Mention Ethan Hawke’s name to anyone who was of moviegoing age in the early 1990s and, chances are, it’s not going to elicit a take-him-or-leave-him shrug. From the moment Dead Poets Society made him a star in 1989, Hawke resisted his heartthrob status and declared himself an artist. He was that guy: unafraid to rage against Hollywood’s star-making machine; or to philosophize sophomorically onscreen in Reality Bites; or to write a roman à clef, The Hottest State, about the travails of being a young actor in love. He became a punching bag for critics and a poster boy for Gen-X self-indulgence. But, looked at another way, the man had some serious cojones. He never hid behind irony and he hardly ever took a paycheck role in commercial schlock.
In the years since, Hawke has gradually established his acting bona fides, including an Oscar nomination for his shell-shocked cop in Training Day. And in last week’s Toronto Film Festival debut of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Hawke revealed yet another side to himself — the pathetic, low-life pissant. The pitch-black heist picture, directed by Sidney Lumet, follows a pair of working-stiff brothers (Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman) who badly bungle their attempt to rob their parents’ jewelry store. Hawke is the zeta to Hoffman’s alpha male; he looks as though he’s been sucker-punched in every scene of the movie. EW.com caught up with Hawke in Toronto, where we talked with him about his ability to take a beating both onscreen and off.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to play such a unredeemable tool in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead?
ETHAN HAWKE: When I first heard about Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Phil had just won the Oscar [for Capote], which is a weird moment in a person’s life. Creatively, that can be an absolute killer. It’s hurt more careers than it’s helped. What makes us better is the struggle and the fight. Getting lots of pats on the back has led many a person to puking in the toilet. So I thought there was something beautiful about the fact that Phil was taking this opportunity to use his success to greenlight a Sidney Lumet film. The movie feels like such a throwback. It feels like a movie that starred Gene Hackman and was made 20 years ago.
Was it fun to let your vanity go and become such a chump?
It was hard. To be honest, I was glad when the movie was over. It took a huge psychic toll to have Phil lay into you every day and pop you like a pimple. It just felt awful.
You’re actually doing more work in gritty indies now than you did in the heyday of independent film in the ’90s. Why the change of course?
It’s where the more interesting opportunities are. It’s hard to make a good film. It’s hard to be in interesting projects over a long period of time. You gotta change your licks and keep on moving. The trick is: You’ve got to get in the room with people who are better than you. The problem with large, mainstream-entertainment movies is that they’re directed by people who don’t know anything about acting. They come from the commercial world. You could put yourself in a position where you don’t learn anything but you get paid a lot of money. Or you could be around people you can learn from. The trick is to get good at what you do.
NEXT PAGE: ”I was too young to be held accountable for how you felt about me when I was 23.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you feel more in the zone creatively now than you did at the peak of your infamy as a Gen-X icon 10 years ago?
ETHAN HAWKE: Absolutely. We as a culture love to celebrate people in their early 20s. But it’s not a comfortable place to be in your mid-20s. You don’t know who you are as a person. You’re screwing up left and right. It’s very awkward. I’ve found that the older I get, the easier it is to be the person you want to be. Self-importance has a stranglehold on people in their early 20s. That’s the razor’s edge you need to walk: to take yourself seriously but not too seriously.
Speaking of taking yourself seriously: What was it like to revisit your novel, The Hottest State, as a director?
I felt like I was adapting somebody else’s novel. To be honest, I needed some experience directing. I like young people and I’m interested in how hard it is being a young white male in the United States of America in our early 20s. Nobody empathizes with you. You’re not very interesting. Men get more interesting as they get older, I guess. Hopefully. But it can be very difficult to find yourself and to struggle to have an authentic life and make the most of your life.
Did it make you feel vulnerable to revisit the novel after being so criticized for its self-absorption?
If you’re me, there’s a lot of advantages that come with it and a lot of disadvantages that come with it. People never hesitate to tell me when they think I’m an asshole.
So aren’t you tempted to bury that part of yourself and hope people forget?
I can’t. I buck at that. I was too young to be held accountable for how you felt about me when I was 23. I enjoy life too much to let myself be defined by that.
Are you happy with how it turned out?
It was a weird opportunity to get to make such a personal film in such a corporate age. To use cinema for self-expression in an age when everything is supposed to be a commodity for sale, I felt so privileged, and all of that was such a luxury. People who don’t like my film don’t like it passionately because they get this idea that self-reflective art is an act of egregious narcissism. And if that is true, what do we say to Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, to Proust to Whitman? You start to take a certain pride in their hatred of it. But the truth is, I’m really not only interested in self-reflective art. There’s also a bunch of other stuff I’d rather do.