Ethan Hawke, Stephen Colbert
Screenshot: The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

With Ethan Hawke on hand to promote his role in Paul Schrader’s well-reviewed new movie First Reformed, Late Show host Stephen Colbert and the actor spent much of their time talking Shakespeare instead. Well, first, Hawke geeked out over how Colbert’s Ed Sullivan Theater once hosted Elvis Presley, only to find out from Colbert that the host’s desk apparently stands right where Presley first gyrated on The Ed Sullivan Show back in 1956, which is pretty neat. But Hawke, prompted by Colbert, recounted his admiration for fellow thespian Mark Rylance, who, while directing Hawke in a star-dappled Amnesty International Shakespeare benefit at London’s Globe Theatre, offered the overwhelmed American some of the wisest advice an aspiring Hamlet ever got.

Colbert, whose acting idol Paul Scofield was on hand at the event along with the likes of British Shakespearean royalty like Vanessa Redgrave and Simon Russell Beale, listened raptly as the self-effacing Hawke explained how he assumed his placement in the show was the “masterful” Rylance’s idea of a joke. Hawke’s no slouch as far as Shakespeare goes—he’s played numerous roles onstage, as well as his turns (as Hamlet and Iachimo) in Michael Almereyda’s stylistically outré film adaptations of Hamlet and Cymbeline. But, seeing his “To be or not to be” soliloquy scheduled between Redgrave’s Cressida and Scofield’s King Lear sent Hawke running after director and Shakespearean legend Rylance asking to be put out of his misery, and the show.

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In what Hawke termed “a classic ‘you’re good enough’ speech,” Hawke shared veteran Hamlet Rylance’s secret to navigating the most over-familiar speech in world drama, the sort of inside baseball, peer-to-peer trick that only one Hamlet can truly share with another. Fans of the outstanding Canadian show Slings And Arrows will remember when that series’ brilliant former Dane (played by the great Paul Gross) pulls aside the seemingly overmatched American movie star playing Hamlet (Rectify’s Luke Kirby) and tells him the simple choice he must make about that same pivotal speech. Like Colbert clearly did, any Shakespeare nerd in the world thrills to such invaluably dishy insights that can pull a panicky actor back from the brink, even when, as Colbert assessed Hawke’s predicament, “you’re just shitting your pants.”