TORONTO (Reuters) - The interview was supposed to start, but pianist Seymour Bernstein was not quite ready. He held up his iPad to take one more picture of actor-director Ethan Hawke before he was satisfied.
“I think that captures the part of you that I’m very fond of: unassuming and full of affection,” Bernstein told Hawke, showing him the photo.
Bernstein is the 87-year-old subject of Hawke’s new documentary, “Seymour: An Introduction”, an intimate portrait of a classical pianist, teacher and composer. It is also about the passion and devotion toward perfecting a craft.
An intense conversation during a chance meeting at a Manhattan dinner party several years ago blossomed into a unique friendship. Hawke wanted to hear Bernstein play, but it took a year before it happened.
“What I’m kind of in shock about, and I love, is that when somebody great plays the piano, the room stops,” Hawke, 43, told Reuters.
Bernstein had a concert career that took him all over the world, but he called it quits at age 50, in part because he did not enjoy the anxiety and commercial side of the business, and wanted more time to compose and teach.
A private individual, the film does not delve into Seymour’s personal life. Yet the pianist not only agreed to the documentary, but to Hawke’s request to give an informal recital to his theater group, New York City’s LAByrinth Theater Company.
“He’s so endearing, you can’t say ‘no’ to this guy. So I heard myself say ‘yes’ ... I started to practice like I was going to make my New York debut,” said Bernstein, who began playing six to eight hours a day. “I wasn’t going to let him down.”
The film, which debuted at Telluride last month and was acquired by Sundance Selects, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this week.
It has received critical praise. Variety wrote: “The great classical pianist ... is as graceful a speaker as he is a musician, and his voice rings out with wondrous depth and clarity.”
Even though Hawke rarely inserts himself into the film, the respect and affection between the two artists - in some ways mentor and protege - are nonetheless infused throughout.
“He goes inside of a person, the way he goes inside of a role, when he plays, when he acts. He went inside of me, and was able to capture what I would describe as my essence,” said Bernstein of Hawke.
In the film, just before Seymour gives his first public performance in 35 years, Hawke tells the audience how he confided to Bernstein “his most terrifying secret” - that for the last several years, he sometimes performed with crippling stage fright. Seymour offers wise counsel, because he understands the anxiety that comes with performing.
Coming out of retirement proved to be a balm for Bernstein.
“Something very strange occurred ... (Ethan) introduces me. A deathly calm came over me. I couldn’t believe it. I said, this is amazing,” he said.
Editing by Mary Milliken. Editing by Andre Grenon