TORONTO — Ethan Hawke knows well the rugged, salty landscape of Nova Scotia.
The four-time Oscar-nominated actor and scribe says he bought a place near Guysborough, N.S., 18 years ago after doing writing retreats at a friend’s cabin on Cape Breton Island. He and his family now have friends there and try to visit for about a month every summer.
It’s partly why he signed on to the new film “Maudie,” about the real-life relationship between Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis and fish peddler Everett Lewis.
“I love it up there,” Hawke said recently by phone from Toronto, where he’s shooting “Stockholm,” based on the true story of a 1973 bank heist in which the hostages ended up bonding with their captors.
“I just know these guys. I’ve been fishing with these guys. If I didn’t have my place up there, I probably would have loved the script and said, ‘I can’t imagine myself in that part’ or something.
“But because I have so many friends up there and have met some of these men, I really felt excited about the challenge.”
Aisling Walsh directed and Sherry White wrote the Canada-Ireland co-production, which opens Friday in Halifax, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver.
Oscar-nominated British star Sally Hawkins is getting critical acclaim for her portrayal of Maud, a joyful artist from rural Nova Scotia who persevered through juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, poverty and ill treatment from her community and loved ones.
“A couple of years ago I was doing a play and I came home from the theatre about midnight or something and my wife was sitting in the kitchen and she was just sobbing and sobbing,” said Hawke, an Austin, Tex., native whose other films include “Dead Poets Society,” “Reality Bites” and “Training Day.”
“I was like, ‘What is it, what is it?’ and she just said, ‘You have to do this movie.”’
The Newfoundland and Labrador-shot film depicts how Maud met her husband (played by Hawke) when she answered his ad for a housekeeper for his tiny isolated home.
Everett is gruff and abusive toward Maud but she creates her own sense of joy by painting colourful flowers and birds on the walls and windows of the home. Slowly, Everett warms up to her and the two eventually marry.
Despite her gnarled hands, she became a prolific painter and even achieved international recognition when former U.S. president Richard Nixon commissioned her work for the White House.
“She made the world beautiful,” said Hawke. “It’s like the power of her own joy transformed everything around her and it’s something you really notice — that the world accepts what you give out.”
Hawke, 46, said his recent work involves being “more and more interested in acting, just about what the possibilities of it are.”
“I’ve found what’s being asked of me is changing and getting more interesting,” added Hawke, whose last few roles have included playing jazz legend Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue” and a gunslinger in the western “The Magnificent Seven.”
These days, Hawke said he wants parts that are challenging and interesting to him.
“I found the power of turning 40 was as tangible and real as adolescence,” said Hawke. “They joke about a midlife crisis or whatever, but all of a sudden it hits you like a freight train — that your life is passing and going to be over soon and what does it mean to you?
“You either get crushed under that or get reinvigorated to care and make an effort. I decided that if I was going to keep acting, I had to get more interested.”
“Maudie” expands on April 21 to Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal, Victoria and Winnipeg and other cities throughout the spring.