By Lindsey Bahr
Updated June 09, 2013 at 05:30 PM EDT
Credit: Francois Durand/Getty Images; Ian Gavan/Getty Images

I Love the '90s

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In one version of the world, Ethan Hawke and Owen Wilson could have had nearly identical careers.

Both Texas-born and vets of the Austin indie filmmaking scene of the mid-90s, the two actors have since floated through independent, art house, and mainstream projects to varying degrees of success. Hawke, for the most part, stayed indie while Wilson went big. They are the story of Generation-X: Former malcontents grasping for authenticity and fame in an industry that is designed to make those dual aspirations somewhat impossible.

When observed as a series of choices beginning in 1994, the careers of Hawke and Wilson represent a case study of the ever-present tension between Hollywood, independent films, paychecks and prestige, culminating in this bizarre June 2013 weekend where Hawke’s modest $3 million horror film The Purge slayed Wilson’s glossy, “sure-bet” $58 million comedy, The Internship.

So, what happened?

It’s not entirely fair to claim that Hawke and Wilson are pure contemporaries. Though only two years apart in age, Hawke started acting as a teenager and appeared in 1985’s Explorers with River Phoenix, leading to roles in Dead Poets Society, White Fang, and Alive. Even though Hawke was a known quantity of sorts, a continued career was never a given, and 1994 proved a critical year for both.

With indie filmmaking going through a partial, if fraught, renaissance, there were suddenly more choices for young actors. Wilson, through that kind of fortuitous collaboration that sometimes seems only possible on a college campus, met Wes Anderson. Twenty years later, Wilson has appeared in every Anderson project except Moonrise Kingdom. Wilson’s first credited work (acting and writing) is in the 1994 Anderson-directed short Bottle Rocket that would of course be turned into a 1996 feature. He’d go on to collaborate in the writing of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, which even scored him an Oscar nod. At about the same time, Hawke was beginning his longterm partnership with director Richard Linklater, which would yield not only the Before series (which also earned him a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination), but in The Newton Boys, Waking Life and Tape as well.

Despite his arthouse breakout, Wilson quickly turned to big-budget studio films, getting minor but visible roles in Anaconda, Armageddon, and, importantly, The Cable Guy. Wilson’s small but memorable part as Leslie Mann’s ill-fated blind date in the Jim Carrey vehicle proved to be the beginning of a successful teaming with director Ben Stiller — an interesting coincidence as Stiller directed Hawke in 1994’s Reality Bites.

In terms of pure, cynical careerist strategy, Wilson seemed to be doing it right. He had the famous friends, the big comedies, and the Wes Anderson “indies” on the side. And after 2005’s Wedding Crashers spent 11 weeks in the top 10 and made over $200 million domestically, it seemed that Wilson might be able to go out on his own. But he was only slightly successful outside of the Stiller and Vince Vaughn club and floundered slightly on his own. (See: You, Me, and Dupree.)

Hawke knew early on that he wanted to stay separate from the mainstream. Sandwiched comfortably in between Sam Shepard and James Franco as the handsome, wanna-do-it-alls, Hawke continued working on the projects that he found compelling. In Peter Biskind’s 2004 book Down and Dirty Pictures, Hawke said: “I’m always being told that I have to do these movies that I don’t want to do, so that I get to do the movies I do want to do.” He added: “I don’t see that many people who become giant international movie starts that then go off and make all kinds of sophisticated, subversive, challenging adult films. Tom Cruise is in Magnolia, I admired that he did it, but I don’t know that I could bear to make the other 18 movies he had to make to get there. I have some of that romantic ’70s thing going, a very anti-corporate attitude. I feel this generation plays ball too much.”

It hasn’t always worked. Does anyone remember The Velocity of Gary* (*not his real name)? How about Hawke’s novel turned film/precious indie soundtrack The Hottest State? The joy of staying small is that when you fail, it’s often forgotten. In the early 2000s, he also tried his hand at action pics, garnering his only acting Oscar nomination for his work in Antione Fuqua’s Training Day his second highest grossing film to date (behind Dead Poets Society). That experiment fizzled out in a few years after higher-profile flops like the 2004 Angelina Jolie thriller Taking Lives, which made only $32.7 million domestically, and 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13 with Laurence Fishburne.

Wilson’s failures have been more public — I Spy, Drillbit Taylor — and thus more difficult to ignore. Nevertheless, Wilson paired up with bigger directors and bigger stars (Woody Allen! Jennifer Aniston! Reese Witherspoon!) while Hawke reverted to the small, taking roles in modest thrillers and horror films that might be considered lesser roles for big-name actors. Last year’s Sinister proved to be an effective game-changer. The $3 million horror film from producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity) and director Scott Derickson grossed $48.1 million domestically. Regardless of his successes and failures, when Hawke chooses a project, it appears that he does it because he wants to. It’s not for a paycheck, or prestige, or to work with his buddies. Perhaps that’s a naive and dangerously simplistic generalization of the industry, but there is a grain of truth there. Hawke’s only franchise is an accidental franchise: the Befores. Wilson has Shanghai Noon/Knights, Meet the Parents, Zoolander (probably), and the Night at the Museums.

But things might be changing for Wilson, too. The critical and box-office success of his work in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and the general sense that projects like The Internship may not be the box-office sure-thing that they once were could help steer him down this new path. In addition to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wilson’s next projects include Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice, the Errol Morris narrative feature Freezing People is Easy, the Matthew Wiener comedy You Are Here, and the Peter Bogdonavich project Squirrels to the Nuts. In the next few years we might witness Wilson undergo a Bill Murray-like transition outside of Anderson’s projects.

In Biskind’s book, a younger Hawke said, “I see young actors right now, making so much money, getting sucked up into so many movies, it just scares me. If actors and directors have a corporate mentality, then who in the world doesn’t have a corporate mentality?” Yet, when the final numbers come in today, Hawke’s uber-violent thriller is expected to scare up more than $36 million at the box-office, his biggest opening ever. After two decades of a parallel acting existence in which they hardly — if ever — seemed to be swimming in the same Hollywood pool, Hawke and Wilson might just be meeting each other in the middle. Now, who’s going to cast Ethan Hawke in a broad comedy?

Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @ldbahr

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