‘IT’S A DANCE WITH FIRE’

Ethan Hawke on learn­ing how to han­dle early fame and his‘ lost’ years

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Time is al­ways at our el­bow. Ethan Hawke, who has changed lit­tle in 30 years, is at the Soho Ho­tel in Lon­don to talk about his role in Ais­ling Walsh’s ir­re­sistible new film, Maudie. Still neatly bearded like a lat­ter-day beat­nik, he is also happy to talk about the per­ils of child­hood star­dom, the pains of di­vorce and the tyranny of event cinema.

It’s been more than a decade since we met for a ra­dio broad­cast in Dublin. “My daugh­ter is over there now, shoot­ing some­thing,” he says mer­rily. “The BBC are do­ing a re­make of Louisa May Al­cott’s Lit­tle Women.”

Is that pos­si­ble? I guess she’s play­ing one of the lit­tler women.

“She’s 19 now,” he says with a shrug. “It’s an Ir­ish bless­ing to have her first job be there. I had such a good time when I was there.”

Yes, I sup­pose Maya Hawke, daugh­ter to Hawke and Uma Thur­man, prob­a­bly is old enough to play Jo March. Thur­man and Hawke mar­ried in 1998. They sep­a­rated in 2003. By that point Hawke had been act­ing for nearly 20 years. His first role was op­po­site River Phoenix, in Joe Dante’s Ex­plor

ers. That was 1985. Hawke then went through a quiet pe­riod be­fore, at the age of 18, break­ing through as one of the young en­sem­ble in Dead Po­ets So­ci­ety.

“Par­ents are of­ten flat­tered when peo­ple want to pho­to­graph their chil­dren,” he says. “There has never been a child whose life has been en­hanced by that. It’s a de­struc­tive thing. It worked out okay for me. It’s not a good thing for a child to have cof­fee brought to them by an adult. It’s a dance with fire. I wit­nessed that with River’s death.”

River Phoenix’s death

Phoenix died in 1993, at the age of 23. His death has be­come a le­gend to warn young ac­tors away from fame’s more per­ilous shores.

“I think it had to do with cop­ing with the pres­sures of child act­ing,” Hawke says sadly of his late friend. “It’s very dif­fi­cult to grow up in that en­vi­ron­ment.”

Hawke did not feel un­der quite that de­gree of pres­sure. But it was a tricky up­bring­ing. His par­ents, who were stu­dents when he was born, di­vorced four years af­ter his birth. His mother moved around in his early years be­fore com­ing to rest in New York City. She re­mar­ried when he was 10, and they took them­selves to New Jer­sey.

It’s worth pon­der­ing all this when watch­ing his per­for­mance as the dad in Richard Lin­klater’s

Boy­hood. Shot over 10 years, the film fol­lowed a kid, the son of a di­vorced mother, from a trou­bled child­hood to an awk­ward ado­les­cence. There’s some­thing of Hawke in his own role; di­vorce and sep­a­ra­tion from his chil­dren came early in the lengthy shoot. But there’s also some­thing of Hawke in the kid.

“I was go­ing through a breakup,” he says. “I was look­ing at it from the van­tage point of both what it was like to grow up with that and what it was like to go through that. Lin­klater and I had sim­i­lar child­hoods.”

Ex­plor­ers, a nifty post-Spiel­berg sci­ence-fic­tion flick, did not do the busi­ness that it de­served, and Hawke found him­self kicked back to nor­mal­ity. He fan­cied be­com­ing a writer and signed up for an English de­gree at New York Univer­sity. Then

Dead Po­ets So­ci­ety in­ter­vened. I won­der if his wari­ness about child act­ing springs from the dis­ap­point­ment he must have felt af­ter mak­ing a false start.

“Yeah. And River did make it,” he says. “So I felt that very in­tensely. I saw that it was pos­si­ble and that it hadn’t hap­pened for me. As a young per­son that was a huge kick in the teeth. I felt that I had failed. But that pre­pared me.”

Hawke goes on to say that, hav­ing failed to make it once, he didn’t ab­sorb the suc­cess of

Dead Po­ets So­ci­ety at first. It took him a few years to be­lieve that he had prop­erly ar­rived. Hawke’s ap­pear­ance op­po­site Wi­nona Ry­der and Ben Stiller in

Re­al­ity Bites con­firmed his sta­tus as a sig­na­ture ac­tor of Gen­er­a­tion X. (Ar­ti­cles on that phe­nom­e­non still use his im­age as an ex­am­ple of the species.) He had that laid-back charm. He had the af­fa­ble vague­ness.

He and Thur­man were among the key power cou­ples of the mil­len­nial years. If you wanted an El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor and Richard Bur­ton for the X set then you needed look no far­ther. It didn’t last. The cou­ple di­vorced in 2005. In 2008 Hawke mar­ried Ryan Shawhughes, who has been his chil­dren’s nanny. He has two chil­dren from each mar­riage.

Chelsea Ho­tel

Hawke has spo­ken gloomily of the years in be­tween. In 2004 he moved to the Chelsea Ho­tel in

‘Par­ents are of­ten flat­tered when peo­ple want to pho­to­graph their chil­dren. There has never been a child whose life has been en­hanced by that. It’s a de­struc­tive thing’

New York and be­gan plot­ting a re­turn to theatre. It sounds a lit­tle as if he had an early midlife cri­sis.

“Yeah, I call those the black years,” he says with a re­signed shrug. “It wasn’t that it was hard pro­fes­sion­ally. It was larger than that: why do any­thing? My 20s had gone so well my de­vel­op­ment was a lit­tle de­layed. My first real taste of fail­ure was not be­ing able to make that mar­riage work. When some­thing pro­found like that hap­pens it has a rip­ple ef­fect in any­thing.”

Theatre helped him re­con­nect. So did his con­tin­u­ing in­volve­ment with Richard Lin­klater. Boy­hood ticked on. The di­rec­tor’s lovely Be­fore Sun­rise, a

Brief En­counter- style ro­mance with Julie Delpy, from 1995, led, at al­most 10-yearly in­ter­vals, to

Be­fore Sun­set and Be­fore Mid­night. Those three films are enough for im­mor­tal­ity. “I’ve got a the­ory about the Be

fore tril­ogy,” he says, lean­ing in con­spir­a­to­ri­ally. “Most ro­manc- es are writ­ten by a man or a woman. They have a fe­male gaze or a male gaze. There is usu­ally some­thing that keeps the other gen­der away.

“But in those films the au­thor­ship is di­vided be­tween us. Rick is wran­gling us. He gets us both in the room, asks us ques­tions, and sparks fly. The ar­chi­tec­ture is both mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine.”

Maudie

Now we have Ais­ling Walsh’s

Maudie. The Ir­ish pic­ture de­tails the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Maud Dow­ley, Nova Sco­tia folk artist, and her rough-hewn, inar­tic­u­late hus­band, Everett Lewis.

Sally Hawkins is heart­break­ing as the arthritic Maudie. Hawke has never been bet­ter as the some­times-abu­sive Everett.

“Un­for­tu­nately, I don’t think the level of misog­yny de­picted was un­usual for the time and that sort of per­son,” he says.

“The chal­lenge as an ac­tor is to play some­body who’s abu­sive to Sally Hawkins and still have peo­ple pre­pared to look at you in the next scene. Par­tic­u­larly when she’s so vul­ner­a­ble.”

Hawke slips very com­fort­ably into Maudie. He’s no longer play­ing the goa­teed kid, but these sorts of in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­tions re­main his nat­u­ral home. He must surely have turned down Mar­vel epics and DC jam­borees over the years. Few other ac­tors are quite so wed­ded to the in­die aes­thetic.

“I like to work with tal­ented peo­ple, and there are def­i­nitely tal­ented peo­ple work­ing on this film,” he says af­ter a diplo­matic pause. “But that’s not why I wanted to be an ac­tor. It’s not the bass note to my work. That’s not what I am look­ing to con­trib­ute.”

Maybe that false start all those years ago helped de­velop that com­mend­able at­ti­tude.

He pauses. “I learned not to ex­pect any ap­plause at the end of the show.”

Maudie is out on Aug 4

Mood mu­sic Ethan Hawke in re­flec­tive mood in the Ais­ling Walsh-di­rected Maudie.

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