TORONTO – There’s a simple reason why Paris-based director Pawel Pawlikowski wanted Ethan Hawke to star in his new French-language film “The Woman in the Fifth.”
“I needed an American protagonist and he happened to be my favourite actor,” the Polish-born filmmaker said Thursday, noting he had admired Hawke’s performances in “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Hamlet,” and liked the actor’s 2002 novel “Ash Wednesday.”
“He seemed like a very good guy for this part â€” very likable, charming, warm and I heard he was intelligent and it turned out to be true.”
Based on Douglas Kennedy’s 2007 novel, “The Woman in the Fifth” tells the story of an American lecturer (Hawke) who comes to Paris to patch things up with his wife and daughter. When they shun him, he takes up residence in a mysterious boarding house and begins a relationship with a beguiling translator (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Pawlikowski called the novel a “good starting point.”
“I quite liked the idea of a protagonist who’s a writer in trouble in Paris,” he said.
“Above all, I liked the idea of taking a thriller with quite a few dead bodies and police involvement and standing it on its head and making it … a more subjective thing about somebody falling apart.”
The director said he knew Scott Thomas because they run in the same Paris social circles and they had talked about working together. The “English Patient” actress has reinvented herself in recent years, appearing in several acclaimed French films.
“That character seemed perfect for her,” said Pawlikowski. “It felt like a perfect match to play someone who was sort of timeless … who is slightly mysterious and ambiguous…. (She’s) an actress who is not afraid to play a very difficult role.”
For his part, Hawke didn’t know of Pawlikowski and was surprised to hear that the filmmaker wanted to meet him.
Speaking at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, Hawke said he immediately boned up on Pawlikowski’s previous work, which includes the films “Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love.” He was instantly impressed.
“I felt so excited to meet this new voice in cinema,” Hawke said at the festival. “I hadn’t seen either one of these movies and he’s so clearly a serious filmmaker.”
Added the actor: “I couldn’t refuse, I was really excited about the idea.”
Pawlikowski put it this way: “(Hawke) was happy to go on an adventure with me.”
Both men clearly enjoyed the collaboration and plan to work together again. Hawke said he found it exciting to work on a film set where the goal wasn’t about selling something.
Pawlikowski chuckled at that comment.
“That’s my strength and my weakness, I suppose,” he said. “I just kind of follow my nose to something that interests me … I go where the energy is.”
He then added: “As long as I get away with it and I can make my next film.”
“The Woman in the Fifth” opens Friday in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.