What a difference a goatee makes. Case in point: One Ethan Hawke, 24-year-old short-film maker, writer, video director and artistic director of his own New York theater company. He also acts in movies.
Two and a half years ago, this reporter met up with young Hawke, not far removed from a supporting role opposite a dog in White Fang and fresh off his turn as every vegan's nightmare in Alive. Reaction from bystanders was universal: "Ethan Hawke . . . isn't he the 'Oh, captain, my captain' guy from Dead Poet Society? He's such a cute kid." Fast forward to the present. Toss in one role as a cynical hipster asshole in the condescending twentysomething comedy Reality Bites, a tabloid dance with Julia Roberts and reports that he has completed a short novel. Once again the masses weigh in with their opinion: "Ethan Hawke . . . he's that pretentious. I'm not a movie star guy. He's such a grunge-boy poseur."
It's obvious that a little facial hair, fame and the backlash that both can bring have snowballed and begun hurtling unabated toward Hawke. Not even dunking his chin in a puddle of Nair could stop the momentum.
And so a location is chosen to discuss the phenomenon. We are seated in a tiny Manhattan diner, Hawke's greasy spoon of choice in his chosen city, and both the locale and the metropolis are playing to Hawke's strengths. Which is to say, he is sipping coffee, smoking and talking excitedly. Then smoking some more. He is dressed in sloppy, found-on-the-floor comfort and leaning against a wall that hasn't felt the sting of a cleaning fluid since the Carter administration. As with our first encounter, he is earnest and friendly and has a disturbing propensity to quote everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Elvis Costello to Albert Schweitzer. Contrary to that original meeting, Hawke is much more at ease, more comfortable with both the process at hand and his profession. Of course, he still worries. At one point, the weight of the interrogation growing on him, Hawke ponders the suggestion that he write his own version of the interview, just to make sure at least some of it comes out right. He decides to give it a shot.
In the meantime, Hawke speaks loudly, and as he makes his points, his mannerisms grow more exaggerated and contagious. He might be blessed with all the accouterments of the indulgent young star the anti-fashion, the cigarettes, the little beard that could – but his sincerity and enthusiasm are very rooted in everyday life.
His latest movie, Before Sunrise – imagine My Dinner With Andre recast as a romantic liaison between a young American babe (Hawke) and a neophyte French babe (Julie Delpy) – is directed by Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) and was granted the prestigious opening slot at the Sundance Film Festival. Hawke has also just wrapped his second successful run with his do-it-yourself theater company, Malaparte. For Hawke, art and commerce are cohabitating peacefully, and he could not be happier.
"I used to worry a lot about being taken seriously," says Hawke, propping his feet up on a nearby chair. "Because when you're really young and you're kind of good-looking and you've had some success as an actor, you feel like such a puppet. That's a big part, to me, about why River Phoenix is dead. You feel like such a fraud. You feel like such a model, and whenever you try to talk about being smart, you feel like you're actually being an asshole. This is what I mean. When did it happen that it would be silly of me to try and take myself seriously?"
While readers try to pinpoint the precise answer to that trivia question, consider this: Hawke broke into acting – opposite Phoenix in the little-seen children's adventure Explorers – at the age of 14. At the suggestion of his mother, Hawke didn't aggressively pursue other roles until after he had completed high school. Next he entered Carnegie-Mellon University, where he was tossed out of his first class on his very first day. Two months later another foray into acting forced Hawke to drop out. No one – not Hawke, not Carnegie, not Mellon – was disappointed. The role was in Dead Poets Society.
"I've never even told Ethan this, but I absolutely knew when he did Explorers that he'd be a successful film actor," says Leslie Hawke, Ethan's mother. "I based that in part on the comments people made about what an instinct he had. But he had it to do over again, I wouldn't have let him do Explorers. He was really lucky. It was tough on him later, because it wasn't a successful movie. Adolescence is hard enough without tossing in that. But I never bad any doubt. I just assumed that's what he'd do."
Nonetheless, after Dead Poets, Hawke twice entered New York University as an English major, only to have film projects scuttle his attempts at the collegiate life. It was at this point that Ethan Hawke made his decision. If he wasn't going to attend college, he decided, he would instead educate himself. And while a role alongside Ted Danson in Dad probably did little to stimulate the growth process, Hawke set about his task of becoming an old-style artist – a voracious reader and constant student of film, literature and music. Sure, it has led to more than a few too many Jack Kerouac references (his cat, for instance, is named Mardou after the lead character in The Subterraneans). Really, one Kerouac reference is too many. Then again, somebody did say it's the thought that counts. And Hawke spends the majority of his time thinking.
"I was uncomfortable with the fact that I didn't go to college for a long, long time," says Hawke, standing and slipping on a weathered mid-length leather coat. "I think just recently I've started feeling better about it. The theater company for me was a lot of filling in the gaps. And I made a short film. I just decided to give myself these things to do."
Hawke ducks out of the diner, tilts his head into a stiff breeze and cuts a path, west to east, across lower Manhattan. As he walks, his voice slows down considerably, becoming more thoughtful and analytical and less like bursts of nervous energy.
"I look at old journals, and for so long my biggest question was whether or not to quit acting," says Hawke. "It was like that for two years after Dead Poets Society."
He swings open the door to a dusty neighborhood bar, orders two beers and slides a pair of quarters into the pool table.
"It wasn't that I didn't want to keep doing it," he says, moving slowly around the table. "I just thought that it was going to bring up issues I didn't want to have to face, like whether or not to be in Young Guns II. I mean, that's not why I became an actor."
Hawke takes a swig of beer and pauses without speaking. Finally, he lowers his eye to the cue and sends the eight ball rolling on its way toward the corner pocket. He misses wide left.
The guitar resting just outside the grasp of Ethan Hawke's left hand is proving too irresistible. He is seated in a friend's apartment, eyeing the instrument, rambling happily about all things arty and making short work of a pile of nachos.
"I've always been a real sucker for the arts," he is saying almost apologetically. "I dig it." He pauses and adopts an even more apologetic tone. "I like to put on plays and do readings. That entertains me."
As the discussion begins to lull, Hawke sees his chance. He makes a grab for the guitar and begins strumming softly – quietly providing background for the resuscitated conversation. Finally, after another lull, a little prodding and a few beers, he plays the very first song he ever wrote. It's a "You'll be sorry someday" ballad, written at the age of 17 to a girl who wouldn't have anything to do with Hawke. It's not known if today she is, indeed, sorry. He finishes the tune and lets out an embarrassed laugh. "That's it," be says, thrusting the guitar onto a companion. "Somebody else's turn." Yep, just when you thought Hawke couldn't get any more prolific, he's penning songs. If he wasn't so likable, it might just bring to mind the scene in Animal House when John Belushi smashes the earnest young beatnik's guitar into toothpick. That guy had a goatee, too.
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