With war drama Good Kill, art documentary Seymour: An Introduction and several more buzzworthy projects on deck, the introspective Ethan Hawke proves he’s not afraid of a challenge.
We stopped trying to figure out Ethan Hawke a long time ago. The 44-year-old actor, writer and director—who first grabbed our attention in 1989’s Dead Poets Society and cemented his place in 1994’s Reality Bites—could have followed a linear “leading man” path in Hollywood. He has the chops, charm, looks—the kind that landed him the gig as Prada’s poster boy this season. Yet relying too heavily upon any one virtue is simply not his way.
Hawke—born in Austin, raised in New Jersey—has used his position as a box-office draw to question and explore many expressions of his artistic self: performer, director, collaborator, writer and thinker. He penned two books as a young man (1996’s The Hottest State and 2002’s Ash Wednesday), and has spent significant time on the New York stage (including last year’s Macbeth and 2006’s epic production of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, both at Lincoln Center). He teamed up with actress Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise and its two sequels, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, the latter two earning him Academy Award nominations for writing. He was also nominated for his supporting role in 2001’s Training Day and dazzled in the thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Then, of course, there’s last year’s Boyhood, and yet another Oscar nomination. Given the wide-ranging repertoire, it begs the question: What drives the uncategorizable talent?
“I’m just trying to survive, while maintaining as much of the idealism I formed in my youth,” Hawke admits, a little worn out at the end of a long day, yet friendly and focused. He has been keeping unpredictable “indie film” hours lately; he’s shooting the romantic comedy Maggie’s Plan in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with co-stars Greta Gerwig, Bill Hader, Julianne Moore and Maya
Rudolph. “I’ll be ending the day on my couch, and that’s all that matters.”
Hawke is set to appear in several films this year—The Phenom, opposite Paul Giamatti; Born to Be Blue, a fantasy take on the life of Chet Baker; indie drama Ten Thousand Saints; the Western In a Valley of Violence; and the thriller Regression. Up first is Good Kill from writer-director Andrew Niccol. The film, which also stars January Jones, Zoë Kravitz and Bruce Greenwood, explores the moral quandaries of an Air Force drone pilot assigned to bomb terrorist targets in the Middle East from the safety of American soil. “Good Kill feels a little like a desert rose,” says Hawke. “It’s beautiful, although nobody wants to touch it. It educates you about something that you didn’t want to know about.”
Niccol has directed Hawke twice before: in the 1997 sci-fi thriller Gattaca, opposite his first wife, Uma Thurman, and again in 2005’s Lord of War. Hawke applauds Niccol’s willingness to offer a less glamorous view of war than last year’s blockbuster American Sniper. “For me, American Sniper felt like a recruitment movie,” Hawke admits. “I love that Good Kill is neither left nor right. My character’s conflicted—making mortal decisions, without the integrity of putting his own life on the line.”
If Good Kill is Hawke in action, the documentary Seymour: An Introduction is his contemplative side. It is a meditation on notoriety, nerves and creative intentions that follows concert pianist Seymour Bernstein, a man who deliberately undid his career in favor of a quiet life of instructing students. Hawke met Bernstein at a dinner party, opened up about his own dealings with nerves, and found the octogenarian to be dead-on brilliant. “Some people have a midlife crisis and buy a Porsche; I have one and make a documentary about a piano player,” he says.
Asking big questions about life, love and art is nothing new for Hawke. He has been cast in eight of director Richard Linklater’s films—including Before Sunrise and its sequels; Waking Life; and Boyhood (filmed over 12 years, it earned Patricia Arquette an Oscar). Nonlinear thought is what these guys do best. “There aren’t really any words for my relationships with Rick [Linklater],” he says. “Words would make it small.”
Boyhood’s road to the Oscars frequently brought Hawke from New York out to L.A. “One of my favorite things about the Boyhood run was getting to spend time with Ellar [Coltrane], Patricia [Arquette], Lorelei [Linklater] and the whole crew out in California,” he says. “The long Oscar whirl turned into a de facto wrap party that lasted about six months.”
Hawke is never one to stay still and congratulate himself for too long. “You just keep figuring out what your art should be about. Hopefully, you get more discerning about yourself,” he says. “I have these beautiful kids and they really want me to be true—to put out as little artifice as possible. I have a beautiful wife who loves me, and I try to stay worthy of that. That’s the goal, to be a part of the storytelling of my generation, and not to be an asshole while I do it.”
By Andrew C. Stone.
Photographed by Mark Abrahams.
Fashion Editor: Danielle Nachmani.