Ethan Hawke is finally ready to embrace his inner villain
For the first time in a year, Ethan Hawke is unemployed. His rescue mutts Georgia and Jett are thrilled to finally have him back home in Brooklyn, as they lounge behind their owner, looking as peaceful and content as can be. It's certainly a change of pace for the actor, who spent 2021 traveling to North Carolina, Ireland, Italy, Virginia, and Budapest — not just accumulating passport stamps but also an impressive 2022 slate.
"It was strange to stop acting [during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020], and I've just thrown myself back at it with abandonment," says Hawke, 51, the star of upcoming projects like Robert Eggers' historical epic The Northman (April 22), Scott Derrickson's supernatural horror film The Black Phone (June 24), Rian Johnson's highly anticipated Knives Out sequel, and Marvel's ambitious Disney+ series Moon Knight (March 30). "The pandemic really made me look at, Why do I work so hard? What the hell am I doing this for? Sometimes I feel like a stage coach riding downhill and I'm still whipping the horses. The short answer is, it makes me happy. I'm a pretty restless person and one of those really lucky people that get turned on by what I'm doing — I really love it. I do think there might be something gained by working a little less hard. Like, checkout these dogs. They're just so relaxed. I aspire to be more like them."
Meanwhile, any young actor would aspire to be Hawke. But his four-decade career was almost over before it ever really started. At 15, he made his debut opposite River Phoenix in the 1985 box office flop Explorers. "I really absorbed the feeling of being a young person who let a lot of adults down," he admits of the disappointment. "They invested a lot of money in that movie — and they lost it all. And the phone doesn't ring anymore." It was four years before Hawke next appeared in a film, 1989's Dead Poets Society. Of course, he's since become an Oscar-nominated actor and writer, a Broadway veteran, a father of an on the rise actor ("She's the real thing," he says of daughter Maya) — and now the go-to movie star for horror juggernaut Blumhouse Productions, which is all the more impressive considering how terrified he felt upon receiving the script for 2012's Sinister, his first collaboration with Derrickson and producer Jason Blum. "I got so scared about three quarters of the way through that I threw it across the room and had to go for a walk," recalls Hawke, who was eventually convinced by his wife, Ryan, to finish it. (No wonder she's now his producing partner.) Sinister would make $82.5 million on a $3 million budget, a massive success surpassed by Hawke and Blum's 2013 reunion The Purge. After producing Hawke's passion project — Showtime's Emmy-winning limited series The Good Lord Bird — the duo are back with Derrickson for new big-screen scares this summer.
Based on a 2004 short story from Stephen King's son Joe Hill, the 1970s-set Black Phone features Hawke as the Grabber, a part-time magician responsible for a string of child abductions in a suburban Colorado town. Shy 13-year-old Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) soon finds himself trapped in a soundproof basement, the latest kid to come face-to-face with this monster. Well, kind of. "Scott wanted me to do a part in a mask for an entire film, and all of a sudden I feel like I'm doing Greek drama; he allowed me to give a performance in the middle of a horror movie," says Hawke, who was intrigued that his movie-star features would never be fully visible. "There's a great Bob Dylan line in that Scorsese doc [Rolling Thunder Revue] where he says that if somebody's got a mask on, you know they're telling the truth — and if they don't have a mask on, you know they're lying. That was on top of my brain; the scariest thing about [the Grabber] is that he doesn't want you to see him."
In Hawke's mind, Black Phone epitomizes his evolving approach to acting, both when it comes to performing and selecting projects. With his face out of play, he focused on voice and body work, "things that I was bored senseless by when I was 18 and now see as keys to making this profession interesting to me for the next 25 years." It also marks the beginning of the Ethan Hawke villain era. "I've always had this theory that when you teach an audience how to see the demon inside you, they don't unsee it for the rest of your career. Jack Nicholson can be playing an accountant and you're still waiting for him to explode like he did in The Shining," he explains. "But I realized I'm on the other side of 50 and it's time to put a new tool in the tool kit. Villains might be my future."
At least his near future. Long missing from Hawke's diverse résumé was an appearance in the superhero world, but it turns out all it takes to seal the deal is fellow Brooklynite Oscar Isaac running into him at a coffee shop and asking. Marvel's Moon Knight adaptation pits Isaac and Hawke against each other, with Hawke playing a top-secret bad-guy role. "I was always a little apprehensive; there's a certain kind of actor that really excels in that universe, and I'm still not sure I'm one of them," admits Hawke, who says psychiatrist Carl Jung and infamous cult leader David Koresh were inspirations for his character. "The uber-rich villain mastermind isn't interesting to me. I love the ones who believe that they're a good person and that's why they have to kill you. That I find really terrifying."
Speaking of, with Jamie Lee Curtis already crowned the scream queen, is Hawke eyeing the other throne? "I doubt I'm going to be the Vincent Price of my generation. I think my interest in weird art films is too high," he says with a laugh, pointing to Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, and Jason Robards as his acting role models. "I'm proud of not being held to one kind of movie. I've learned that you can never anticipate how your career is going to unfold for people. [My 2022] movies might be the four biggest bombs of all time and mark the tombstone on an otherwise unremarkable career — or it'll be the best year of my life. I've learned that there is no doing 'one for them.' Like, Paul McCartney doesn't try to write a pop song, he loves popular music. And so he does it — and he does it really well. I try to find things that have something new to offer me and make me feel like a student again. I always think it's important that no matter if you succeed or fail, you're proud of the attempt. And it's been really fun to put on my hard hat and bring my packed lunch and work with a lot of different kinds of directors."
Already restless at home, Hawke is dreaming up what's next. He has a desire to direct again (he last helmed 2018's Blaze), but he's in no rush since usually his ideal projects "are things that I know no one else would want to make." When it comes to acting, as you'd expect, he's hoping for a bit of everything. "One of my goals for my obituary is to have a really good film in every column," he says, listing a wide range of genres, from an R-rated buddy comedy, to a "substantive action film" in the vein of Training Day, to a rom-com, to another go with his Before Sunrise trilogy and Boyhood partner. "I'm dying to work with [Richard] Linklater again. If the grim reaper came soon, that's what I'd want to do most."
Having taken no lessons from Georgia or Jett, Hawke jokes of the timeline for completing his cinematic bucket list: "I'll be done with that by next Christmas."
A version of this story appears in the February issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.