Just an hour before my interview with Ethan Hawke, I got some terrible news. An old friend of mine from college had died.
It wasn’t a complete surprise. Deb, my friend, had been diagnosed with a brainstem tumor last July. I followed news of her treatment on Facebook, and her slow realization, along with the rest of us, that she wouldn’t be getting better. But hearing that it was over, that she was really gone, still hit me like a brick to the face.
Learning that anyone you love has died is rattling. But especially when it happens to a peer, somebody your own age. You suddenly feel very vulnerable, acutely aware that life is fleeting. You just want to be alone for a while and feel sad for your friend and sorry for yourself and angry at the unfairness of the universe.
But I didn’t get to do that. I had a prior commitment to talk to a movie star.
We were supposed to talk about Hawke’s new movie, Good Kill—currently playing in theaters nationwide, and on VOD this Friday. He plays a drone pilot. It seems like a good movie. I even prepared a bunch of questions to ask him about it.
But when they called me in for the interview, my head was somewhere else.
MH: I think we’re roughly the same age. You’re 44, right?
ETHAN: I am, yes.
MH: Do you feel 44? Do you feel your age?
ETHAN: I’m very aware of it. You feel your relationship to other people changing. But it beats the alternative, right? Which is dying.
MH: Speaking of death . . .
It only took two questions for me to start telling him about a person he had never met, who had died that morning from an asshole cancer in her brain that wouldn’t take no for an answer.
I shared way too much information about how it made me feel, and how I wish I’d made an effort to see her again, to actually be in the same room with her when it became apparent that she wouldn’t live to see another summer. And now she’s gone, and I feel this piercing emptiness that, um . . . uh . . . so tell me about your movie!
MH: Good Kill is really about grieving, isn’t it? A little bit, at least.
ETHAN: I think it’s smart that you say that. He’s grieving the loss of his identity. I don’t think he likes his thoughts enough to speak, so he—
MH: But what about for you personally?
ETHAN: For me?
MH: When you lose somebody you love, when they die, how do you reconcile that? How do you make sense of it? Or is it just, “The universe is meaningless and cruel and arbitrary, so fuck all of it?”
ETHAN: [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Long pause.] You know, it’s hard to grow older. I’ve always been extremely aware of how precious our time is here. In that life really is a gift, and it’s not something we’re owed.
Everything about this conversation felt weird. Not because I wasn’t asking him enough questions about his movie. What felt weird was talking with another guy so openly about death, and all the murky, unpleasant feelings that come with it.
It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché that’s mostly true. Men don’t like grieving out in the open, or talking with people—especially other men—about their grief.
In a two-year study at the University of Tubingen in Germany, 30 widows and 30 widowers were followed as they grappled with the loss of their partners. Psychologists Wolfgang and Margaret Stroebe, who headed the study, found that women turned to friends for support, while men almost always internalized their feelings.
“Men are socialized not to express their emotions,” Wolfgang Stroebe told me. “We find it embarrassing and usually try not to show them.” During subsequent bereavement studies, he found that almost without exception, “Women cried openly, but men tried to hide their tears.”
MH: I was watching Reality Bites again recently. There’s that scene at the end, when your character’s dad dies, and it’s a big moment of clarity for him. It’s exactly what he needed to break out of his cycle of navel-gazing arrogance.
ETHAN: I guess it was, yeah.
MH: But that’s not how life works, is it? I kinda believed that in my 20s, that any big tragedy like losing a parent or a loved one is just an opportunity to re-evaluate your life and take stock of what matters. But really, when somebody dies, it just makes you feel sad and alone and anxious.
ETHAN: That’s an interesting point. And I suppose it’s true. I usually find that emotional things, like having somebody I know and love die, just throws me off balance.
MH: Exactly, yeah. It’s not like, “Oh, that person I loved is dead. Now everything make sense!”
ETHAN: I’ve never had the experience where some emotional crisis happened and it kind of oriented me. I mean, I wish it had. But it doesn’t usually work out like that.
I don’t know what, if anything, Hawke got from our conversation. Maybe he’s just such a consummate pro that nothing can rattle him. But for me, talking to a stranger about death, and why it’s such a cruddy, rotten thing, it actually made me feel better.
Not just better. Exuberant. I walked into the interview like I was wrapped in a wet down comforter. But I left feeling almost weightless. I may have even skipped.
I talked about the experience later with grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. He wasn’t at all surprised by my lifted mood.
“You felt better because you were allowing yourself to authentically mourn,” he told me. “Men often try to go around grief instead of through grief. Yet, we know that the only way out is through.”
MH: Is there a trick to grieving? Is it healthy to immerse yourself in your sadness? Or should you just, I don’t know . . .
ETHAN: Yeah. That’s a big question.
MH: You weren’t expecting any of this, I know. I apologize.
ETHAN: No, no, this is fascinating. But I really don’t know. Mankind has a lot of different traditions about how to grieve. I think there’s a value in, you know . . . just realizing that everyone is going through it. Part of the point of life is loss. And without it, there is no life.
MH: Now you’re getting all Yoda on me.
ETHAN: No, but it’s true, man. You have to understand that there are two sides of the same coin. There’s a great line that I’ve always loved. If you can lose it in a shipwreck, it was never really yours.
If Dr. Wolfelt had heard my entire conversation with Hawke, I don’t know if he would have still described it as “authentic mourning.” My wife has had more emotionally vulnerable discussions about the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Hawke and I talked around the topic, we skimmed the edges, we intellectualized it. But maybe that was enough.
“We all end up losing everything,” Hawke continued, long after our allotted time was up. “We lose it all. We lose our hair, we lose our sexuality, we lose our cars, we lose our money, we lose our life. It’s all going away, it’s just a question of when.”
We paused, letting the existential dread of that statement really sink in. And then, with nothing left to say, I offered, “So good luck with Good Kill.”
We both laughed hard. Because, oh yeah, his movie! Did we forget to discuss that?
A good laugh with another dude, and a manly sideways half-hug, is sometimes all you really need to lift the black cloud and feel like yourself again.
(Illustration by George Eckart)[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]