NEW YORK (AP) — When Ethan Hawke was young, he was fascinated with Albert Schweitzer, a19th-century philosopher and missionary who deliberately set aside years of his life for piano playing before he would dedicate himself to helping others. Hawke made a similar pledge to himself about acting.
"But 40 came so fast and I didn't want to give it up at all," Hawke said in a recent interview. "But I knew there was something to what Schweitzer was saying. You can't spend your whole life indulging yourself and expect something good to happen."
A midlife crisis is one way to put what Hawke, now 44, was going through. For the first time in his career, he was having performance anxiety. Having long considered himself an eternal student, Hawke — whose wide range of work (two novels, stage acting, directing) suggest his curious, exploratory nature — wasn't sure exactly who he was anymore. Hawke, the father of four, was in a place not unlike where his "Boyhood" co-star Patricia Arquette eventually finds herself in that movie: on the other side of life, wondering what comes next.
"You start seeing how much of the road is behind you and you start realizing that the next part is probably going to go just as fast," says Hawke. "What does it mean?"
These were the kind of questions rattling around Hawke's head when he joined what turned out to be a fortuitous dinner party in New York several years ago. There he met his friend's piano instructor, a gentle old man named Seymour Bernstein. Though an accomplished pianist whose performances earned raves decades earlier, the 86-year-old Bernstein long ago retired from any public artistic life. Instead, from his humble Upper West Side studio, he has taught the piano and, his students would say, something about life.
Bernstein's view of art for its own sake — amateurism over professionalism — resonated deeply with Hawke. Over the next few years in between other, more glamorous projects, Hawke made a documentary of Bernstein. On Friday, "Seymour: An Introduction" opens in theaters.
"I knew when I left that dinner that there's a lot of people who would enjoy the conversation that I just had," says Hawke. In his quiet way, Bernstein had reframed Hawke's anxieties, telling him they should be embraced, and that the crossroads Hawke felt he was at was really a single, continuous path. "And he did that for me in, like, 45 minutes."
"Seymour: An Introduction" has won raves on the festival circuit, where Bernstein's warmth and wisdom has struck a nerve with many as he did for Hawke.
"Strangers come up to me and say: 'I don't know anything about music but everything you say in that film pertains to me,'" says Bernstein. "In Telluride, I was walking on the cobblestone street to lunch and we passed three people. They came over to me and gave me a hug and put their chin against my shoulder and cried. All of them did that!"
Though he has long eschewed the spotlight, the monk-like Bernstein is reveling in the attention. "I'm a star!" he chuckles. "I have so many interviews!" Hawke compares paling around with the newly famous Bernstein to "taking Greta Garbo to the mall."
In the film, Bernstein is seen giving lessons and speaking about his career and music.
"Music is not just a means of expression for me," he says. "I have learned to pattern my life after the harmony of music: the logic of it, the emotional import of it, the intellectual notation of it, the physical requirements of making it sound on the piano. It is a discipline that I then directed into everything that I do. It became a means of life for me."
One reason Hawke wanted to make the movie, he says, "was simply to have an excuse to be near him." He was drawn to Bernstein's bubbling, unsullied joyfulness in his art.
"So many people, even some of the most widely successful people in my profession that I've met, sometimes seem eroded by bitterness and disappointment," Hawke says. "And I've been trying to figure that out: So if you fail you lose and if you win you lose?"
Hawke has a willing openness in talking about art and himself that may strike the more cynical as pretentious. But in person, he comes across as vibrantly earnest, eager for personal connection. Bernstein says Hawke has rediscovered his identity.
"It took about three years, but now he knows that the actor, the husband and the father are all the same person," says Bernstein. "He thought: Which one is the real Ethan? They're all the same."
"Something switched," agrees Hawke. "Instead of being a really old young person, I feel like a really young old person. And I'm happier here."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP