Ethan Hawke: Rich or Famous?
These days, Ethan Hawke is a respected actor with a long filmography filled with interesting choices. Sometimes a leading man and sometimes a supporting player, Hawke has outlived most of his contemporaries. Twenty-five years ago, Hawke was just a snot-nosed kid getting hand-me-down scripts from his famous former costar, River Phoenix. Looking towards his future, a 21-year-old Hawke was nervous, fidgety and indecisive. When Martha Frankel interviewed Hawke for the March 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, his insecurities seemed to drive her crazy.
“I swore to myself that I was never going to do this any more,” 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?” I ask. “When you were a puppy?”
“It was when I was 20,” he says in all seriousness. “No, 19. No, wait…”
Excuse me a minute while I slap this kid around, will ya?
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: One friend asked me whether he was the suicidal teen or the one who stands on a desk top; another described him as Matt Dillon without the attitude; 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. An ensemble piece that also stars Gary Sinise, Arye Gross, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whaley, it is probably the first antiwar film since Catch-22 that uses “the good war” as its base. Hawke, who is so pale that at times he appears to be wearing kabuki makeup, 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,” Hawke says, biting on his chapped lips and cadging a cigarette from the waiter.
“That’s okay,” I assure him, “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.”
“Your generation?” I ask.
“Well sure. I mean, look at us,” he replies. “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 Crazy Cock, 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 wanted to kill them. I didn’t believe them for one second. Impossible. Then I wanted to kill myself. I do not believe that they could possibly understand that shit. I thought I had discovered the guy!”
Watching the chords on his neck start to pop, I plead, “Calm down, fella. Let’s change the subject. 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,” says the boy who doesn’t want to talk movies. “I know all actors bitch 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.” And then he mumbles some expletive under his breath.
“Hmmm. So she didn’t like it enough, huh?”
“I don’t think it had anything to do with the movie,” he says. “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 fucking 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.”
Ummm, tortured youth. My favorite thing. I’m beginning to enjoy this interview.
“All right,” I say. “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. I bet Loren Dean, now. I’m trying to think of New Yorkers but I can’t.”
“Are you tempted to move to L.A.?”
“No way,” he says. “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 the fuck 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.”
“Subway car?” I ask, remembering the guy who drooled on my newspaper the last time I rode the subway. Could it have been The Donald in disguise?
“Okay, bad example. But they’re on the same block.”
“If you had your choice,” I ask, switching tracks midstream, “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. I could be like John Cassavetes, not that he was so rich, but he certainly made the most incredible films. I worked with Seymour Cassel on White Fang, and he told us all these stories about Cassavetes that had me salivating.
“But,” he continues, “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. Ya 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 fuck am I bitching about?”
“My point exactly,” I say, although until now I wasn’t exactly sure I had a point. I’m thinking about which of Ethan’s roles River Phoenix turned down, and which of River’s Ethan craved the most. “Were you dying to play a gay narcoleptic?” I ask.
“Are you kidding?” he yells, literally jumping out of his seat. “Of course. Definitely. There was real character behind that. 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 some thing 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 fuck 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…”
“Listen,” I say, “it was just a little game. Don’t get stuck on it. Besides, you don’t really get to make those kind of choices. It’s not either/or. Rather, it’ll be, okay, you want money? Great, but you have to give up your firstborn. Or, you want to be famous? Sure. But you’ll just have to live with that herpes sore on your lip.”
Hawke looks like he wants to gag.
“Well, it was just a scenario,” I say in my own defense, and quickly change the topic.
“Whose work do you admire?”
Hawke, who seemed so guarded at first, suddenly gets a gee whiz look on his face and starts rattling them off. “I really respect and admire Sean Penn. I think Jeff Bridges has a remarkable body of work. John Cusack, because he did all those teen films but he never sold out and now his work is fantastic. I love Bill Hurt, although I did have to walk out on The Doctor this summer. I had a serious throat operation once, and as soon as I heard him clear his throat and I realized the nature of his illness, I was out of there. I’ve already said Jeremy Irons.”
“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.”
“One of the only things I know for sure,” I tell him, “is that those of us who were really, really miserable in school are the ones who go on to have productive, happy lives. I don’t know if that holds true for acting…”
“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,” he says. “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,” I say. “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 fucked 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 shitty 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 bitch 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 shit. 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,” I advise. “You’re twenty-fucking-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, for Chrissakes …”
“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,” I admit.
“At least until I read it,” he says. “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 God, Martha, I have no fucking idea. I’m 21 years old. Give me a break.”
“Okay, okay. I will. Let’s talk about someone else’s movies, because, truthfully, I hate art.”
“I saw Kafka last night,” he says. “I was thinking of how great Theresa Russell is, and how great she is to look at, although she’s not on screen nearly long enough.”
“Did you see Whore?”
Hawke laughs until he begins to cough. “No, but every time I saw the marquee, I would get hysterical.” Here he spreads his hands across an imaginary sky. “Theresa Russell, Whore. I kept imagining one that said, Ethan Hawke, Asshole.”
“No, no,” I say. “How ’bout Ethan Hawke, Crazy Cock?”
We leave convinced that we’ve come up with something that could make Hawke both rich and famous.
Martha Frankel wrote “It’s In His Kiss” for our November issue.