On the latest segment of Jimmy Kimmel’s ingenious “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” in which various celebrities read mean tweets about themselves to the camera, Ethan Hawke recited @julianaxelrod’s putdown of him: “Ethan Hawke seems like a guy who wasn’t supposed to be a movie star, but he slipped through the cracks and everyone was just like ‘Ok.’” Mr. Axelrod’s tweet is pretty hilarious and also pretty bang-on, and not even in an insulting way or anything.
Hawke has had some amazing longevity in Hollywood, consistently appearing in leading roles on the big screen for nearly 30 years now. Yet I think the key to this is that he never seemed all that interested in stardom in the first place. He remains primarily concerned about the art, eventually branching out as a novelist, screenwriter, and director as well. Since he’s currently in Toronto shooting a new film, the Alejandro Amenábar (Open Your Eyes, The Others) thriller Regression, he’ll be stopping by TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 1 for an In Conversation to talk about his eclectic career.
When he was just 14 years old, Hawke made his debut starring alongside River Phoenix in Joe Dante’s Explorers. Hot on the heels of Gremlins, Dante aimed to make another big-budget genre film for kids, this time about a trio of boys who create their own UFO in order to travel into space. It was a large-scale sci-fi/fantasy movie released in the middle of the summer and while Hawke has a ton of charm and screen presence in the lead, it wouldn’t dictate where his career was headed. Unlike some of his fellow child stars at the time, he never got sucked into the Hollywood lifestyle and flamed out as he started to get older.
Instead, he went back to being a normal kid and didn’t appear again on screen until four years later in the seminal classic Dead Poet’s Society, which we all watched at some point in high school and cried (admit it, you well up whenever you hear “O captain, my captain”). He then carefully built up a steady resume of roles in interesting films like Keith Gordon’s World War II drama A Midnight Clear and the semi-notorious true-life survival tale Alive (they EAT PEOPLE), while also continuing to appeal to a broader audience in a literary crowd-pleaser like White Fang.
The Ethan Hawke we all know and love really came into full focus in 1994, with the release of Reality Bites. More than any other film, it quickly became an ode to Generation X, a sardonic tale of post-college ennui amongst a group of twentysomethings. Hawke, as layabout Troy Dyer, was the philosophically nihilistic face of the grunge movement, forever rebelling against the man and insisting on just “riding his own melt.” Looking back at the film, Troy is really just a huge jerk who needs to grow up, but I think the reason Reality Bites hit the zeitgeist and has sustained a nice following is that Troy’s cynicism never felt like a pose. Hawke’s portrayal was authentic and turned Troy into a guy you really did kind of think was cool and smart and wanted to root for, even if he was sometimes a douchebag.
Instead of capitalizing on this newfound stardom by trying to attach himself to the next big blockbuster, Hawke followed up Reality Bites with a movie about two people walking and talking, which would cement his street cred. Before Sunrise and its two sequels are arguably the most acclaimed and beloved works he’s ever been involved with – extraordinarily heartfelt and complex examinations of the relationship between two people at different moments in their lives. Aside from doing some of the most naturalistic acting of his career, he would also become involved in the writing processes of the series, earning screenwriting Oscar nominations alongside his co-writers. Of course, Before Sunrise also began an ongoing friendship and collaboration with outlaw filmmaker Richard Linklater, which would see them working together on numerous other films, including the searing one-room drama Tape and this year’s highly anticipated coming-of-age saga Boyhood.
As the ‘90s wore on, the highest-budgeted movie he appeared in also turned out to be one of the smartest. Gattaca is by far one of the best science fiction films of the decade, a meticulously moody thriller about a near future where only people with perfect genetics are allowed to thrive. Hawke, playing a sickly, genetically inferior man who manages to trick authorities so he can achieve his dream of space travel, plays his character’s duality amazingly, making us sweat as he’s constantly backed into corners. Niccol’s refusal to adhere to the conventions of Hollywood sci-fi ensured that Gattaca didn’t fare so well at the box office upon its initial release but it has deservedly earned a rabid cult following since, and Hawke would reteam with Niccol for the excellent arms-dealer thriller Lord of War several years later.
Since the new century started, Hawke has continually shuffled his deck to keep things fresh. He received his only acting Oscar nomination for Training Day, in which he gives an intense performance despite the fact that audiences generally see it as the Denzel show. He would reteam later with director Antoine Fuqua in the underrated Brooklyn’s Finest, playing a cop who must turn corrupt in order to provide for his family. He proved his chops to Sidney Lumet in the grand Shakespearean tragedy of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and took a trip into the surreal in Pawel Pawlikowski’s strangely engrossing The Woman in the Fifth. There are just too many career highlights to mention here.
Even when he has engaged in trashier fare, it never feels like he’s selling out. In movies like the ludicrously entertaining serial killer flick Taking Lives or more recent B-movie fare like Sinister, The Purge, or Getaway, he doesn’t phone in his performances. It just seems like he’s having fun.
I’m sure even Troy Dyer could respect that.