“I swore to myself that I was never going to do this anymore,” Ethan Hawke says, waving his hand to include me, my tape recorder and the yellow pad I’ve set up for this interview.
And when did you decide that? When you were a puppy?
“It was when I was 20,” he says in all seriousness. “No, 19. No, wait…”
Ethan Hawke has done eight movies to date: Explorers, Dead Poets Society, Dad, Mystery Date, White Fang, A Midnight Clear, and the upcoming Waterland and Rich In Love. If Dead Poets was the film that got him noticed, perception about him is a little cloudy; and my niece said that he seemed to disappear after each film, even though she sort of wanted to keep her eye on him.
A Midnight Clear may be the movie that changes all that. It is a marvelous, moving and ultimately timeless story about a group of highly intelligent soldiers stationed in France during World War II and the choices they face when they realize that they might be able to change the very nature of the battle. Hawke is the narrator and center of the film.
Hawke and I meet at Nadine’s, a flower-and-light-filled neighborhood restaurant in the West Village. He is wearing the young-actor-at-rest uniform: ripped jeans, high tops, a moth-eaten sweater. When he notices me noticing his clothes, he points out that he’s had the jeans long enough to put the holes in them himself. “I did not buy them this way.”
Okay, now that we’ve got the important stuff out of the way… I ask about his three new movies.
“I feel uncomfortable talking about my films.”
That’s okay because there are lots of other things I’d rather talk about.
“Like what?” he says, eyeing me suspiciously.
Books, great art, girls, you know, the really important things.
For the first time, Hawke smiles. He holds his cigarette up to the light.
“A Marlboro Medium. Hmmmmm. Talk about not being able to decide. Yes, this is a perfect cigarette for a generation that doesn’t know which way it’s going.”
“Well sure. I mean, look at us. Like they say, all the good ideas have already been used up. Not much for us guys to do.”
All right, if it’s that bad, let’s talk about books. What are you reading now?
A slow red flush creeps across that pale visage. “This is embarrassing. I was hoping that nobody would ask me this question today.” Hawke takes a look around to make sure we’re not being overheard. He leans forward and whispers, “I’m reading Henry Miller’s new book. Or, let me say, newly published book. Do you know how embarrassing it is to walk around with that book? I’m trying desperately not to say I read the Beat Generation. I’m horrified to admit that I just love Salinger. I was devastated to find out that other people feel the same way. When other young actors would tell me that Catcher in the Rye was their favorite book, I didn’t believe them for one second. Impossible. I do not believe that they could possibly understand that s*. I thought I had discovered the guy!”
Let’s just talk a little about A Midnight Clear and then…
“Okay. This is the best film I’ve ever done, ever been involved in. I know all actors b** about the lack of good scripts and you probably don’t want to hear it from me, too. But so many movies are being written because the writer thinks they will appeal to the broadest market. A Midnight Clear was such a real story, something that was written because the writer had to tell that story or he would have been miserable. It talks about how war is always bad, even when the enemy is a scumbag. My girlfriend said…”
Ah, a girlfriend, huh?
Did she like the movie?
“We don’t talk about it.”
What? You didn’t talk about the movie with her?
“No, I mean we,” and he here points to me and himself, “we don’t talk about her.”
So she didn’t like it enough, huh?
“I don’t think it had anything to do with the movie. It was our state of mind when we saw it. But no, she didn’t like it enough.”
I’m not sure there ever is enough for any actor, is there?
“Well,” he says, almost moaning, “she could have liked it more. But you know what it’s like in relationships. Right now the only people I can really fall in love with are people who don’t really, truly want me around. Now why do I do that? I’d love to do a movie that could articulate how f**ing hard it is to get along with a woman. The girls who like me aren’t the ones I like. Or, if I do and they want to commit, I suddenly need tons of time with my friends. Or I want to have a relationship, but hell, that’s the last thing on their minds.”
All right. Let’s talk about your peers.
“Who are my peers?”
That’s what I’m asking you. Who is it that you get compared to? Who are the actors who get the same scripts you do?
“It seems like I get sent all the scripts that River Phoenix doesn’t feel like doing. I guess Keanu Reeves, Christian Slater. I don’t know, because I don’t often hear about who else is reading for the movies I am.”
Are you tempted to move to L.A.?
“No way. I love New York. I mean, it’s certainly crazy, but at least in New York you can’t ignore things. When I go to L.A., I know there’s gangs and poverty, but hey, where are they? You go from one place where wealthy people are, and the next place you go, there’s the same white, rich people. When people talk about the huge Hispanic population in L.A., I say, ‘Really, where do they live?’ In New York, you’ve got Donald Trump, Woody Allen, a crack addict and a regular Joe, and they’re all on the same subway car.”
“Okay, bad example. But they’re on the same block.”
If you had your choice and you couldn’t be both, would you rather be rich or famous?
“Oh boy. Now let me think. If I was rich, I could just make all the movies I wanted to, or do all these great plays, and I wouldn’t care if anyone went to see them. Which, being that I had given up fame, they wouldn’t.”
“But if I was really famous, then maybe all the rich people would like me, and they would give me money and let me make the films I wanted to. Rich or famous? And I can’t have both, huh?”
Well, not in this game you can’t. Of course, in real life you’re probably going to have both. But you still won’t be able to make the films you want.
Hawke groans. “I know. I just did some work on a film with Jeremy Irons, Waterland. The guy’s amazing. And he probably can’t get the kinds of films made that he wants to, so what the f** am I b*ching about?”
“What I loved about A Midnight Clear is that my character there is really bright enough to understand where everyone else is coming from, and all that really does is wash away his own feelings. Like Arye Gross’s character tries to convince me to do something and my character is like ‘Okay, that sounds great.’ And then Frank Whaley’s character is saying, ‘No, no let’s not do that.’ And my character understands that point of view, too. And then, when Gary Sinise’s character says, ‘No, just f** it all and save our own butts,’ I can relate to that one as well.”
Just like real life, huh?
“Yes. I mean, I can change my mind a million times on just about any issue. I was thinking about your rich or famous question…”
You don’t really get to make those kind of choices. It’s not either/or. Do you study acting?”
“This sounds bad, I know, but I studied acting and I don’t study now. I had a hard time studying.”
“I’ll take my chances. I want to work with people who make it really hard for me, who challenge me to do the best I can. Two years of theater school couldn’t teach me what I learned from Jeremy Irons. Until I worked with him, I had no idea how much I didn’t know. I thought acting was like, some people can be natural in a really unnatural environment, and then, it’s just a question of how interesting your personality is. Then I met Jeremy. I don’t want to put myself up for my personality to be judged. I’m not that confident. It’s hard enough to do that with my friends. I’m not sure if I really have one!”
Trust me. You do. I’m always right about this stuff.
“Right now,” Hawke says with a grin, “I’m inclined to believe you. You can get so f**ed in this business. You read a script and you know it sucks. No question. And then the head of the studio comes to you and says, ‘We really like you, kid. We think you’re so smart and blah, blah, blah.’ And you go home that night, and you look at that script again, and damn, it starts to look pretty good.”
I’m in turmoil just listening to you.
“I know, I’m sorry,” he says, meaning it. “I have that effect on people. I go back and forth, worrying about what’s good for my career, as opposed to what’s good for my life and my heart. You do some schlock movie and you know it sucks. And then there’s not too many other scripts around and they offer you another s*ty script, and you want to prove that you were better than it seemed in that first one, so you do the second schlocky film. The trouble with success young is that I’m not clear about what I want. And I’m never going to get it until I know what it is. I could b*ch about how 90 percent of the actors in L.A. aren’t as good as I am, and they can get a movie made. A movie like Mobsters comes out and gets all this press, and I read it and I knew it was a piece of s*. Mobsters may be a bad example because it didn’t make money, but I start to think, am I a moron because I’m making films like A Midnight Clear? But then I have to get centered and tell myself that I have to know what I feel comfortable doing.”
Stop whining already. You’re twenty-f**ing-one years old, you’ve had this fantastic few years: a hit movie, four months living in Alaska making White Fang, you’ve worked with great people, you have a job…
“Well,” he says, not in the least bit chastised, “the movie business gives us all this time to sit around and talk about ourselves, and isn’t that fun? So this is part of what you get.”
This sure is fun.
“At least until I read it. You could make me sound like the greatest guy in the world, or the most self-indulgent asshole that ever lived.”
“Self-indulgent? I hope so. Oh Martha, I have no f**ing idea. I’m 21 years old. Give me a break.”