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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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,

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