Ethan Hawke

Ethan Hawke

For days I’ve been on an Ethan Hawke marathon. Pouring over pictures, reading passages from his novels, and watching a daily diet of his films. I pretend to friends that this is a real chore. Secretly, I’ve been a virtual shut-in on a dopamine drip. For a moment last night, my DVD of Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day  turned frozen and I felt my body go limp and mouth the words, “do not fuck with my delivery system.” Looking over his history of films is a little like revisiting my own past, certain actors you can’t help but grow up with. I never had a poster of Mr. Hawke over my bed, or a t-shirt of his smoldering face with ETHAN emblazoned below, or a doll-size version of him in my knapsack.

Even at the height of his Gen X zeitgeist powers from Reality Bites, he was never a one-dimensional icon. He batted away fame and took artistic risks to keep from becoming embalmed in the public’s imagination. He was the actor girls furtively daydreamed about. Amongst my college friends was a communal hush over his name. A way of keeping reality at bay and fantasy close, in the hope he might stumble into your local East Village bar too drunk to remember he was a movie star. Perhaps it was a relief for him to shake loose from his twenties and shed his boyhood charm. In his trilogy of collaborative films with director Richard Linklater, the dramatic change in Mr. Hawke occurs between the first and second films Before Sunrise & Before Sunset from his 20s to his 30s. His soft baby face turned gaunt as if it had weathered an internal storm. By his recent installment, Before Midnight, Mr. Hawke looks settled; his innate charm, handsome looks and searing intelligence beautifully intact. And, still utterly crushable.

Ethan: I Just looked through a bunch of your photographs from your new book and your new exhibition that’s coming out. They’re just incredible photos! You did those in Amsterdam?

Malerie: Oh- that’s so nice to hear! Yes, the pictures were taken in Amsterdam and Rotterdam over the course of six years and are of prostitutes.

Ethan: Wow! They’re wild images and so incredibly human! I love them!

I’m really flattered. Speechless, actually… I was so happy and honored when Dennis asked me to interview you and I’m glad you know this isn’t my usual gig.

Well, I feel kind of honored that you’re doing it too. Looking at those pictures it’s obvious that you’re somebody.

Do you mind if I start?

No! Keep asking questions. It usually goes by itself...

You had your breakthrough role at 19 in Dead Poets Society. Actors often spend a lifetime struggling. Did this create any problems for you having success at such an early age?

Yes, it really did. It’s very difficult to make a movie about a young man finding himself without it being just hopelessly corny. Peter (Weir) was committed to make the film not be nostalgic and he wanted us to contribute. He thought that the only way the movie could be good was if  we really liked the poems. The first real writing I ever did was on that movie. Peter asked Robert Sean Leonard and I to write a couple scenes of how our characters became friends. They didn’t make the movie, but he challenged us to write them and some pieces did make it into the film. By making us write how two people became friends, we actually became friends and learned how to be creative together.

I feel like the second half of my life wants to be about integrating all the different aspects of my life and no longer seeing them as different. If I could listen better as an actor I could probably listen better as a father.

It also mirrored the classroom setting you were in.

Exactly... Though I wouldn’t recommend any dose of celebrity to anyone who’s 18, 19 years old. There’s no scenario in which it’s good for you. You can survive it, if you have the right ingredients in your family, but it’s not a healthy thing to have happen to anybody. Young people’s egos are so huge anyway, to fan the flames of them makes the natural humbling process of life that more difficult.

I read you grew up with a single mother. Do you think your yearning to be an actor was a way to take care of her?

Hmmh, maybe. My mother doesn’t really want anyone to take care of her—

I didn’t mean to imply that, but perhaps it was motivating you on a subconscious level?

You know that’s a good point. Young boys love their moms, they really do, and I still love mine, and I’m sure that a huge part of me wanted to succeed to create a safety for her and for us and to try to be the man of our family, so I think that was a driving force.

Perhaps, it is what grounded you.

Maybe... My mother had a real passion for the arts, so that was contagious. She wasn’t an artist but she had high respect for it as a profession and that was awesome.

Do you try and instill the same in your children?

They will probably end up allergic to it because I ram it down their throats! In our house there is always music playing, and we’re always going to see a play...  

I think Alice Neel’s two sons became a doctor and a lawyer—

Exactly. The preacher’s daughter is always the last one to convert!

Has there been an experience that has set you back or made you question what you were doing?

Oh God yeah. You know, the two best teachers in my life have been success and failure. In a certain way failure is a much better teacher than success. Success- if you can handle it well - you can use it as energy, but for the most part if breeds complacency and self-satisfaction. Failure generally creates drive and so the things that have set me back are largely internal. I remember my friend Richard Linklater told me that at a young age as he was considering embarking on a career as an artist, he realized that a lot of artists he admired were destoyed by their own demons and that if you took self destruction out of the equation, you improved your chances by about eighty percent.  If you can try to channel that energy into pushing yourself further, I think you increase your chances of arriving somewhere interesting.

You have taken a lot of risks. You didn’t have to write two novels in your free time. That’s remarkable. Did that come from not wanting to be pigeonholed?

It started with Dead Poets Society and then it got a little worse with Reality Bites, this feeling of being placed behind a glass wall. People feel like they know you. The strangest thing about being a successful actor is you start to lose your ability to make a first impression. People always have an opinion before they meet you and it’s a very strange thing to give up. I started a theater company, I wrote a book. I tried to put myself in new situations so that I wouldn’t just be the kid from Dead Poets Society all my life. I knew it wouldn’t get me very far.

Do you think part of that feeling of knowing you is your charm?

The trouble with being young is people don’t really want to be who they are. Whatever is unique about you, you somehow find embarrassing. It’s come up recently with Before Midnight, this constant comparison to Before Sunrise, to the person I was. I would say the biggest difference is I’m proud now of the things that once embarrassed me.

I want to talk to you about Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight and your collaboration with Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy. Do you consider those films existential?

What’s interesting about those movies, really Richard’s work is that he doesn’t put a lot of opinions on it. Many of our great directors, like Quentin Tarantino and P.T. Anderson they’re always telling you what to think.

They’re dogmatic.

They’re showing you their opinion in the manner that they frame life. Rick doesn’t do that. He creates an open observational feel like a scientist and so if you are prone to existentialism, you come to his films and see existentialism. If you are prone to romanticism, you you see romanticism. It is what makes his films so fascinating to revisit because as you change the film changes like many of my favorite novels. I remember reading Anna Karenina as a kid at 19, thinking Vronsky and Anna were awesome and how much I wanted to have an affair like that.  

Aaah right...

And then you get older and think what idiots…. Tolstoy’s prose is so unflowery, unflourished

Unembellished.

And Rick has the same thing. He’s not putting a gloss on it, fancying it up.

Even the camera is unobtrusive.

Yes, so to me are those movies existential? Yeah, I think they are actually. Just in the way that they speak about the mercilessness of time.

Jesse and Celine talk a lot. Did you have any secrets that you were keeping?

In the first movie?

In any of them.

People think they have secrets. They have this opinion in their head that there’s this great secret inside them. In truth everything is very obvious. Whether it’s a friend who tells you they are gay nine years after you realized it, or a lover that tells you they’re not attracted to you anymore, two years after you already knew. People think they have these great secrets— that maybe they don’t believe in God or maybe they do— But, I don’t believe in secrets anymore. Everything is right there. So much of who Jesse is and by turn who I am in Before Sunrise is on the surface. I thought I was couching it. I watch those films now and what’s strange is no matter how much my face is cracking open or my voice is shattered, the person, the essence of who Jesse is or who Celine is or who Julie is or who I am is unchanging. It’s just being hit by time. When you look backward it is so clear. I see a picture of my 15-year-old daughter at two and I can see in that 2-year-old exactly the 15-year-old I was talking to today. I don’t know if back then I could have known which parts of her were going to last. The voice is changed, the details are all different but that person is still the same person and I think she always will be when she is an 80-year-old woman.

That’s remarkable. Because there’s so much dialogue in the film, I found myself mesmerized by one scene in particular in Before Sunrise where you weren’t speaking in the listening booth…

It’s the best scene in the movie. We tried to mirror that in each of the other two movies. There’s a silent moment in each film. In Before Sunset it’s when they’re walking up the stairs and she finally invites him into her apartment. She’s just petting the cat and the camera follows as they run out of things to say to each other. The third moment is at the very end of Before Midnight there’s a moment where he basically says to her “I’m not going to keep coming back like a dog if you’re going to keep kicking me” and you get the sense from her that she is deliberating and she finally says “tell me about the time machine.” Those three silent moments to us are the trilogy in its’ essence.

Fate plays a role in all of the films. Do you believe Mr. Linklater first casting you in the role was fated as well?

I never understood fate because it all seems so obvious in hindsight. I don’t know if you see this in your own life, but a lot of times you’ll find yourself at a crossroads and you really don’t know whether to go left or right. But no sooner than two days pass after you made the decision and it feels that you were always going to make that decision. Whether it’s to marry somebody or quit a job... I was reading recently the Trappist monk Thomas Murton’s journals. He speaks at length about his dilemmas to join the monastery. In hindsight, it’s so obvious that this is what he will do but in the moment he really wasn’t sure. When I was younger I thought I had to make this decision about whether I wanted to be an actor. I was extremely interested in writing and I was worried about the life of an actor. I’ve always wrestled with celebrity, it just seems dubious to me. I thought with writing I could be more in control of my own destiny. With acting you have to get hired. I think some part of me knew... even now, last night I got offered a job that’s kind of interesting that I could do but it is five months in a foreign country. Every year we have to go through this— what we are going to do with the kids? How will we do it? Maybe I can come home for the week? I long for a job that doesn’t constantly create these restless anxieties about how to stay together as a family. Even considering Before Midnight as fantastic a job that was, I was still in Greece for four months writing and rehearsing. It’s so hard on my family! Oh wait, that wasn’t what you asked me about.

I think I first asked about fate.

The question now of  “should I become an actor?” seems clearly obvious that this is what I was going to do, but when I was 22 it didn’t feel that way. So is that fate meeting Richard Linklater? Were we meant to make these movies? Were we just lucky? It’s so often in my life things that seem bad at first turn into things I am grateful for and things which seem great turn into something I regret. Life is so constantly in flux. There’s that Tom Robbins line “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” That’s always been one of my favorite lines. I don’t know how that relates to fate…

I think you’re wrestling with that question. It seems you have to continually decide whether you want to continue. You strike me as a very private person and also as very candid and open, which must be hard on your privacy. Has the Internet made this all the more difficult?

I do like being candid and I hate hearing the party line “I had a great experience on that film, everybody is wonderful.” I cant stand it. I hate reading the interviews of people that don’t say anything. It’s literally like a lot of people seem to get through this process.

Without being themselves.

Yes! But, over and over again I am forced to regret something I said because you say something you think is funny and it doesn’t come off as funny. What is an interesting quote in one venue is an upsetting quote in another venue. In life you learn that you have to know your audience, but when the audience is all of humanity at one moment it is very hard.

And, the Internet distorts perceptions.

It really does. It can make a colossal deal out of minutia and it can diminish events which are incredibly important. I was proud of the New York Times the other day. They published an arresting image on the front cover of Syrian rebels assassinating Syrian soldiers which explains very clearly to the American people how complicated entering any civil war would be. Who the hell are the good guys? That image was so powerful, but so much of what we are inundated with is a 12-year-old celebrity’s haircut. There’s no checks and balances. The internet levels all information.

Everyone deserves a chance to fuck up privately.

I was still lucky enough to have all that even in the height of the Gen x period around Reality Bites. I could still do whatever I wanted and get myself in all the appropriate kind of trouble without having to answer to it for the rest of my life.

If it had been present when you were starting off as an actor would it have turned you off entirely and made it impossible?

Well, I don’t know, it would have been so difficult to live any kind of authentic life. I see all these young people and they’re so guarded because let’s face it— they go out, they get drunk one night, they don’t wear their panties and they’re going to have to live with it for the rest of their lives. 

You were fortunate to work with the late Sidney Lumet on his last film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. What was that like?

It’s one of my favorite movies I’ve ever been involved with. It’s sad that it turned into his last film but I’m proud that his last film was so good and that he was still at the top of his game. To get to be directed by the man who directed Marlon Brando on a Tennessee Williams script, directed Al Pacino on Dog day Afternoon, who directed Network, and gave Henry Fonda one of his greatest performances in 12 Angry Men.  To get to be on the streets of New York with Philip and Marissa. Phil and Marissa and I have been kicking around the New York theater scene since we all first started out, for us to be making an old school Sidney Lumet film! It’s the kind of film that made me want to become an actor—an old school New York drama. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore.

It’s so dystopian. It’s very rare to see that kind of film.

It is really powerful. I’m always hunting for those experiences  -they’re very few and far between- that’s the dream for me.

Yes, I would imagine. Were you nervous?

Yeah, I was nervous. It’s fun to be directed. I’ve been acting for 25 years for crying out loud, a lot of people don’t even direct me anymore which is really a drag. There isn’t an actor in the world that doesn’t need collaboration and help.

Are you too intimidating?

No, people just assume I know what I’m doing. I’ll drop a line and people will think I did it on purpose and that I was cutting the script! Please, tell me “you look like an idiot when you turn to the left.” I don’t want to look like an idiot! I remember I saw this great interview with Paul Newman when he did Color of Money with Scorsese. He realized it was the first time anybody had directed him in 20 years. So to a lesser degree I understand.

What was it like to play the character of Hank?

Poor, Hank... He was an unwilling criminal. He was spineless…. What was challenging about that character is playing somebody that was so weak, who hated himself so much.  I was glad in that respect when it was over. Living in that character was very uncomfortable.

He was also less smart than most characters you play.

I really enjoyed that aspect of it. He was both cocky and insecure. What is great about Sidney Lumet is that he put three-dimensional human beings on the screen. He wasn’t interested in cardboard cutouts of people. You watch his movies and you can smell the people.

I read you lived at the Chelsea Hotel and you made a film, Chelsea Walls. What fascinates you about that period?

The legacy of bohemian New York. It’s just that geek part of me. Bob Dylan wrote that song here! Tennessee Williams got drunk right over there! Marilyn Monroe slapped Arthur Miller – where?! It’s just the total fan in me - that building has been a magnet for so much creativity.  

I read in an earlier interview that you believed true artists were poor. How much of your family’s comfort would you sacrifice for your art?

What a funny thing to say! As if I know what a true artist is! Whenever I hear these things said back to me...! It’s real easy to say that when you don’t have kids. Children bring real-life worries of “how am I going to pay for that?”  

Of course.

Kids turn us all into Republicans! I’ve tried not to give into that entirely. What’s the great Picasso line – I want to live like a poor person with a lot of money.

So you don’t want to have to think about money?

You don’t want to be overcome by materialism. Our culture is so obsessed with it – it’s jammed down our throats. I have to create balance, the ethos I created for myself as a young person combined with the fact that I have four children.

Four children is a lot of responsibility even for a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

I’ll give you an example: I want to be an environmentalist and I love motorcycles, so I got my license. And, as soon as I start riding around town I’m thinking this is the dumbest thing I can do! One fall and the four people who need me are in trouble. So, now I just take a taxi.

If you were to look back at your life so far is it marked by your accomplishments or is it a map of your relationships?

I feel like the second half of my life wants to be about integrating all the different aspects of my life and no longer seeing them as different. If I could listen better as an actor I could probably listen better as a father. If I could be more compassionate as a friend or a lover – I would probably be a better writer. More and more I think of my life as a whole.

This is possibly a rhetorical question, but do you consider yourself a romantic?

I don’t think anyone would make those three films, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight if they weren’t a diehard romantic. Even both my novels revolve around romantic love. It’s pretty much the only thing that interests me.

photography: Dennis Golonka
styling: Romina Herrera Malatesta
groomer: Carolina Dali for Chanel @ See Management
stylist assistants: Carolyn Brennan & Emma Nolan
digital tech: Christina Holmes
photo assistant: Shane Lavancher
Special thanks: Charlotte Burke @ ID-PR, Jay Paavonpera @ Dior Homme
The 1896 Studios & Stages Brooklyn, NY
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Jena Malone

Jena Malone

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