teaching his students, or being interviewed by Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times critic who was 5 years old when he started taking lessons from Bernstein.

It’s easy to see why Hawke — and the others — are inspired.

“Seymour is not self-serious. He’s not pretentious,” the actor says. “He’s full of a tremendous amount of love and wit. … And yet a lot of people who spend their life in the arts, they sometimes can be defeated by failure, or defeated by success. It almost leaves you no recipe for happiness.”

Steven Rea

The Philadelphia Inquirer