Why 2014 is Ethan Hawke's year

HANDS ON: “Some actors just come on set, read the lines, and off they go. Ethan gets involved."
HANDS ON: “Some actors just come on set, read the lines, and off they go. Ethan gets involved."

Ethan Hawke has too many other interests, whether it’s working on the New York stage or helping raise his four children, to overly worry about the details of a successful movie career now three decades old, but recently he had an epiphany about his standing. More than ever, people were recognising him on the street.

“I’ve been thinking about it and it’s because when I was younger and Reality Bites came out, only young people recognised me. Now I’ve made so many different movies that older people have seen some,” Hawke says. “Now there’s a certain crowd that loves Before Midnight, a certain crowd that loves The Purge, a certain crowd that love Gattaca.”

The 43-year-old actor, with the familiar facial hair and wry, contemplative air, may have chosen the Boerum Hill neighbourhood in Brooklyn over life in Los Angeles, but he has become one of Hollywood’s most dependable stars, making movies that are sometimes memorable and sometimes successful (and occasionally both) for each of those distinct crowds.

He’s as likely to be in an art-house drama like last year's acclaimed Before Midnight, for which he earnt his third Academy Award nomination as one of the co-writers, as a low-budget pulp thriller or horror film, such as 2012’s Sinister. The reason, as Hawke modestly sees it, is that he doesn’t disappear into his roles like the true greats do.

“There are certain types of actors that can shape change themselves, people like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day-Lewis,” he says. “I’ve never really been the kind of performer who can do that, so one of the ways I challenge myself to be better is to be in different kinds of movies.”

That approach has never been in sharper focus than in the coming weeks, when Hawke memorably stars in two distinct yet impressive movies that release on successive Thursdays. The knotty science-fiction storytelling of Predestination, written and directed by Australian filmmakers the Spierig Brothers and shot in Melbourne, will be followed by the coming-of-age saga Boyhood, a study of time’s passage and life’s changes from Hawke’s good friend and Before Midnight director, Richard Linklater.

“He’s a great guy,” says Michael Spierig, who on stage read out a gracious email from Hawke apologising for his absence when Predestination opened the Melbourne International Film Festival on July 31. Michael and his sibling Peter got to know Hawke when he came to Queensland to shoot their second feature, the 2009 vampire-tale twist Daybreakers, and when they sent him Predestination, their adaptation of a 1959 Robert A. Heinlein short story where Hawke plays a time-travelling policeman, he replied within 24 hours, telling them he was in.

Hawke’s commitment matters, especially on independent film projects. With his name attached, Predestination was announced several years ago at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was sold to various international distributors with the proceeds funding production.

“Some actors just come on set, read the lines, and off they go. Ethan gets involved,”   says Michael Spierig. “Our rehearsal process is more about the intention of each scene and making sure it has a value to the story, and he’s very good at that. That’s part of the joy of working with him: he pushes to elevate everything he can.”

Spierig can recall conversations with Hawke about the Star Wars movies that have lasted hours, and there are as many sides to the actor as there are parts he will play. He’s a long-time Bob Dylan fan, has published two well-received novels, and in recent years has acted off Broadway in plays written by Anton Chekhov and Tom Stoppard.

“I don’t have some high art or low art barometer, where one is better than the other,” Hawke says. “A drive-in movie like The Purge can be good if people put real thought into it, and bad if they don’t. I hate art films that posture without trying to put real thought into it.”

One of the few things he hasn’t been is a high-wattage celebrity. The singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko once told me of arriving in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia (where an orchestra can be recorded comparatively cheaply) to find her hotel surrounded by screaming teens. They were there, she soon realised, for teen superstar (and sometimes Bieber better half) Selena Gomez, but in the foyer she  chatted with an American man who complimented her on the ukulele she was carrying. Only later did she learn it was Hawke.


“Ethan doesn’t go to celebrity spots. He’s a family man and he has a great life in New York,” says Michael Spierig, who would often greet Hawke’s second wife, Ryan, whom he married in 2008, and their two young daughters, Clementine Jane and Indiana, when they visited the Predestination set while the family was temporarily living in Melbourne last year.

Hawke was first married to actress Uma Thurman, from 1998 until their divorce in 2005, the one event that has taken him into the unwelcome realm of celebrity tabloids. They met on the set of another science-fiction movie, 1997’s Gattaca, and have a 16-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son. While Hawke was defined publicly for years by his role as the sardonic, disaffected anti-hero Troy opposite Winona Ryder in the 1994 Generation X touchstone Reality Bites, he says he always knew that he wanted to be a father.

He credits Ryan with keeping him grounded – “it’s the most intense friendship I’ve ever known,” he recently said – and Hawke sounds content describing how his daughters are asleep and his wife is in the next room writing emails while he talks on the phone late at night.

Being a parent is integral to his work on the astounding Boyhood, easily the best reviewed movie released in the US so far this year. “It’s pretty special,” says Hawke, who signed on 12 years ago when Linklater decided that the best way to capture the passing of time on film was to simply shoot for a week once a year. Every 12 months or so, Hawke and actress Patricia Arquette would join Linklater in Austin, Texas, where they played the divorced parents of Mason (Ella Coltrane), whom we see from ages six through 18, maturing into a young man as you measure the change.

“There’s no movie that’s more personal to me than Boyhood,” Hawke says. “Rick and I both have fathers who were Texan men who worked in insurance, they had us young and both went on to have happiness in their second marriage. When I was presented with the task of creating a portrait of fatherhood in Boyhood, it was really clear what we both wanted to do. It just took a damn long time to do.”

As Boyhood was slowly accumulated – Hawke says his 16-year-old daughter, Maya, can’t remember a time when he wasn’t making it – Hawke added elements of his own life to the movie. He sings songs that he wrote over the years, and a letter to Maya became the basis of a scene involving a music compilation his character makes for his fictional son.

Hawke says his first reaction on seeing the film was one of “immense pride” in Linklater’s achievement, but he acknowledges that it’s a powerful thing for an actor to literally see themselves age. The actor had just appeared alongside Denzel Washington in Training Day when Boyhood began, and over the course of the movie Hawke’s face loses its boyishness as his character matures.

“Time is something that has clearly been on my mind a lot,” Hawke says. “I ask myself the question of am I wasting my life working? Or am I not working enough? I don’t know the answer, but it is definitely a curious age I’m at.”

In the next year alone Hawke will play a drone pilot, a biker in a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, a spaghetti western cowboy and a father accused of a crime he can’t remember. By working so widely, he’s eased into his  40s without having to worry about his leading-man status and mainly kept up the quality (there are exceptions, such as Getaway, the terrible car chase movie he made with Selena Gomez).

“Hopefully I’m not at the peak of what I can do,” Hawke says. “But what I’m doing right now, with my work and with my family, is emblematic of where I am in life. Right in the middle.”

Sydney Morning Herald