Episode 7: The Art of Taking Yourself Seriously
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PAUL KIX: Hello and welcome to another episode of Now That's a Great Story, the podcast that takes a single work from a single artist as a way to reveal an artistic world view, and along the way hopefully inspire you, the listener, to be just as creative. I'm your host Paul Kix. Today's guest is Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the best profile writer in the nation. Full stop. Taffy? How do you like that?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: That’s really nice of you. Thank you. Thanks, Dad!
PAUL KIX: Taffy’s work now appears in the New York Times, and the New York Times magazine. She used to write for my shop ESPN the Magazine. We’ll talk today about her profile of Ethan Hawke which is as much about the doggedness of Ethan Hawke's creative process as it is about -- and here’s is my supposition, Taffy -- the doggedness necessary for you to do your best work. So Taffy, thanks for joining today.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Thanks for having me. That’s pretty good.
PAUL KIX: Allright. So, you open the story with this beautiful anecdote of John Cassavetes. And I want to know for the listener who hasn’t read this story, what is going on in this anecdote?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Ethan Hawke a number of years ago, goes to hear Gena Rowlands who is John Cassavetes’s widow speak. For those of you who don’t know who John Cassavetes is, he’s the kind of godfather of indie filmmaking. When I was in film school, he was what we all worshipped. We just wanted to go out and make Faces. Or at least the pretentious boyfriends I had there did want to do that. I kind of wanted to do my own thing. But he went to hear him speak and what -- Genna Rowlands was kind of taken aback by how many people were there. And how much hung on every word. And she said something, like, you know what? He never felt this. He never felt like he was the godfather of anything. He never ever felt like he was a leader in anything. He felt rejected at every turn. And what Ethan Hawke took away from that along time ago -- and to put it in the context of his life, a long time ago which is when he was trying to show the world he just wasn’t going to be an actor or just a pretty face, he decided that that meant that people are going to count you out forever. You might never get appreciated in your own time. And so you should do the work that’s most meaningful to you. Because it was becoming very clear to him that he was going to be counted out.
PAUL KIX: So what I’d like you to do here is, if you could, there’s this sort of foundational moment in this story that actually appears really high up. And if you could, could you just read from that?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Okay. “Mr. Hawke found that so moving, the idea of ignoring what the world was telling you about yourself and instead living only by standards that you had, yourself, carefully defined for your life and work. He vowed right then that he would do whatever it took to make good art on his own terms, no matter what anyone said. He would take himself seriously, even if no one else did.”
PAUL KIX: Okay. So this is kind of amazing to me because you don’t often -- I don’t often hear actors speaking in those terms, right? And you don’t often hear in these sorts of profiles people talking like this, where there’s like.. A lot of times, it’s sort of flippant, oh, I’m just enjoying myself and I had such a great cast around me. This is a guy who’s approaching things differently. I’m wondering, like, when you’re talking with Ethan, just how quickly does he begin to reveal this grand ambition to you?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: He did not reveal this quickly at all. He sits down, and he’s done so many interviews. He just starts talking about his movie. And over and over and over. And he’s telling me about Blaze and this movie he has coming out First Reformed -- which was is still in theaters while we were talking -- which he starred in. And I stopped him, and I said, I have to tell you, I don’t know if you’re going to believe this, but you have been a really important figure in my life. You’re just a few years older than I am, and you -- I have watched you work really hard to prove yourself to the point where you’ve proven yourself. And I think you… What I would like to talk about… Like, don’t worry, I will talk a lot about your movie in this story. I know that that’s why we're here, but I would really love for us to talk about what it means to not be taken seriously and what it means to have to be your own champion and what it means for other people to decide who you were and for you to have to explain, no, this is who I am anyway. And it took a while of that before I sort of beat him down about it. We spent hours together. We had like a one hour lunch planned and we spent hours together. And I think that when you kind of prove that you have read everything, watched everything, you have really kind of sophisticated but very thoughts about everything. To me, it was very clear what his work was. His work was to do certain kind of movies to fund other kids of movie. He seemed always to be in living apology for how good looking he is? And he seemed most of all to be counted out. Now how would I know that? Because if you start… If you have the privilege of interviewing someone so famous, which is my gig, right? By the time they get to me, they’re so famous, you can read this entire life’s work, which doesn’t exactly tell you anything about them other than what the world thought about them. And everyone has a reaction to what the world thought about them but the time they get to this point. And Ethan Hawke, I mean, I read a Rolling Stones story that was so dismissive; that flat-out called him pretentious, and I couldn’t… And he answered his questions so sincerely. It was, like, no, no, no, I’m not pretentious. I really am interested in art. And people, for some reason, and for some reason is really important here. People, for some reason, just could not believe him. His friend Phillip Seymour Hoffan? People always believe it about him. People always thought he was serious as anything and that he was an artist and he was the truth and that he meant what he was saying. And Ethan Hawke, who worked just a hard and probably a little bit more proactively, he did not get the same reception. And in the for the reason is where all of us live when we’re working to be taken seriously, right?
PAUL KIX: Exactly. You’re getting at something. Like I said, when you and I first started emailing about this, you’re getting at something that I think is true of basically anybody that tries to do real work and I think that real work can be what you’re doing in the magazine space, what I’m trying to do with magazines, what I’m trying to do with non-fiction books. I know you are working on a novel. There’s things that you want to put out there, that you want to.. And the only way for you to put it out there is to first and foremost believe in yourself, right?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right.
PAUL KIX: And Ethan is a great example of this, so I want to actually get back to the narrative here because I think this is something that sort of strings itself through the rest of the story. So he never forgets this moment where he got to meet, Cassavetes’s widow, right? And you a couple of these lines a little bit later in this section that are just really beautiful. One of them is just, “he never forgot that it was entirely possible that people wouldn’t appreciate your work while you’re doing it. That they might appreciate it long after your dead. Or maybe even never. But that didn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right.
PAUL KIX: So he keeps doing it, right? And as he keeps doing it, what exactly is he doing? Can you give the listener, like a broad swath, of all of his sort of ambitions in that period?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: It’s so interesting. So what he does, is he explores first the old plays. He wants to do Shakesphere. He wants to direct Shakesphere. He wants to do, you know, Tom Stoppard plays. He wants to do the things that are real exploration of characters. So he mounts these plays. He starts a production company. He writes a couple of novels. He makes his own movies. He stars in movies that really speak to him, hoping that they’ll work out, but when they’re in someone’s hands, you never know for sure. Or even when they’re in your hands, you never know for sure. But as we know. And he works hard and he takes it all. Like, he takes all of the headlines. And he takes all of the kind of gripes against him. Even as he’s actually doing this kind of very... trilogy that devastates me. His The Before trilogy. He’s working on Boyhood. I kind of think of his career in a parallel line with Boyhood. All this time, he’s working on this brilliant thing and you never knew it. All this time, and then watching him age. Paul, can I ask how old you are?
PAUL KIX: Sure, I’m 37.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: You’re 37. So I’m 42, so we’re around this same generation of things, and what’s interesting to me about what he did -- so we’re kind of the same generation of things, and I think there’s nothing that grafted my generation of people on to Ethan Hawke like the Before trilogy, not just because it’s brilliant. Not just because it is devastating, but because watching someone age at the same rate as you, and being able to be able to see a sort of portrait of the same character, like, in a row. Like, I can’t describe what it does to me, to watch three of those in a row. And how I see my own life not drifting by, but, like, accounting for itself. And so once your grafted onto that guy who you kind of think might be exactly like Ethan Hawke because he’s been with you for so long. And he’s pretty convincing. And also there’s infidelity, and then there’s infidelity. There’s a lot of ways that... He co-wrote it. Once you’re there with him, you can attach yourself yourself in other ways. And I think that’s the thing that you and I are most interested in here, right? The way we're like Ethan Hawke, or more… to take even a step further back, there are a lot of stories that came out about Ethan Hawke around this time, and there are a lot of stories that always come out about Ethan Hawke. And I truly believe this in terms of profile writing, you can only really hear this story you're listening for in a way. You can only really hear it when it aligns with something that feels true to you. And the thing that feels true to you about what they’re saving is the thing that is true to you in what you’re saving.
PAUL KIX: Yeah.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: And what you’re saving about life. And what you're saving about your art. And, I mean, here you are, you’re talking to someone who’s, like, literal first name is Taffy. I’m a woman. I mean, me being called something like what you -- how you described to me, is a fairly recent thing. I have been fighting really scrappy fights for a very long time to get here. Just like Ethan Hawke.
PAUL KIX: So he struggles mightily. And I think if there's a Segway here to basically anybody that tries to do what he does his hand relentlessly. Even his novel is terrible even his own mother!
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: His own mother! Isn’t that amazing?
PAUL KIX: What does the mother say?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: It’s no Checkov. She says it’s no Chekhov. And this, by the way, what spoke to me. He, who was a child who was loved, his response is, like, ah, yeah. Thank you for understanding that I’m trying to be Chekhov. Thank you, I mean, I get that I’m not there yet. I didn't expect to be there yet, but thank you… And I felt that way. I mean, Paul, you’ve been on the receiving end of some of my pitches. My response to utter rejection is like a boomerang big smile that is, like, how about this one then? Then how about this one? I know! You said no because you didn't really understand what I was saying. And that kind of wears… Like the vulnerability of what he does really aligns with the vulnerability of what I do. Which is write things that are not the way the form is typically rendered. And to do it personally and then also the private things that go on. The pitching. My god. Anybody who can pitch, who can make it in this business after a career of pitching, has a soul of armor.
PAUL KIX: Okay, I want to dwell on this for a minute. Because one of the many things that I admire about you is your tenacity. It’s not just the language, which I think is beautiful and fun. It's not just the way that you're often able to graft almost a style of writing to a mentality of the artist and or person in question like your Jonathan Franzen story is just flat-out written sentence for sentence in a way that's different from this Ethan Hawke story. Which isn't term different from like the Billy Bob Thornton story you did for GQ years ago, right?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Oh, thank you.
PAUL KIX: You have this you have this ability to shift shapes and that's really impressive but..
That’s like my little zelligness. I always thought it was a disgusting quality.
PAUL KIX: But you’ve been at this for a while, so let's go back to the beginning you said you were in film school?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I went to film school, and when I left film school, I found out they just don’t list jobs for screenwriters. So I went to work at a soap opera magazine where almost principally my job was to write profiles. And I was told in both in terms of polite and impolite that I was uniquely terrible at this. And if you look, it’s funny, and if you look back now they’re kind of exactly the same as the ones being published.. I worked at two soap opera magazines. One and then I was poached by another and they thought I was a nightmare to work with. They’d get a story of mine, and they’d be like, I guess we’re here all night. And they didn’t like how fast I worked. They thought there was something weird about that. And then I was laid off in... on June 5, 2001. Later I would prepared it was a post 9/11 layoff just to keep my dignity about myself. Yes, I did that. And I went to work for Media Bistro which was just starting up. And I worked there for a great number of years, trying to figure out what I was doing and, you know, waiting for my shares to vest. And when I was pregnant with my first child, I left and the company got sold. So I had a very small amount of money. I called myself a Dot.com Thousandaire. And I went off to try writing while my son was napping. While he was with a babysitter. And because I was 33 at the time or 34, and I felt so behind. I felt like I had really squandered a lot. And so I started kind of writing really fast and a lot. And I wrote personal essays because I couldn’t do anything else. I had a child at home and my husband’s a journalist and we just didn't have a lot of money. And I couldn’t go off reporting. I didn’t want to leave my child with someone. So I would write personal essays. And they did very, very well. And actually I think the strange straight-line you can draw is not the profile from my soap opera weekly days, but the fact that when you write a personal essay, you have to do two things. You have to number one, you have to understand that people come for blood. They want to know like a real story. And number two you have to understand that people... that you have to have some kind of true revelation that isn’t necessarily resolved but that is human. And that is absolutely true. And when I started writing profiles, I didn’t.. You know my husband was a business reporter, now he’s a political reporter, he writes what happened. I had no kind of real model other than other great… I mean, I would read Vanessa Grigoriadas. I would read John Jeramiah Sullivan. I would read Tom Junod, and I would try to figure this out. But the thing I would keep coming back to is that everyone... that I could write a personal essay on someone else’s behalf. Do you know what I mean? That instead of this being just a series of quotes that were strung together under a light theme, I could actually really get at what the person’s.. It’s funny, I never had a word for it, but our friend Wright Thompson, when I taught his Michael Jordan profile in a class a taught, he said, “I’m always trying to get toward the gripe.” And I was, like gripe. That’s the word. Because by the time you get to me, you’re so famous that you know. You have a list of misunderstandings about you, and I am there to listen to what they are. That’s how I think of my job. Not as trying to get information. I didn’t ask Ethan Hawke about Uma Thurman or his divorce. I also have this kind of strange affect for my Judaic Day School upbringing and home life that you should good person at home and also in your job, so you shouldn’t ask things that you wouldn’t ask in a normal conversation. Which I think is probably a controversial point of view in journalism. But not in this thing that I do because the thing I’m doing is telling someone’s story. I do ask the hard questions. You have to ask the hard questions. I don’t ask a selations questions about a marriage that ended 15 years ago, right? I think about, you know, it came up in a Josh Brolin story I did that I had to talk about this domestic violence call he had when he had when he was married to Diane Lane. And in the story, the conclusion I come to is no one will ever know what happened and it’s kind of awful for poor Diane Lane to have to open up a newspaper right now and read about her marriage when she’s not promoting a movie. She has nothing to do with this. So there’s kind of this level of menchiness that I think you have to apply to these things. And so the thing I think I can do with that in mind is tell someone’s story about the thing that’s been on their mind. And in every case, they tell me a lot of different things, and the thing I write about is the thing I feel in my soul. Because I do know... The only way I am zen in my life -- and I promise it is the only way -- is an understanding of two things. You can’t fit everything into one story. And that every person, there are infinite stories available to write about them. And so I just have to camly choose the one I’m going to. And what’s the point of me being the writer if I didn’t choose the one that I feel. And it’s… what was so kind of moving to me about you wanting to talk about this story. Because we’ve been talking about doing this for a while, with a couple of stories. But what was so moving to me is that sometimes I go for a first person in my stories and I explain… I kind of draw the line of how I very persoanlly relate to the person. But in this story, I wanted him to have all the space and I wanted to just write in a heartfelt way what he meant. And it was really moving to me that you saw that I was kind of telling a story not just about him about me and about you and about anyone who makes a creative endeavor.
PAUL KIX: Yeah.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: It’s like the craziest thing to do.
PAUL KIX: Tom Junod once told me that you can actually write a biography of me based only on the stories that I have written.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Oh my God, that’s so true! You could. By the time I met Tom, I knew, like, I felt disgusting how much I knew about him. I was, like, can I bring up a thing I know about you in casual conversation because I knew about it from reading you?
PAUL KIX: You know, so many of his pieces and so many of yours, while they include the first person, they don’t necessarily dwell on your own travails or his or whatever the case may be, right? They end up finding a way to use that personal experience to tie itself into the larger theme of whatever it is that you're exploring, right?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right.
PAUL KIX: And to your point about this piece, I think that what Ethan has been trying to prove first and foremost to the world, but to really himself is that dammit, I do matter.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Right. And I’m serious. That’s the idea that I love the most. Like why wouldn’t you take yourself seriously. What is this thing where people dismiss the thing their soul’s work. We talk about it so lightly. I speak to so many actors who are, like, oh, well, thank you. Oh, I never thought of it that way. And that’s not true. Everyone’s constantly thinking about the way they’re doing things. I loved that he could talk to me about it. That once I kind of brought it up 17 times, he was willing… he was not self conscious… he didn’t think I was trying to trap him into a story where he comes off as pretentious. He understood that I was having real feelings about him and that he had meant something to me. Which is, I mean, I’m glad that he took well because that could also be patronizing, that you… what you mean to me is to never be counted out.. is to never count yourself out. That’s when he told me the Cassavetes story because that’s when he… he finally put words to the thing that he wanted to… his mission statement. But what is amazing about this is while at first his career is this nebulus search for art. His art becomes this. His art becomes being taken seriously. Look at hsi movie. Blaze. Seymour. And Introduction was his documentary. It becomes about how seriously you should take yourself and how much fame… how much you should allow fame to interfere in your life. And how much it will kind of commerce will destroy your attempt at doing something good. And I think that he did not realize. I think that those questions were his obstacle and he started people think he started being taken seriously when he started looking a little more weathered and stopped being so romantic-comedy castable. But actually I think what happened was that his art started coming seriously when he leaned into that. When he realized, yeah, this is the work of my life. To be taken seriously.
PAUL KIX: Yeah. There’s a couple of… for the craft of this story itself. The first one is this idea that he allows himself to take himself seriously. And then toward the end of the first section break, you have this line where you say he never really thought about what would happen when and if he ever got to the point where he no longer had to fight. He never really thought that day would come. But of course that day does come. First with Boyhood, right, and now and this is sort of the reason that you're writing about it, with First Reform and Blaze. First Reformed is a movie that's interested in and of itself because it's about it's about religion and trying not to mock religion, but the Blaze one is the one that I think it's actually applicable to our conversation, Taffy. So for the for the listener who hasn't read this or isn't familiar with Blaze Foley can you tell can you tell us what it is who is Blaze Foley and why exactly was Ethan so drawn to making a movie about it?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Blaze Foley was a blues singer who is well known among people who know deep cuts of blues music. And not well known to, you know, like, he’s like anyone in college who knew Death Cab for Cuties versus, like, The Wallflowers. And he was very, very talented. He was very concerned about the nature of songwriting and music in general and every time he was given a chance to really go out there and shine and have a bigger audience or be known or have… or promote his albums, he would self destruct. He would drink too much. He would not show up to appointments. He would be belligerent to the audience. And eventually he was shot young in… He got in the way of domestic dispute. It wasn’t his own domestic dispute. But the thing that drew Ethan to him was the idea that you would make a bio pic without the section of the bio pic where the person becomes famous. Ethan loved that. Because Ethan has a lot of guilt for how famous he is. He talked to me about an actor Austin Pendelton who is this theater actor and a kind of lion of the theater. Anyone who kind of knows anything about theater has seen him a few times, knows him. And Ethan, by the time Ethan was 20 he had a savings account. Where as this guy was trying to support a wife and children or child while not making a lot of money. Ethan, from the time he’s 15, works regularly in big movies. He… I mean, the amount of fame... I think that’s what Richard Linkletter told me. By the time he was 20, by the time he was doing the first Before movie, Before Sunrise, he had turned down all kinds of fame. Everyone was calling hm. And he ended up going to Vienna to make a movie with… that probably wasn’t going to work. So that’s what Ethan loves about him. Ethan loves that he stayed true to his roots. And Ethan did not feel that he feels true to his roots. He felt that he took these jobs so he could live and justify the other work he did, the theater group, the small stuff. And then eventually he felt better about it because now he had alimony and child care and tuition and camp tuition and payments and all the things you stop feeling. Eventually you have kids and you stop feeling bad about the work you do that was just for money but I think that he… there’s some part of him that wishes that he had just not.. That he had not really.. That he’d almost been strong enough to only, maybe.. If he’s only done the good work, he wouldn’t be fighting to be taken seriously. If he’d only done the good work, this would have come to him in his 30s and not his 40s.
PAUL KIX: Ah. So I want to make sure I understand something. He wants to do this movie about Blaze because Blaze leads this life art for the sake of art with capital A Art, right, and perhaps is even self-destructing to make sure that his life remains that way. And Ethan is drawn to that because he feels guilt that he is himself is not the leading that life, right?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yeah, yeah.
PAUL KIX: But -- and this is sort of another turn in the story -- it turns out that he is actually being at life in ways that other people aren't. Like he can change to write novels, right? He continues to go on Broadway. And at a certain point at as well as his late thirties early forties, the sneering stops from the critics and what replaces it?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: First, there’s this phase of, “can you believe Ethan Hawke is doing this great work?” And then right now, and the impetus for the tone of my story is nobody’s really saying that anymore. Like, when Blaze is introduced to me via whatever piece of literature I get sent from a public relations professional, it is not, like, can you believe the actor Ethan Hawke made this movie? It’s no, he’s already gotten Oscar nominations for everything he’s done. Like, the director Ethan Hawke has made a movie that Ethan Hawke is not in and he doesn’t even need to be in the movies he’s making anymore. Like, he has… he makes the money. He will mount a respectable production. He is in demand. He is not someone that anyone is flippant about anymore. Kind of, you know, in the evolution of things. Had anyone had ever told him that when he was young, I don’t know if he would have believed it, but I bet you it would informed a lot of the way he proceeded and to the detriment of where he is now.
PAUL KIX: Yeah. He's able to take himself seriously to the point where basically other people start to take themselves seriously. And I want a sort of parallel that with your own life because at what point... I'm introduced to you as a writer around the time that you start doing personal essays. And I was, oh, that’s a new writer. I like her voice, I'm wondering at what point do you feel that people stop sneering at you and start to take you seriously as a profile writer.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Did you really know who I was then?
PAUL KIX: I didn't know who you were. I just read a couple of your essays.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No, I mean, like, back in real time you read this? I always felt like those were read by kind of very small avenue…
PAUL KIX: And I may be sort of collapsing timelines here. It may have been by the time you were writing for, like, GQ, I would have been like, what else is Taffy done because I like that Billy Bob piece.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Okay. That sounds more accurate. So what happens for me is that I’m fighting and fighting and fighting to be taken very, very seriously. And one day, I pitch a story to the New York Times magazine. I’ve been doing some women’s magazine work, which paid okay. Which justified me, you know, once kind of in 2008, once every, you know, all jobs were precarious. My husband was laid off. You know, the idea occurred to me that I should go back to a job but this seemed to be working out for me. So I started getting a little bit more aggressive with it. And I had these goals. And I was pretty mercenary about them. And I was going to write for the New York Times newspaper once, just so I could write in my bio Taffy Brodessser-Akner has written for the New York Times. That was it. And after I closed that story, I was, like, that is so stressful, I’m never doing it again. And this was an 800-word essay for the style section. But I kind of couldn’t stay away because.. The place I wanted to work was GQ. My father had a GQ... after he and my mother divorced. He had, like, one GQ from 1982 that was in our den for, like, 10 years. And I always thought this was the magazine. And I would go to the library and I would read those things. The New York Times magazine seemed so fancy to me that I didn’t think that I’d ever be able to get in there. But what was going on at GQ, which was the kind of voice, oh, like these people kind of sound a little bit like me. These people have a point of view that I think eventually I can come to. But they won’t have me. GQ will not have me. But they’re nice and they like me because I keep showing up to meetings again with my boomerang, hey guys!
PAUL KIX: Wait. I want to pause you right there. You actually… so, you know, like, I’ve been in… I don’t say this to brag, I’m saying, like, I’ve been in GQ and all I’ve had to do there was just pitch somebody and then they said Yeah, that sounds like a great story! Let’s do it! You’re showing up to meetings?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: No, I’m showing up, from Los Angeles, to the Conde Nast cafeteria and waiting for them and meeting with them and meeting with several of them and hoping that someone likes me. Also, can you think of any big differences between us?
(Laughter from both Paul and Taffy.)
I’m a woman and woman are not just diminished in they’re... Even work. Imagine a men’s magazine. The amount that you have to prove there is bonkers, right? At the New York Times magazine I at least stood a chance. Well, I’m a New Yorker. You know? I subscribe to this since I was a child. I pitched a story to the New York Times magazine and it was about autism. Because that felt like a fancy New York Times magazine story. And they assigned it to me, and I did it and it got killed. And it got killed because it wasn’t exactly the pitch. And also because I was… just like I told you at the soap opera magazine. I was always this writer. I think it was confusing for a writer they’d never heard of to have… like something personal and voice… like I think it… nobody understood what I was trying to do. Because also it was the first draft. And I know what my first drafts looked like back then. They were very earnest and I think that they were just, like, this is a story we really thought it was. And then I went to New York to meet with another editor and he with me and he likes me. And I was pitching.. and I was about to pitch an essay about the children of.. There was, like this big boom. Girls was coming out. This big boom of the children of famous people being cast, which I kind of smelled as the… like… right before Instagram celebrities happened. It would be, oh, I will check this out because this is Brian Williams’s daughter. And I was about to pitch that essay and I said the name Zoshia Mamet because she’s David Mamet’s daughter and she was the first one I was bringing up. And he said, “oh, interesting.” And suddenly I realized what was happening. He was considering this for a profile. Which I never thought. I had done one Q & A that a very generous, generous, lovely editor.. The deputy of Playboy for many, many years. I would have lunch with him in LA. I just loved him. He would take me out to lunch, and I would pitch him and one day one of them happened, and he sent me do a 20 questions with Kristen Ritter. And I had done an okay job with that. So now that I had that, then he assigned me Jeff Garland. And then I had these, you know, I felt like I had this, look at me! I’m a celebrity profiler now! And then this guy is saying, you should write about Zoshia Mamet. And it worked. And it was my first profile. And it’s crazy for your first profile to be at the New York Times magazine. First draft was a nightmare and his… he.. Adam Sternberg is his name. Was the kindest… Like, some people are kind and some people are smart. And I wish more people were kind and smart. Because I think a lot of what happens later comes from the fact that he dealt with my bad first draft and kind of taught me what to do. He said, no, no, no. You want this and then a bio section and then.. He just laid it out for me in this very kind way that wasn’t, like, you have no business pitching the New York Times magazine -- which I absolley did not. And I wrote story and then an editor at GQ… GQ had started assigning me 300-word fashion profiles, which, as you know, for editing at ESPN, 300 words is not really my sweet spot.
PAUL KIX: No.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: My last story there was 12,000 words. And I kept filing then at 1200 words and saying I promise if you just let me do something longer, I’ll do it well. They liked me and they sent me to do Q & As for the comedy issue… was at GQ and I got booted to him from my regular editor Devin Gordon to edit one of these fashion profiles. And he said I really liked your Gabby Hoffman story and we just started talking about writing. Two months later, he left GQ and started Matter, which was Medium’s long-form arm. And on his first day, said what do you want to write? And there were two failed pitches I had from GQ that I had that he knew about. About Brittney Spears and Paula Deen and he assigned them both of those that day. And then once I wrote the Brittney Spears one, GQ was finally interested in me, and they assigned Nicki Manaj. And the New York Times profiles I felt were the best version of I could do of a New York Times magazine profile. The Matter’s story were so much about voice and about me and about, like, they were both write arounds. So they were true personal essays with someone who is the star of them that wasn’t me. And then by the time I get to Nicki Minaj, what happens is that I’m so excited. This is my shot, I’m going to do it. And Nicki Minaj falls asleep while we’re talking. And I know GQ. GQ will not publish something that has Nicki Minaj asleep in the story because if she doesn’t give us any good quotes, we’re just going to kill it. Like they have their own ego. They finally give me.. Okay, so here’s what happens. So I leave… I cry against Barclays Center. I, like, lean against Barclays Center where I interviewed crying because my career is over. And my shot at GQ is over. And then I get a phone call from the booker, and he says, how did it go? And I’m sobbing. And I said, she fell asleep. It’s over. And he says the most interesting thing to me. He says, oh, the poor thing. She must be so tired. And I, like a phoenix from the ashes was, like, yes. She must be so tired and I’m going to write that story. I’m going to write a story because I’m standing here at 1 a.m and I am tired. And that was, like, the real first time I was able to say, like, you were asleep but we are all the same. And so my story is your story. And I go back and I write this story about what I would have asked her if she was awake, and what I think she would have said is she were awake, and we should both go to sleep because we’re all so tired. And it’s hard for a woman to be in this business. And it’s hard to be a woman in THIS business. And then that became the thing that I do. And I eventually came back to the New York Times magazine. I got a contract there. I got a contract at GQ. So since then I’ve just been allowed to kind of do the thing that I want to do and, like... and kind of let’s go back to the difference between me and you is that it is very hard for a woman to do this. It is very hard for a woman to be taken seriously. It is very hard for a woman to be emotional in a story because it’s very hard for a woman to be taken seriously or emotional in real life.
PAUL KIX: Yeah.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: And I’m sorry to report that I needed the help of these kind of confident men who came in and were able to kind of appreciate it about me. And bring it to these prominent places where then I got so much validation. By the time 2014 when I get these two contracts at GQ and the New York Times magazine, I’m kind of… I’m on my way. I am who I am. And I’m still looking for metrics by which I’m taken seriously or not taken seriously. Was this on the cover? Was this in demand? Would they fly me to another country for this? In fact in 2015 by the time I pitched ESPN the magazine about a story I wanted to do about a male synchronized swimmer the only one in the US, the person I had pitched had heard of me. And was, like, yes, we know what you would bring to this story and we want to do it.
PAUL KIX: Yeah.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: And that is my Blaze moment, right? That is the point at which I realized that I am going to be taken seriously. And that I’m kind of set. And then there are these little things along the way that people recognize me. That people write to me. That people ask me to guest speak in their class. That people ask me to be on their podcasts. That people ask me my opinion or write me long letters or tweet at me when they’re stories about the death of the celebrity profile to say not as long as she’s around, which just happened. And at that point I no longer have any questions about whether or not I’m taken seriously. How… And what’s great is that I haven't really changed. I’m still allowed to be myself crying at work or being emotional and being sloppy. Only it’s appreciated. And I think maybe if i were to continue to graft myself onto Ethat Hawke, had the autism story worked out, it would never have been the true validation that this has been. I have an ex boyfriend who recently said to me, who I’m touch with, who recently said to me, you spent your whole life trying to get people to listen to you and trying to be taken seriously. And it’s so crazy that it ends up that just being the most distilled concentrated of who you are is the thing that took off. I mean which I think was probably an insult because he had dumped me many years ago. And I guess he did not like the concentrated distilled version of who I was. But, yeah. It was that. That to me is Ethan Hawke. Like Ethan Hawke and I have arrived. When people have asked me who I want to write about over the years, it’s… one of them has always been Ethan Hawke. And people have always assumed that it’s a kind of weird crush or a Gen-X avatary thing. I was giddy when it was assigned to me, and one of the editors here thought it was a sexual thing. And I said, no, no, no, no, no. And I understand why she thought that. I was blushing when I found out. It was because I finally get to tell this story. And I almost felt like after I published this. There's… I don’t know any other stories I have to tell anymore. Even though that’s not true. That’s just a weird thing to think. But, like, I got to tell this story was amazing to me.
PAUL KIX: And there's something here sort of leads up to the summation of the Ethan Hawke story itself. Toward the end... I'm just going to read something and I'm going to actually ask you to read the actual close. Toward the end, you have this paragraph, which ties into this idea that you just expressed about the most distilled version of yourself and how that's actually the one that is the best presentation of yourself to the world. You write, “the questions about Ethan's pursuit of money and his acceptance of fame; the way he was haunted by Austin Pendleton and Seymour Bernstein and was just starting to think about Blaze Foley. He realized those questions weren't the obstacle to his life as an artist but the cause of his life as an artist and of his art. This was the burning question in him that fueled his best filmmaking. He found a way to distill himself as well.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yeah. I mean, don’t you feel that way?
PAUL KIX: I completely do. And it’s part of the reasons why I wanted to talk with you about this piece because, like what Tom Junod said you can do the biography of me based only on my stories. Having just… You know, I had a chance to meet you just a few years ago when you started writing for ESPN. But, like, just having stayed in contact with you over these last few years, reading this, I’m like, this is Taffy. This is Ethan, but this is really Taffy.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: That’s so interesting.
PAUL KIX: All right, so what I’d like you do is to actually read the last couple of paragraphs because I think it’s a nice little send off.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Here’s something. It’s a little on the nose, he knows that, but it’s true, and sometimes a condition of things that are true is that they’re also a little on the nose: A few years ago, Mr. Hawke had a dream he hasn’t been able to shake. He’s in a dressing room at a theater, and Liam Neeson opens the door and congratulates him. “You’re crushing it, mate,” he says. “It’s going great. Get out there, give them hell.” Mr. Hawke thanks him, Mr. Neeson leaves, then Helen Mirren walks in. She’s being flirty with him, and says, “First act was amazing.” She leaves, too. Then the prop guy comes by and Mr. Hawke says, “What play is this?” And the prop guy laughs and says, “Don’t worry, Ethan, you’re doing fine.” And Mr. Hawke says, “No, seriously, what play is it?” He looks around. There are like five different costumes. His heart is racing. He remembers that Mr. Neeson was close to getting the teacher role in “Dead Poets Society.” He doesn’t know if that’s why Mr. Neeson is in the dream, or if it’s because he, like Ms. Mirren, has had a surprisingly interesting second half of a career. Still, it makes no sense and he still doesn’t know what play he’s in. Mr. Neeson calls for him, says the second act is about to start. He looks at Mr. Neeson, he looks out at the house.
That’s when he wakes up. He lies in bed, blinking into the darkness, not quite sure exactly what to do next. But then, after a few minutes, he gets up and goes to work.
PAUL KIX: It’s such a beautiful send off because…
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Aww. Thank you.
PAUL KIX: He’s made peace with himself and he’s found that he’s doing the work that he’s always wanted to do. And, sort of as a closing question, wanted to know have you found that similar piece? Have you reached a point where you’re, like, yes, I’m confident in what I can do now, and I know that people can take me seriously and now I can do my best work?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I think that there’s so much even more in that last sentence, which is.. It’s almost like the last scene in the movie that you know is going to get a sequel. Because the question is, I do know I’m taken seriously. I don’t feel insecure about my position. You’re at the Times or in journalism and then you have to questions, which is how is that confidence going affect the work? How is not having a scrappy work anymore going to change the work, right? You don’t want to change the work. There’s something about that’s been working. And then the second is well, now that you know is that your cause, what do you do? What is the thing that you do? He makes Blaze. I write about him. And what’s the next thing I do? I write all of these… I’ve read a lot of profiles. I write celebrity profiles all the time. Do I start mixing it up and writing about different kinds of people? Do I start, you know, I’m in the middle of an investigate piece which was assigned to me without even, like, a second thought and that feels good. I think, like, it’s the seat at the table that you get to sit at when you’re finally taken seriously. And you sit there and nobody knows what’s going on in your head. And it’s been a few years for me, but still in my head, all I can hear is, I can’t believe I”m here. I can’t believe I”m here. And I hope that never goes away. And sometimes I desperately hope it goes away because feeling grateful all the time is also not great. You know what I mean? I hope it goes away in a sense that I do think that i’m taken seriously. I do think that I’m confident in what I do. But then what’s the next level of that? What will be the next level of that for me? I wonder about that. And I then calm down, and I think to myself, all you have to do is write one story at a time. And I’ll save this. I just wrote a story about Gwenyth Paltrow. And I have always thought in some sense that the best story I ever did was this story about… it was my last story that I did for Matter after the Britney and the Paula Deen story. And it was about women in the UFC. And there was something about it that I thought made it just the best story I'd ever read. And when I was closing the Gwenyth Paltrow story, I think I’ve taken a large step back in quality since that.
PAUL KIX: Really?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Yeah. And I went back to read that UFC story, and I was, like, oh. This is good and not as good as recent work. And that was a real relief. To see yourself get better when every single time you done it felt like some kind of peak that you reached. Like a mountain that you’ve climbed that you couldn’t possibly go higher and then to learn that the next time out you would? That’s very life affirming and that’s very career affirming. And the world is filled with stories and sometimes I just think, like, I know other people make more money. I know other people have easier lives. Who is this lucky? Who gets to do this?
PAUL KIX: Taffy, thank you so much for coming on.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Paul, it’s a pleasure. I hope I did it right.
PAUL KIX: You completely did it right. Now That’s a Great Story is produced by Jeff Willet. The music for Now That’s a Great Story comes from his as well. Anything more about this episode, head over to Paulkix.com where I have posted show notes about this story but then other things that we’ve discussed along the way. If you like this podcast, don’t forget to rate and review it on iTunes, Stitcher, wherever it is that you listen to it. Until next week, everybody, I’m Paul Kix. Have a good one. Goodbye.