Ethan Hawke - the play's the thing

BY BONNIE SUMMER
Last updated 05:00 29/03/2009
Ethan Hawke is coming to Auckland to perform in The Cherry Orchard and The Winter's Tale

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The world knows Ethan Hawke from his films Reality Bites and Dead Poet's Society, and leaving his glamazon wife Uma Thurman for the nanny of their two kids. But his first love, he insists, is theatre.

"It's so intimate. We live in a world where everything is downloadable and globalised and people are staring at their computers. It's wonderful to be part of a live art, it's like a rock show. Theatre and rock shows are the few times when people experience something that's living in the present tense; it's living in the moment."

It's 11.30pm in New York and Hawke is eating and talking about his latest project on the line from his home in "the city". Next Saturday, several of the world's hottest talents, Hawke included, touch down in Auckland to perform Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale as part of The Bridge Project, a touring UK/US co-production concept between New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music and London's Old Vic Theatre.

Hawke, who began his acting life in a McCarter Theatre production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan at age 13, joins the calibre of cast New Zealand audiences would normally have to travel abroad to see Russell Beale, Sinead Cusack and Rebecca Hall among them. The director is Oscar-winning wunderkind Sam Mendes, of Revolutionary Road and Mr Kate Winslet fame.

It's an ambitious project they began performing in New York in January, and after the Auckland dates will travel to Singapore, Spain and Germany before hitting the Old Vic mid-year.

"The only part of it [theatre] I don't like is the repetition," says Hawke. "And so getting to do two plays is awesome. Sam [Mendes] met me about it and explained the idea about trying to use multicultural actors and travel the world. I have a young baby right now and it seemed like a fun thing to do this year."

His new addition, Clementine (eight months old), is from his recent marriage to Ryan Shawhughes (he has two children with Thurman, Maya Ray, 10, and Levon Roan, seven). As with most celebrity interviews, questions about Hawke's private life is off limits. Nevertheless, a globetrotting theatre production is a big commitment for an actor with a young family. Will it be tough?

"I don't know," he says flatly. "I'll tell you in six months."

Hawke's voice is huskier and more mature than you expect. On screen, part of his appeal is the air of the mangy underdog, weedy and fraying at the edges, with a boyish, snaggle-toothed grin. But he has the self-assurance of a 38-year-old come to terms with his calling and success. Feeling accomplished, however, is a different story.

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"The more you do the less accomplished you feel," he says. "The more aware you become of your shortcomings and the more aware you become of what you have to learn, the more you realise the limitations of your value. I enjoy what I do and it's fun to be in a room with people who really know a lot about Shakespeare. There's not a lot of people left on the planet who know much about Shakespeare and I'm in a room with a handful of them."

Hawke is no Shakespeare novice either. He has appeared in Henry IV, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, but playing Autolycus is the first time he has undertaken a comedic role.

"The Winter's Tale is the most bizarre play in the world. It's not a comedy, it's not a drama, it's both. It's a wild, experimental play and it works in some crazy way. It works. It's its own acid trip of a theatre piece, half Midsummer Night's Dream, half Othello.

"I love it, but it's crazy, I can't pretend it's not wacky, so it's totally different from any Shakespeare I've done, I've always done the dramas. It's the first straight up comedic role I've ever done and it's the first time I've ever played music in front of people. So, for me, it's challenging."

And while The Winter's Tale is promising to be entertaining, it's Tom Stoppard's translation of The Cherry Orchard that audiences will relate to most given the current economic situation.

Chekhov's last play, written in 1903, tells the story of a wealthy Russian family at the time of the industrial revolution returning to their estate, which includes a famous cherry orchard, with no money to pay the mortgage and hoping somehow to save the place from being auctioned but doing nothing to facilitate this.

In the meantime, one of the recently freed serfs, whose father had been banned from working in the kitchen of the estate, has grown wealthy enough to buy the place. The play riffs on ideas of the time about social change, class structure, progress and freedom.

"It's also about indolence and greed," adds Hawke. "It was written in a moment when Russia was on the brink of giant change and I think a lot of people feel that way right now. In Russia at that time the economy was completely falling apart and the world, they felt it shifting beneath their feet, and with what's happening [now] we're having the same kind of technology explosion that the industrial revolution was creating back in that time, and so I think it does resonate."

Hawke plays Trofimov, a tutor who has dedicated his life to the cloistered world of academia. Does he feel he is anything like the eternal student of his character?

"Well, for sure. A lot of the things that come off as pretentious about Trofimov certainly come off as pretentious about me. I've always looked at life as a student; I've loved to cultivate the attitude of a student. You know, whenever you try to live your life not in the pursuit of money then people oftentimes think there's something naive or pretentious about that. And if all you're doing is chasing money then people know where you're coming from and they know what to expect from you and if you're not, then you seem untrustworthy because people don't understand your motivations."

Hollywood, it seems, is a very long way from New York.

"I've never been interested in fitting into the traditional Hollywood scene. It's not really relevant to my life."

HAWKE GREW up with his mother, who does aid work (she set up an organisation to help Roma children in Romania). After moving several times, they eventually settled in New York where she met and married Hawke's stepfather, a successful manager and influential jack-of-all-creative-trades interested in sculpture, painting, music and missionary work.

Hawke was first talent-spotted while doing improvisation at the McCarter Theatre, then landed a role in the children's film The Explorers alongside River Phoenix. In an interview several years ago, Hawke spoke frankly about his jealousy of Phoenix, and also Jude Law while making Gattaca. When I ask whether he still has pangs of jealousy for the talent he works with, he is unimpressed.

"I was very clear about my attitudes towards River. I don't remember ever saying that about Jude. I don't remember what I did say, but that's different, You're talking about a young person seeing your peers excel. These are my collaborators now. I wasn't jealous of River when I was working with him. I got jealous later when everybody loved him."

Like his stepfather, Hawke isn't a one-note song. He has two books to his name, The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday (one critic suggested that "If Hawke is serious... he'd do well to work awhile in less exposed venues, perhaps focusing on shorter stories and submitting them to little magazines"), as well as directing and screenwriting credits and a now-defunct theatre production company with his friend Josh Hamilton, who also appears in the Bridge Project plays.

Despite describing publishing The Hottest State as one of the scariest things he's ever done, he is keen to write more.

"That'd be really sad if I didn't. I'm always tinkering with things. I've spent a lot of the last few years trying to write different movies and that's taken up a large bulk of my writing time. I'm working on a couple of different things."

For now, he has two movies coming out next year: Brooklyn's Finest, a New York cop movie with Don Cheadle and Richard Gere, and a vampire film called Daybreakers, which he shot in Australia.

This will be his first visit to New Zealand, and he jokes that he's looking forward to seeing "some hobbits".

"I've met so many New Zealanders in my travels and in life and I've always liked them so much. Everybody speaks so highly of it, it seems it has its own little aura, even in Australia they speak of it in hushed tones. But I'm nervous are there that many people who want to come see the show? Isn't it like half the people in New Zealand? It's certainly half the people in New Zealand who are interested in Chekhov, right?"

Perhaps not a dead Russian, but certainly a New York star.

The Cherry Orchard, April 4-5; The Winter's Tale, April 8-12. Tickets at The Edge,

- Sunday Star Times

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