How about this? Neither one of us be the moderator and we’ll both be ourselves,” legendary poet/rocker Patti Smith told Ethan Hawke as they took the stage for a talk Thursday afternoon at the SVA Theater in Chelsea as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.
During an entertaining hour of improvised conversation on far ranging topics that included acting, process and discipline, they also name-dropped Vincent D’Onofrio, Sam Shepard, Gregory Corso and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had contributed something to their lives.
Smith mentioned she had just seen Hawke’s Chet Baker film, “Born to Be Blue.”
“We’re sort of like abstract friends right? So I haven’t seen him since I’ve seen the movie. I love this film,” she said. “It moves like methadone. I never had methadone but I know a lot of people on methadone and it’s like that. It has a motion, it has a rhythm that’s true to the drug.”
Smith had a Chet Baker story. She tried to get the jazz artist to improvise on Elegie, a requiem for Jimi Hendrix, which was on Smith’s 1975 debut album Horses. Smith recited the last lines, “Trumpets, violins, I hear them in the distance.” She wanted Baker to improvise at the end of the song with trumpets and violins. “And he said he’d do it to, but then his agent got a hold of the whole thing and demanded $5,000.” Smith said on a $20,000 budget for the whole album they couldn’t afford him. “I was still working at the Strand bookstore and I was making like $2,000 a year.”
Even though Baker is not on the record, Smith said when she hears the song, “He’s there in my head. I hear like an echo of him on the record,” she said, “so if you ever hear this record and hear the last song just throw some Chet Baker on it and then it will be perfect. Five thousand bucks! I got it now, Chet!”
Ethan Hawke mentioned that early in his career he co-starred with Vincent D’Onofrio in “Baal,” Bertolt Brecht’s first play, and that D’Onofrio gave him good career advice. Hawke added that he heard Patti Smith had visited Brecht’s grave.
“I love Brecht,” Smith said. “I went to visit his grave. It was snowing. It was freezing cold. I had my clarinet with me,” she said, “so I sang him a little song. I played really bad clarinet, and I felt like Brecht was saying, ‘Okay, okay, go!”
Smith said when she was younger she thought she’d be in the theater. “I always dreamed of being in ‘Mother Courage.’”
Hawke enthused, “You’re getting old enough for the part.”
Smith mentioned how she saw Meryl Streep perform the title role in Central Park, twice.
“I couldn’t believe how awesome she was. The strength she had but also her movement, her body language. I mean she’s only a couple of years younger than me, but she’s so physical,” Smith said. “I don’t think she has arthritis.”
Smith than exclaimed, “Acting is so hard! It’s the worst fucking job in the world! Fourteen-fifteen hours at a time, a lot of time just sitting seven hours in make up. Then there’s a technical problem they have to do it over, and then they have to put the nose on again. Then they have to shoot it the same scene for 40 different angles, and if it’s Michael Mann, you know, 75 angles.”
Hawke asked, “Is being a rock star all it’s cracked up to be?”
“A minor version,” of being a movie star said Smith. “For me, it’s like, I got nine guys and me in a tour bus. We all have our bunks. We go from town to town. You have a 14-hour ride from Czechoslovakia to being in some field in Poland, and then you stumble out and then, you know, then you go on the stage and you do your thing and stumble up the stage and eat a peanut butter sandwich and get back on the bus, so it’s a great life!”
Smith mentioned that she just got in from Europe the previous night. “I’m in such a strange state and time zone,” she said. “If I seem slightly inarticulate it’s just because a my brain’s speaking French. Even though I don’t really speak French.”
She added that she’d watched two episodes of the British detective show, “Endeavor,” dubbed in French, which kept her up all night.
“My television detective addiction really started with Vincent D’Onofrio,” Smith said. She would watch “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” starring D’Onofrio while she was on the road in Europe, but never in English since she didn’t own a television set. “Finally I just went and bought a fucking TV and started watching it at home.” Later she even appeared on one of the final episodes. “They had nothing to lose,” said Smith. She played a professor of antiquities. “I was putting my all into it,” said Smith, adding that she was “projecting and being slightly Shakespearian.” D’Onofrio quoted director Stanley Kubrick who had told him during a scene in “Full Metal Jacket”: “Just step back a little and maybe half that or give a quarter of that and then you’ll have your character, so I got the idea.”
Later when she got a scene in “The Killing,” she said she hoped she would play a homeless person or a crack head, something “cool” like that she said. Instead she played a prim neurosurgeon in a lab coat, holding a clipboard. “So I remembered Kubrick and D’Onofrio,” she said. “I was completely dismissive of these two detectives that in real life I loved so much, acting like I had little time for them,” she said. “I only had to do it once or twice,” she laughed.
To a question by someone in the audience Smith said she had no pre-performance rituals.
“If I’m going on stage, whether it’s a 100,00 people or a 100 people, usually when I’m like off stage, I’m laughing and joking with people, or I’m helping my daughter with a problem,’ Smith said. “Somebody has their dog backstage, and someone will go, ‘Patti you have to go on, and I’ll go, ‘I’ll be right back, and I do what I’m suppose to do. I don’t have an onstage persona. I’m just the same old person. I just drift on stage. I don’t really get stage fright or anything. I just, you know, go on, here I am, do my thing and then go off and get a peanut sandwich and coffee and that’s that.”