By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In a summer of sequels, one that doesn’t include explosions, car chases or special effects is “Before Midnight,” which revisits the captivating relationship between Jesse and Celine, as played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
The couple was first introduced onboard a European train in 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” he a young American getting over a breakup and she an idealistic student returning home to France after visiting a sick relative in Eastern Europe. The two travelers have an immediate attraction and on a whim decide to spend the day in Vienna, where they enjoy conversation, the scenery and romance. Though the romantic drama, directed and co-written by Richard Linklater wasn’t a box office hit, it became something of a cult classic among hopeless romantics, with its smartly written dialogue, believable actors and beautiful setting.
Though it ended with the two going their separate ways after a magical night, no one was ready to say goodbye to Jesse and Celine. The actors and the director reconvened nearly a decade later and decided to make a sequel. “Before Sunset,” released in 2004, finds Jesse and Celine reuniting unexpectedly in Paris. Older and wiser, the two are in the prime of their lives. Jesse has written a novel based on his magical day with Celine and Celine is establishing herself in her career and is a budding musician. Hawke and Delpy, more experienced and mature as performers and filmmakers, helped out in the writing of the sequel, which ended with married Jesse listening to Celine playing a guitar in her apartment, with the implication that he was there to stay.
In “Before Midnight,” another nine years have passed and Jesse and Celine are now living together and have twin daughters. Jesse is a successful novelist, and Celine is a dedicated mother and environmentalist. They are enjoying the waning days of a vacation in Southern Greece along with Jesse’s son from his marriage. While their life seems perfect, cracks in their relationship emerge as the story unfolds. Their suppressed issues with each other emerge in a no-holds barred argument that erupts while they are supposed to be enjoying a romantic evening. As with the previous films, “Before Midnight” tells the story in a series of long scenes, filled with realistic dialogue (again co-written by director Linklater as well as Hawke and Delpy) that anyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship can relate.
The actors recently reconvened at a Beverly Hills hotel to talk about playing Jesse and Celine once again and reflecting on their 18-year collaboration.
Q: The dilemma for the couple this time out is whether they will decide to go to the States to be closer to Jesse’s son or stay in France where Celine has a big job opportunity. How does a couple deal with a conflict that big?
Hawke: Part of the idea of the movie is that it’s very easy to look at a romantic relationship when there’s an obvious bad guy (like) when one person is an alcoholic or abusive. We thought what if you were to take two well-meaning people who actually love each other and want the best for each other? Could we paint that portrait? Anybody’s who’s been in a long-term relationship, whether it’s as dramatic as a choice of living in Chicago or Paris, it’s really about whether or not your lives are still on the same road.
Delpy: Here, there’s no bad guy, in particular. But they still have to make compromises and they argue about who’s making the most compromises and will those compromises jeopardize their relationship and their love? When you have a long-term relationship, you have to make choices. Their relationship starts with a choice that Jesse makes, which is to follow his heart. That comes with consequences and the film starts with the consequences of that choice. We find them in a situation where they have to make a choice again, where Jesse is suggesting he might want to move back to the U.S. But it might jeopardize their entire life and the life of a relationship.
Q: What’s interesting about these films are the long uninterrupted scenes. There’s a scene where you’re in the car talking on the way back from dropping off Jesse’s son at the airport that’s roughly 14 minutes long. Were you cognizant that this was going to be shot in one take and you’ve got the young actresses who play your daughters asleep in the backseat the whole time? What was the challenge?
Delpy: Just mentioning that scene gives me a flashback of anxiety again. (She laughs.) My heart is beating slightly faster.
Hawke: Me too. It was hot, incredibly hot.
Delpy: It’s hot and noisy with the sound of the engine and the road. It’s a whole combination of things. And then on top of that, we have to act those 13-14 minutes. Nothing in those scenes is improvised. Everything is scripted. There’s no other way to do them. There is this arc development. The scene sets up the whole movie. It was a challenge. I can’t explain it. It hurts my head just thinking about it. I have a headache just thinking about it.
Q: Do you think about these characters in between films?
Hawke: I remember doing something ridiculous like being at a deli and trying to shop with my kids, and trying to talk on the phone and having this thought, “I wonder if this happens to Jesse. Would this be a moment?” While nothing like that happened in the “Before Midnight” script, its an example of how over a period of years, you collect a few of those moments. There’s a certain tone, a mood and a theme to “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” and sometimes life pops up and it’s that tone and mood, and it logs in there as something.
Delpy: We have to think about their back story every time we start to write the screenplay. You can’t start writing the second screenplay or the third screenplay without knowing everything about what happened in between. I wouldn’t say Celine lives with me 24/7. Otherwise, I’d be crazy. (She laughs.)
Q: Do you relate to your character?
Delpy: I wanted to make sure Celine was depicted as a strong woman. She’s looking towards the future. She’s not someone who dwells in the past and she’s a very active person. She could seem at times vindictive and she’s not going to let someone tell her what to do or how it should be done. She believes that if they move to Chicago, it will destroy their relationship. I personally think she’s right (She laughs.) It’s important that she’s not just the wife of the writer. She’s her own person. Richard and Ethan and I have tried to make sure too that she’s not depicted simply as “the wife.” Otherwise, the relationship is out of balance. It would be a film about a guy who has a nice French wife. It was very important for us for it to be balanced, that it’s not a macho movie or a feminist movie. It’s very balanced, in that sense.
Q: Do you expect to do another sequel in nine years?
Delpy: We don’t know yet. I have no clue. We don’t actually think about the future. That’s how we operate.
Hawke: We’re just happy to be done with the third film. It was so much work.
Delpy: I can’t even think of the fourth. We might not do a fourth. This could be it. We made three. That’s a lot already.
Q: How have you changed as actors in the past 18 years?
Hawke: I like to say I learned how to speak on camera with “Before Sunrise.” As a young actor, you get asked to pose or affect an emotion, but Richard wanted Julie and I to gab, to talk and to be present in front of the camera, to not act.
Delpy: You’re rarely asked to do these big monologues or dialogues in movies. You might have it once every 10 films. You should see the screenplay. It could sound super boring if we’re not super duper natural at saying it. It sounds like we’re telling the story to someone we care for. So that’s the real challenge of these films. That’s been the challenge as actors every time. To tell a story on camera without sounding boring is the hardest thing. I’ve experienced it on other films and it’s really, really hard. It’s finding the right tone to do it.
Hawke: The lyrics change but the tune’s the same.
Q: What have you learned about yourself in the past 18 years?
Hawke: I’ve learned that I’m not as smart as Julie.
Delpy: (giggling) That’s true.
Q: Did you ever feel like you were going too far with the emotional part, like in the long hotel room argument sequence? Did you have to cry in between takes?
Delpy: It’s pleasurable for an actor to cry, to suffer onscreen; it’s a pleasant thing for an actor. When you see someone on camera crying and being hurt, they’re actually enjoying it. This is our training. (She laughs.) What’s most painful are the simple things. The walk Ethan and I do in that beautiful village was actually more draining as an actor. The fight scene is funny.
Hawke: What’s fun about it is that it was challenging. We dove into it. We were locked in that room for a long time.
Delpy: It was four days.
Hawke: The whole film had been building to that. We filmed that part of it in sequence. For us, it was a challenge but we were so glad to be there. We’d arrived where we had worked for nine years to get to.
Q: Has anything surprised you in making these three films?
Hawke: That’s the biggest shock. Eighteen years after Julie and I auditioned for Rick for “Before Sunrise,” this little romance, the idea that we would have this lifelong collaboration and that we would pour so much of ourselves into it, that’s the thing that’s a surprise.
Delpy: It’s very fulfilling. You go so deep into certain things in the writing and even emotionally. When I say we’re having fun doing the end scene, we’re having fun, but it’s also like moving a lot of things within us. It’s not as simple as having fun; it’s also complicated, those emotions and stuff. We’ve all been through those emotions in a relationship and it’s not a fun thing to go through. We know how heavy it is. We just try to be as genuine and honest as possible. What’s amazing is that people relate. Sometimes I feel like no one’s going to be interested in this. In the end, some people can relate which is, I guess, what cinema is about —for people to identify or dream.
Q: Did fan feedback from the first two films inform this one?
Hawke: There’s a moment in the hotel where the woman who works at the hotel asks me to sign the two books and talks about how important they are. It’s a slight homage of us putting the fans in the movie. Something about “Sunrise” and “Sunset” spoke to people. The people that it reached it spoke to them so there’s a little homage to that there.
Delpy: A lot of people come up to me and say, “Oh, I fell in love with my boyfriend watching that film,” or “We reconnected after five years because I saw ‘Before Sunset’ and he decided to call me after he saw the film.” So we are responsible for a few children a few marriages and a few kids. I feel like their godmother (She laughs.)
Q: Many of those conversations in this are familiar to people in long-term relationships. What do you learn as Celine and Jesse as you’re acting it about how to handle conflict?
Hawke: It’s so nice to be able to come up with the right witty response that you wish you had the next day.
Delpy: This is the ideal argument. We get to write it for, like, eight weeks. We get to revisit it, rehearse it. In real life, I don’t think I’m that good at arguing. I scream and I throw things around (She laughs). I’m joking. Actually, I don’t argue very much so it was a real stretch for me to write that scene.