It’s not so often that people walk away from a successful career by choice, particularly in the performing arts. But when Seymour Bernstein, at the age of 50, was at the height of his career as a classical pianist, he gave up performing in public in favor of sharing his talent as a composer and a teacher.
Ethan Hawke met Bernstein, who is now well into his eighties and still composing and teaching, at a dinner party in New York City a few years back, and the pair struck up a fast friendship after Hawke confided in Bernstein that he had been suffering crippling bouts of stage fright. Bernstein offered the Oscar-nominated actor advice on how to get through it, and as the 44-year-old star of films ranging from Dead Poets Society to Boyhood got to know Bernstein and saw what an incredible teacher he was, Hawke became convinced that Bernstein’s wisdom needed to be shared with the wider world.
And now it is through a documentary titled Seymour: An Introduction, which just went into theatrical release. Directed by Hawke, who had never shot a documentary before, though he did direct the feature films Chelsea Walls and The Hottest State, the film offers an inspiring meditation on creativity.
Hawke briefly appears in Seymour: An Introduction, and we also meet some of Bernstein’s current students as well as former students like Michael Kimmelman, now an architecture critic for The New York Times, who took piano lessons with Bernstein when he was a kid. They all adore Bernstein, and it’s easy to see why. He is that music teacher you wish you could have studied with—a true artist who knows his craft but is also gentle and encouraging and wise. In the film, Bernstein, a profound guy, talks about how good music teachers inspire their students not just in music but in all aspects of life and how if you feel inadequate as a musician, you are going to feel inadequate as a person.
Bernstein delivers, through his insights and by how he has lived, a master class on how to perfect one’s craft and find fulfillment as a musician, and the lessons learned could apply to the pursuit of any art.
Here, Hawke talks to Co.Create about working with the modest teacher, the perils of achieving success, and the importance of mentors.
Co.Create: Did it take some convincing to get Seymour to allow you to put him in the spotlight again by making him the subject of this film?
Hawke: No. He was really sweet the first time I talked to him about it. He was like, “I can think of 15 musicians that you should make a documentary about before me.” I told him that I wasn’t really making a documentary about a musician. I was really making a documentary about a teacher and that I was really interested in some of the things he had to say as a teacher and that while there are a lot of great musicians in the world, I thought his approach to teaching and what he had to say was worthy of documenting and something that more people than just his students would like to hear. Once he understood that that was our thesis statement, I think he honestly felt that he could help me by making this documentary. Even when I asked him to play in public again, he said, ‘No problem.’”
That’s remarkable given that he hadn’t played a concert in nearly 40 years.
I felt strongly that if I didn’t show him perform that the feeling of the documentary would be, this is about a guy who was too nervous to play, so he gave it up. When you’re with Seymour, you get no sense of a person who gave up anything. You get a sense of somebody who is living the life they want. When he played the concert [we arranged for the film] at the Steinway Hall rotunda, he just killed it. It was incredible.
Creative people just starting out, whether they are actors, writers, or musicians, are encouraged to seek mentors. You don’t often hear about established people like you, movie stars with big careers, in search of or turning to mentors, but Seymour is clearly a mentor to you. Do you think it’s important for people to have mentors at all stages of their careers?
I think it’s absolutely essential. There’s a kind of lost tradition of the pupil/mentor–the mentor learns from the student and the student learns from the mentor. I mean, it’s a wonderful thing whether you’re making shoes, or whether you’re a mechanic, or whether you’re a pianist, or whether you’re a Zen monk. People have run this gauntlet before, and if we’re going to get farther and do more, we have to learn from people who’ve done it already.
You’ve never directed a documentary before. Did you just dive into this project, following your instincts?
I didn’t know what to do. I was worried it was going to cost a fortune. I tried to be as economical as possible. This is a very simple project. I used to tell our editor—it wants to be a Matisse drawing. The fewer lines we have in here, the better. There’s no card trick here. We just need to show people how wonderful it is to spend the afternoon with Seymour. If we could just give whoever wants to see this movie that afternoon, we would be giving them something better than most films.
I saw the movie at a screening a couple of weeks ago, and I keep thinking about Seymour. There is something comforting in knowing he is here in the city still perfecting his craft after all these years.
He’s authentic. We live in a culture where we’re so inundated, even if we try not to be with…everything’s always about status. It’s about status and power, and we see all this celebration of young people. It’s kind of difficult not to start thinking that it’s important to be 23 and wear the right pants, and yet most of us have a lot of trouble answering why you would want to be 88. And yet, if you spend the afternoon with Seymour, he makes getting old look really attractive. It requires a tremendous amount of mental discipline, but if you keep working on yourself, you can get somewhere really neat.
I whipped my notebook out during the screening to scribble down some of the things Seymour had to say. There are a lot of gems. One of the most striking things he says is, “I’m not so sure a major career is a healthy thing to embark on.”
You’ve almost never heard anybody say that. It’s like as soon as he said that you go, “That’s kind of true,” and yet everybody your whole life tells you you have to be as important as possible.
The answer is obvious, but I am going to ask you anyway: Does the adulation that one gets from being a famous actor or musician, any kind of artist who achieves, or even craves fame, taint the creative process? Do you think it drives people to make choices that aren’t necessarily in line with what their creative goals are?
Oh, come on, I don’t think it—I know it! One of the best things anybody ever said to me along those same lines was Peter Weir, who directed me in Dead Poets Society. When it was all over, the shoot was over, he said, “I wish you modest success.” I always wondered what he meant, and I now know. It’s very similar to something Seymour might say. Too much failure sucks, but too much success is really corrosive, too, because it’s dishonest. None of us are that goddamned fabulous.
When I look over your career and the projects you have done, I never see you in something and think, “Oh my God, what the hell is Ethan Hawke doing in this?”
If you ever do, just remember I have four children.
I will! But can you give me a sense of how you’ve made your career decisions over the years. What are your criteria when you decide what to commit to acting in a movie?
Some part of it has to kind of excite me. I’m lucky in a lot of ways, which is that I really do have disparate interests. There are a lot of people that wouldn’t be interested in making a documentary about an 88-year-old piano player. That person isn’t usually the same person that wants to be in a cop movie, too. I’ve had very little differentiation between high art and low art.
Some people would say to me, why would you do a horror movie? [Hawke played a true-crime writer in the horror film Sinister, a 2012 release directed by Scott Derrickson.] Because it sounded like fun, the guy who was making it was really smart, and there is a time and a place to tell a scary story. I don’t want to do it all the time, but I don’t want to make romances all the time either.
Maybe it’s because I started so young or something—I’ve been acting over 30 years professionally—but I’ve felt the need to color outside the lines a little bit. How I make decisions is totally a gut move. I’ve made some ones I regret, things that didn’t go well, but usually I know why I did it.