Hollywood is full of dilettantes, but the 40-year-old actor is a real-deal renaissance man who’s successfully bridged film, theater, literature, and fatherhood. Who says a slacker icon can’t be the hardest-working man in show business?
DETAILS: You’ve acted in about two movies a year since 1985. Do you go nuts when you’re not working?
Ethan Hawke: You’re not even counting the theater! There aren’t many serious actors from my generation who’ve done as much theater as I have, and who have also published a couple of books, and who have also had four kids. I’ve always felt restless. Perennially, chronically unsatisfied. One of the reasons I do other things is so I can keep up the quality of what I do. If I didn’t write and act in plays, I would have been in, like, a hundred movies by now, and probably 97 of them would have sucked.
You appeared in your first feature, a sci-fi movie called Explorers, at 14, alongside River Phoenix. What was it like starting your career that young?
I would actively encourage people not to do that. You’re thinking like a professional before you know yourself as a human being. The real job of an artist is bigger than being successful, and young people can’t see that yet. The road is littered with casualties. Look at River. He was one of the most talented actors of my generation, and then he’s dead on Sunset Boulevard.
You’ve said you envy Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career, the way he didn’t get precipitously famous.
Phil and I came to New York around the same time, and he doesn’t let go of any scene. I think it comes from years of having smaller parts and wanting to maximize your screen time. He carried that into being a leading man. Whereas, when they offered me the lead in White Fang as a teen, I picked two or three scenes where I invested myself, but most of the time I was at craft services, trying to pick up girls or reading a book.
The first leading role you took after Reality Bites, the film that made you a Gen-X icon, was Before Sunrise, a small-budget indie. Did you turn down any bigger offers?
Superhero movies. Batman. This was after Tim Burton’s, before the bad period. I just didn’t want to go to the Knicks game and have everybody go, “Wow, you were a great Batman!” That wasn’t my f**ing goal in life. Now I wish I’d done it, because I could have used it to do other things.
Is that why you said yes to Taking Lives, the 2004 Angelina Jolie vehicle you’ve said you regret?
You keep saying no, and they keep offering more money until it feels stupid not to do it. Look, I loved working with Angelina, but it’s a movie about nothing. I should pin it on me, really. Paul McCartney doesn’t write great songs because he’s trying to sell records, he does it because he loves them. Every time I try to sell out, I fall on my ass.
How did you handle the “Gen-X hunk” reputation? Did it make you uncomfortable?
Now I think it’s kind of awesome, but back then I was suicidal. Maybe that’s too strong a word. I was writhing…
Really? You were a sex symbol at 24. Was this the decadent kind of despair, where you wake up wondering where the girl next to you came from?
I wish! Back then, I thought fame was a disease. And I knew I wasn’t good enough yet to warrant it.
Tell us a good story from the Reality Bites set.
I’ll tell you a story that I think is funny but I don’t know if you will. A lot of those video-camera cuts were just improv crap we were doing, right? In one of them, I’m playing the guitar and singing this little thing, and Ben [Stiller] shows me the rough cut of the movie and I told him, “Listen, Ben, I’m not making up those lines. That’s a Gregory Corso poem.” And he said, “I didn’t know that.” I was like, “No, you gotta get the rights to that.” And cut to seven years later, right before Gregory Corso dies — I’m at some poetry reading at Lincoln Center and a drunk Gregory Corso comes up to me and hugs me! This poet I’ve loved my whole childhood, and he’s like, “Ethan Hawke!” He thought I was an angel, because out of nowhere a $25,000 check had arrived and he was broke and he got residuals on Reality Bites. That’s my one true connection to the Beat Generation, is that I helped pay for the end of that guy’s life with just improvising a little bit into this movie.
You and Uma Thurman divorced in 2004. Were there benefits to marrying another actor?
The upside is that they relate to all your problems. The downside is both partners can put their professional ambition at the forefront. For two people who are used to getting what they want, to being idolized by the opposite sex, you can’t expect them to naturally figure out how to be in this enlightened state and create a home. Uma and I were, like, 26 when we met. We were both, like, little stars of our world. I think we did a damn fine job of trying to love each other and raise our two kids.
What kind of dad are you?
Lots of divorced dads will tell you that one of the biggest enemies is guilty parenting: You only have them a couple days a week, and you want to make sure you have a good time. So you can risk being a pushover. I’ve never had any problems with my kids, though. The hard thing is how to co-parent.
You’ve been married to your wife Ryan for three years now. What does she do?
She was working at the Doe Fund, a men’s shelter, helping people prepare for job interviews and things like that. Right now she has a newborn and a 3-year-old and she’s trying to figure out when she wants to go back to work. And she’s been helping me with my work, too, reading scripts.
Why did you choose to write both of your novels on a typewriter?
I love things that are physical. I don’t like porn, I like naked girls. I like talking with people, I wouldn’t know how to date online. I love theater, the immediacy of it. Every time I see some kid on the subway watching The Godfather on his iPod, I think, “F** it, I want to do a play.”
You’ve played a lot of pompous, self-absorbed jerks, including a tantrum-prone writer in the upcoming thriller The Woman in the Fifth. Do you need to find something you like in these guys to play them well?
No. My character in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead? Talk about spineless! I wanted to kill him. A person with a problem becomes vastly more exciting to inhabit, because you don’t know what they’re going to do. Over the years, every now and then, I’d play a good guy, and I’d just be miserable.