Cool, cocky and complex, Ethan Hawke sits down with me at a breakfast table in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn for a spirited conversation about his unique quarter-century-plus trajectory in the film world.
Hawke is about as articulate, clear-minded and amiable a movie star as you’ll ever interview, constantly downplaying his prodigious accomplishments with modesty and grace, straight-talking about how he got where he is today, thankful for his good fortune, acutely cognizant of his missteps.
It’s a propitious time for Hawke to take a space station-like view of his career. As we head into the New Year, Hawke’s creative engine is firing on all cylinders. His latest directorial effort, Blaze, is premiering at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. He has starring roles in three new movies: Vincent D’Onofrio’s The Kid, Jesse Peretz’s Juliet, Naked (also premiering at Sundance) and Robert Budreau’s Stockholm. And if all that isn’t enough, he’s also developing his next feature film, an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ soulful, surreal play Camino Real.
This is the second time Ethan Hawke and I have crossed paths. The first time was way back at the debut of his career, not long after the 1989 release of Peter Weir’s sleeper hit, Dead Poets Society. Hawke’s portrayal of the shy, introspective prep school student “Todd Anderson” launched his acting career. On his way to the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, Hawke slept over a couple of nights in my home outside Avignon, France, invited over (unbeknownst to me) by my endearing, mischievous pal, Seymour Cassel, the journeyman actor who worked on several films with the legendary John Cassavetes.
I kick things off by asking if Hawke remembers his stay at my place.
“Sure, it was my first time in France,” he says. “I was traveling with Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Hamilton. Bringing us full circle, Josh stars in my new movie, Blaze.”
Juliet, Naked Starring Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke
That long-ago morning, Seymour and I picked up three scruffy young men with backpacks in the main square of Avignon. A gaggle of French teenagers, mostly girls, had surrounded them, asking for autographs. Released under the title, Le cercle des poètes disparus, Dead Poets Society had been a box-office smash in France.
“It was early in the morning when we got to the Avignon train station,” Hawke remembers. “We walked up to the town’s main square, singing Streets of Laredo all the way. It was so cool. They flew Robert and I over for Cannes, so we came a month early. Nowadays I fly in for festivals and fly out almost the same day. We were so excited about free tickets to France that we traded in our first class seats for coach so we could bring along our pal, Josh. We were carefree and had the best time.”
I remember getting the young actors settled in at my place where they refused to sleep in beds but rather proudly unwrapped their sleeping bags on my living room floor. That afternoon there was a line of teenage girls outside my place, clamoring to see their big screen idols. I don’t know how those teens found out where I lived, but I suspect it was Seymour. Nevertheless, there they were, waiting in front of my gate. Ethan, Robert and Josh asked me if they could go out “to talk” with them. They bemoaned my stern command that the front gate would stay locked. What happened next was a scene out of some sappy prison camp movie. Zoom in for the close-up on three rakish young men in blue jeans and T-shirts passing out handshakes, kisses, and autographs through the gate’s bars.
“You protected us from scandal,” says Ethan, 47 years old now, with the same boyish charm.
How could I ever have imagined what amazing things that happy-go-lucky 20-year-old actor was going to accomplish over the next two and a half decades? There would be scores of starring roles in over 50 films, both big-budget Hollywood productions such as Gattaca (1997), Training Day (2001) and The Magnificent Seven (2016) as well as indie jewels, most notably Hawke’s significant work with Richard Linklater on The Newton Boys (1998), Waking Life (2001), Fast Food Nation (2006), the widely-acclaimed Boyhood (2014), and the remarkable Before trilogy with Julie Delpy: Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013).
Not satisfied with just being a highly sought-after movie actor, Hawke branched out into theater roles with his Broadway debut in The Seagull in 1992, expanding his repertoire over the years with outstanding performances in works by Shakespeare, Brecht, Stoppard, Rabe and Shepard. In 2001, Hawke directed his first narrative film, Chelsea Walls, followed by The Hottest State (2006), and then made the poignant 2014 documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, about piano teacher Seymour Bernstein. His new movie, Blaze, is inspired by the outlaw country musician, Blaze Foley.
This too-quick overview of Hawke’s impressive productivity since I first met him doesn’t even include his pair of well-regarded novels, The Hottest State (1996), and Ash Wednesday (2002) nor his award-winning children’s book, Rules for a Knight, (2015). And there are just too many Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations to list here.