PLAYING ALL THE ANGLES
Ethan Hawke has had the most unique of careers: a bona fide film star who has avoided Hollywood. On the eve of Emma John meets the actor, director, novelist and music lover in New York
ETHAN Hawke is out and about in New York, the city he’s lived in for 30 years, a place where famous faces slide past every day. He’s wearing a baseball cap, a brown hoodie and a schlubby pair of cords. It’s an outfit you may think he chose to look nondescript, but in reality it’s because he likes corduroy trousers, though his stylist wishes to God he wouldn’t wear them in public.
Someone spots him and approaches timidly. The fan trembles: ‘‘ Mr Dorff?’’ Hawke doesn’t want to ruin their moment, so he gives a smile, shakes their hand. This has happened before — he gets mistaken for a lot of famous people: Christian Bale, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt. And, it seems, Stephen Dorff. ‘‘ You start realising how many fans Stephen Dorff has,’’ Hawke says, laughing as he tells the story. ‘‘ Wow, people really love him.’’
The irony is not lost on an actor who has spent a career carving out a distinctly individual path, who refused to appear in advertisements,, who has turned down projects from Hollywood studios desperate to commodify him. ‘‘ You spend so much energy trying to differentiate yourself and no sooner do you do that than somebody comes up to you: ‘ I loved you in that movie’ . . . the one you refused to do because you thought it was a piece of shit.’’
At 42, Hawke has made about 50 films and played the lead in almost all of them. Some, such as Gattaca and Training Day, achieved marquee status; most, however, are cult classics and critically lauded indie projects that Hawke seems to have sniffed out with the adroitness of Winnie the Pooh nosing honey.
The day before we meet, Hawke has flown home from Melbourne where, for the past six weeks, he’s been shooting a time-travel thriller adapted from a Robert Heinlein short story. Now he’s needed here in New York because he has two films about to premiere and a suit to pick up from Dior (his stylist really doesn’t trust him in his own clothes).
He’s jetlagged, but that’s OK because he’s had ‘‘ like, 14 cups of coffee’’; his morning has already incorporated a haircut and a two-hour photo shoot. The shoot’s got him thinking about photography and, as we wander the streets north of Madison, he tells me the story behind a Marilyn Monroe print he owns, a nude taken by a photographer’s assistant when the photographer was on a break.
Hawke commits to small talk with the same enthusiasm he shows for every subject he broaches. He looks into your eyes as he talks, creating an intensity at odds with his languid air. I feel as if I’ve experienced this before. Of course I have: we’re inside one of his movies.
Hawke was 24 when he played Jesse in Before Sunrise, the Richard Linklater film that follows a brief encounter between two strangers in Vienna talking their way through the city (and falling in love) in the course of a single night. On paper, the film should not have worked. ‘‘ It’s not even entertaining enough to be a play,’’ Hawke says with a grin, once we’ve found a restaurant and sat up at the bar. On the shoot, Julie Delpy fretted to Linklater that it was going to be dull. ‘‘ Reeek,’’ cries Hawke, deftly imitating his co-star, ‘‘ it has to be funny! We need to write jokes!’’
Instead, it became one of the most beloved screen romances of all time — particularly by anyone who saw it at the impressionable end of their 20s. Nine years later Hawke, Delpy and Linklater wrote a sequel, Before Sunset, and were jointly Oscar-nominated for the screenplay. This month, 18 years since the original, the trio returns with Before Midnight, which answers the question of whether Jesse and Celine ever got together and raises a few more of how romance can survive middle age.
Despite the fact that these films are the most personal projects of his screen career — or perhaps because of it — Hawke, who has now ordered a glass of red wine to counteract the caffeine, would almost rather not talk about Before Midnight at all. ‘‘ Invariably you’re selling it, trying to tell people it’s special, and it becomes less special because you said that,’’ he says. He rubs his hair with his hand; he does this a lot, and by the time our food arrives, his sleek new coiff has become a thatch. ‘‘ For the people that care about these films, they have a certain kind of meaning, and for another kind of person it’s the most boring movie of all time. People in my own family wouldn’t want to listen to me talk that much, you know?’’
Hawke considers meeting Linklater a defining moment in his life: the second, perhaps, after Peter Weir had given him his break as a self-conscious schoolboy in Dead Poets Society. Linklater’s passion, his refusal to compromise on his artistry, were values Hawke took to heart. ‘‘ It was stunning to me the agency he took in his own life. He was 30 and he had things he wanted to say and things he believed in. He thought movies I’d grown up with — Hollywood movies — were all crap. He had a whole different vocabulary from anybody I’d met before and I felt woken up by him.’’
Hawke’s characters are often positioned at a place where good intentions meet hard reality, whether it’s the rookie cop in Training Day or the corrupt one in Brooklyn’s Finest, or Vince, the slacker college friend and ‘‘ potentially violent dick’’ in Tape. And while Linklater has described Hawke as ‘‘ a Beatnik following his own muse’’, others have accused him of pretension, especially when, in his mid-20s, he announced himself as a novelist. That accusation seems unfair — his two books, for a start, are pretty good novels, written with brutal honesty and a spare, matter-of-fact delivery.
And yes, his conversation does range from Keith Carradine and Jimi Hendrix to Rainer Maria Rilke, but never in a self-regarding way — Hawke seems to have deep reserves of curiosity and is clearly equally fascinated by the plate of food in front of him. ‘‘ By the way,’’ he warns, mid-sentence, ‘‘ I’m thinking about something else while I’m talking to you, which is that these carrots are tasty as hell!’’
William, the protagonist in Hawke’s debut novel The Hottest State, has ‘‘ nice crooked teeth’’ and ‘‘ the strangest energy’’. Which pretty much describes Hawke. Also like Hawke, William is born in Texas to teenage parents who divorce only a few years after he is born and then moves away with his mother; the book contains a heartfelt longing for a father he never saw. It also contains an interesting note of self-warning: William’s mother tells him that, ‘‘ I’d better be careful because I was a bullshitter and that there was no sadder creature on the planet than a handsome bullshitter, because everything came easy for them and they never did a damn thing with any of it.’’
Acting certainly seemed to come easy to Hawke. There’s a shot in Explorers, the children’s sci-fi he co-starred in with River Phoenix, in which a 14-year-old Ethan looks up at the window of a girl he has a crush on; if the scene itself is bald cliche, the way his face conveys emotion is anything but. Four years later he found fame but, he argues, it was an invisible sort of fame (‘‘I was one of the Dead Poets; nobody knew my name’’) and his friendship with co-star Robert Sean Leonard helped set the tone for his future career. ‘‘ I was just this kid from Texas, but he had a real ethos about acting. He didn’t want to be Warren Beatty — he wanted to be Alec Guinness.’’
They were part of a set of New York 20-somethings with a passion for theatre and time on their hands; at its centre were Hawke and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman. Sherman, who describes himself as a ‘‘ lifelong insomniac’’, had found his soulmate. ‘‘ I met somebody who could stay up as late as I could,