Ethan Hawke, Renaissance Boy

For the filmmaker, writer, theatrical impresario, and oh, yes, actor, happiness is an art

Ethan Hawke
Mark Seliger
Ethan Hawke on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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.

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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.

"Most people in Ethan's position are content to talk to their agent every day and then go drink and date movie stars," says Linklater. "The people he emulates aren't stars, they are people who have done interesting things. It's amazing how hard the guy works. He's 24, and he's been in 10 movies, directed a short, directed a video, founded a theater company, written a novel. I said to him, 'What's next, do you have an opera? Did you win the Tour de France this year?' "

All profuse gushing aside, Linklater claims he chose Hawke for Before Sunrise because of the young actor's indefatigable ability to talk. Which is wise casting, considering the film is, essentially, a two-hour conversation. A plot summary: Boy meets girl on a train in Europe. Boy persuades girl to hop off the train in Vienna, Austria. Boy and girl walk. Boy and girl talk. Roll credits.

"Rick wanted a movie about how awkward it really is to meet," says Hawke. "And his whole attitude is that now that beer ads look so great, let's do something that doesn't have to look perfect."

It is certainly a good bet that Before Sunrise will add another chapter to Linklater's already hefty collection of glowing reviews. Shot for only $3 million, it manages to capture both the city of Vienna and the birth of a relationship with surprising poignancy. Despite a slightly clumsy introduction, the movie flows with an understated grace.

"We were never divorced from the film, but that's how I like to live, and I have a feeling both Julie and Ethan like that, too," says Linklater. 'They came to Austin [Texas] for a few days, and we were talking about what makes us happy. We'd been sitting in this room for 14 hours, and I realized, 'Oh, this is what makes us happy, just working and sitting and talking.' That's what we did all summer, from the time they got off the plane to the moment they left."

For her part, Julie Delpy declines to speak to Rolling Stone about Before Sunrise. If she did impart any information, however, it is likely she might mention the excellent balance, male and female, that the movie manages to strike. Or how, unlike Linklater's Slacker and Dazed and Confused, this film is void of even one pop-culture reference. Or, perhaps how Linklater uses the entire film to lend credibility and depth to the affair.

"Making this movie was like a sociology experiment," says Hawke. "One guy, one girl. I came home and desperately tried to win back my old girlfriend."

For the record, Hawke's rekindling is still in the negotiation stages. Linklater, meanwhile, is set to begin work on another movie, confident that he is three for three thus far and counting.

"Anyone can lose their edge," says Linklater. "But you take an intuitive leap with people. It's like 'Why not?' Little leaps of faith, that's the microcosm of the movie. What does Nietzsche say? 'When you say yes to a moment, you say yes to all of existence.' There's something optimistic about that."

It is unlikely that Sam Shepard has ever been faced with a predicament and thought to himself: "What would Ethan Hawke do if he were in this situation?" It is a point worth making only because occasionally, when caught at a crossroads, Ethan Hawke gathers himself, ponders the dilemma and attempts to choose the path that Shepard would most likely travel.

"He's just the coolest guy," says Hawke. "What's it like to be him and to be the coolest guy? That must be daunting."

It's another day, another diner, and Hawke is chewing on the subject of just how to choose one's role models. In between gulps from an enormous tumbler of hangover-abating soda and tales from his courtside view at last night's Knicks victory, Hawke explains that he has an idea. He just doesn't know if he has the nerve to implement it. The plan is to write letters to Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, saying, essentially, that he is horribly sorry to bother them, but if at any moment they had time to dispense with even one shred of advice about how to sustain one's career and integrity, he would be eternally grateful.

Hawke's heroes have always been actors and writers. As a kid, he and his family would spend hours upon hours watching movies and debating the finer points of film critic Pauline Kael. "That was pretty much what we did: We went to movies and talked about them," says Leslie Hawke. "A fun thing about being Ethan's mother was that he liked to talk about stuff. And his stepfather loved to talk about everything. We'd sit and argue movies for hours. That's what Ethan likes to do, and he gets to do it."

But that's getting ahead of ourselves. First we must travel back in time to Austin. It is here that Ethan was born, an only child to a 17-year-old mother and an 18-year-old father. Within three years his parents divorced. Hawke and his mother then embarked on a series of relocations. Connecticut, Vermont, Georgia, Brooklyn, N.Y. Finally, when Hawke was 10, his mother remarried, and the pair settled down with their new family in Princeton Junction, N.J.

Although his mother and stepfather have since divorced, Hawke remains extremely close to his stepsister, a premed student at Arizona State University, and his stepbrother, who is a first lieutenant in the Army. "I consider him my brother," says his stepbrother, Patrick Powers. "We grew up together. We shared a room. I wish I saw him more often, because I love him, and I want to spend all the time with him I can."

Ethan credits his stepfather with being the greatest influence on the life he has chosen. "He was the person who made me think it would be cool to try and live an artist's life," says Hawke. "He made me think that I was pretty good at acting." He pauses. "I really admire him."

Hawke requests a refill for his trough of soda and continues. The subject of his natural father is broached. It is not an easy topic. Two and a half years ago, when the same questions were asked, Hawke would say only that his father lives in Virginia and that the two don't speak often. With this, as with most issues that arise, Hawke has become more comfortable. If only a little.

"I talk to him every now and then, I know where he is," says Hawke. "But if I had this conversation with you, I'd be communicating with him via you. Anything I have to say I should say to him – not with you so that he finds out about it. Then its like some kind of cosmic high."

He holds his hands to his temples to help better extract a thought.

"I could rant about my father, but I'm not really mad at my father," Hawke says. "My father was 18. The only thing that bothers me is that I think he wishes that I didn't do so well so that I would need him more, and then he'd have this second chance. Because to be honest, now he's just somebody I know. Imagine if you broke up with somebody, and your crazy girlfriend took the kid. You'd want the kid to turn out crazy to prove that you were right. Truth is, his crazy girlfriend was not so crazy, and we had a nice time."

It is in large part because of his external surroundings – a young single mother, a series of moves before he turned 10 – that Hawke developed his obvious sense of self-sufficiency. He visited Haiti for 10 days when he was 16; he graduated high school at the age of 17; along with his stepbrother, he traveled through Europe after his junior year in high school. While in Europe, in fact, Hawke even took a few weeks' worth of classes at the British Theater Association.

"As a way to get my students to go to school plays, I used to tell them that someday Ethan would be famous, and they'd all be telling people they went to high school with him," says Susan Dineen, Hawke's high-school English teacher. "Of course, they laughed at me."

For his part, Hawke admits that after Explorers, a career in the movies was always lingering in his subconscious. "It made me feel like there was this possible career out there," says Hawke. "When I hated Carnegie-Mellon, that was in the back of my mind."

As he speaks, a young man bursts up to the table, holding a pad of paper like an offering. "Excuse me," he says, "do you mind signing this?"

Hawke smiles and inks his name. The young man looks at it intently. "Thanks," he says after a moment's pause. "Um, what's your name?" Hawke stares at the young man with the stunned, mouth-agape look of a person trapped at a Crash Test Dummies concert. After a few seconds, Hawke attempts to speak. "Why would you want? . . . I mean, what do you? . . ." He smiles and shakes his head. "Forget it."

The man shuffles away, and Hawke hangs his head, brown strands of hairshifting from left to right. "I just do not get that," he says finally before laughing and hanging his head again.

An answering-machine message:

"Hey, it's Ethan. I gave a go at writing my version of the interview, but I realized that this is my whole fucking problem. I take all this too seriously. I'm sitting here trying to write this, and I feel like a total fucking idiot. Talk to ya later. Bye."

Ethan Hawke is trying his best to lighten up. This, however, does not come easily. At the precise time he has set about attempting to be less self-conscious, more and more people are suddenly conscious of him. Certainly, showing up in the tabloids as Julia Roberts' dance partner didn't help anything. But it's a little too late now.

The official Hawke party line on the subject is that it was the most innocent of moments. Besides, he points out, there were seven other people there. One three-minute dance in front of seven witnesses is not enough time to ignite a scandal.

When it is mentioned to him that this is perhaps the lamest line of reasoning imaginable and that history is full of romances beginning in front of far greater crowds, Hawke laughs.

"That's a very good point," he says. "It's a very confusing subject for me to tell the truth about. I'd never even met her before that night, and the reason I ended up dancing with her is that she told me she hadn't left her house in two weeks. I mean, I'm not an idiot, I was totally, unabashedly flirting with her. But that doesn't qualify as cover material for People magazine. I thought she was great. She's going to do very well her whole life. I don't wish her life on anyone, yet I think she's very, very smart and interesting. And, of course, she looks just like Julia Roberts."

Perhaps the strangest upshot of the prom moment was that Hawke found himself, for the first real time, a name and face worthy of mention in all of this great nation's gossip rags. Seeing how nothing announces the arrival of a young celebrity quite like sharing page space with updates on Oprah's weight loss, it is clear that Hawke has arrived.

"How much I've gotten recognized has just gone up exponentially since Reality Bites," says Hawke. "Before that most people didn't know my name. And Alive made a lot more money. Isn't that weird? I don't really get it."

Reality Bites has also served to heighten Hawke's image problem. First of all, he was responsible for directing the video to "Stay," the single from the movie soundtrack that showcased Lisa Loeb staring glassy-eyed on MTV approximately 24 hours a day. Second, and most important, because his character in Reality Bites dressed in Hawke's usual uniform of choice, the assumption is made that his personality must also be similar. Thankfully, it is quite the opposite. In conversation, Hawke has none of the slick, cynical bite of the film character. Instead he possesses an eagerness and wonderment akin to that of a college freshman who is just trying to learn the ropes. Rather than being lazy and jaded, Hawke instead borders on being nervous and obsessive.

Hawke's mother professes that her son's performances in Dead Poets and Reality Bites – his best-known and most polarized roles – are her favorites because they are the least like his personality. Which is good, because if Hawke walked around tossing out Reality Bites phrases like "I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs," everyone he encountered would just want to slap him. Hard.

Word from the grapevine was that life on the Reality Bites set was less than blissful. Hawke confirms that it was far from one big, happy family. "I just kept my head out of trouble on that movie," says Hawke. "It was such a zany world with Winona and all these people going nuts about the twentysomething stuff. It was all so fucking ridiculous. I just tried to do my job. After we finished rehearsals, Winona and I really never spoke."

Hawke's interviewer then reads a quote. The person speaking is Winona Ryder. The subject of her scorn, it is suggested, is Hawke.

"I know a lot of young actors who live in these dumps," said Ryder. "They have their books scattered, and their mattress is on the floor – and they're millionaires. That's fine. That's their way of living. But the reason they're doing it is that they're ashamed. And I've talked to them about it. You just want to say, 'Don't live this way to show people that you're real and that you're deep.' It offends me because I know what it's like to be in poverty, and it's not fun, and it's not romantic, and it's not cool."

Hawke lets out a long laugh.

"I remember that quote," he says. "It's definitely about me. The bottom line is that I'm not a millionaire. Fuck you, you are, so you think we all are. Not to say I'm not doing well financially. But to be honest, that's her whole thing. It's her projection. I don't live like this for how it appears. I live like this because I always wanted to live in New York City, and I wanted to live in the kind of apartment I thought Henry Miller might live in." He laughs again and shakes his head. "You know, for some weird reason, I get a kick out of Winona."

One odd predicament for Hawke is that for all his experience, Winona Ryder is one of the very few of his contemporaries with whom he has shared screen time. And since he chooses to live in New York, he therefore hasn't even met any. He used to speak regularly to Jeremy Irons (with whom he appeared in Waterland) in order to garner advice and encouragement. Irons, however, is far from a brat packer.

"I wish I did know some of those guys, but I don't," says Hawke, who counts Johnny Depp as his peer whose work he most consistently admires. "I always think about that. I was at River Phoenix's memorial, and I sat next to Christian Slater. All these people were talking about how nobody could ever replace River in Interview With the Vampire. I kept thinking that it must really be bumming Christian Slater out because there was no reason he shouldn't have taken over that role So I found his number, and I called him a couple days later to say that I hoped he didn't feel bad. I don' t think he had any idea what I was talking about. Maybe I didn't explain myself well. That was my one attempt at doing something like that."

Welcome to the dump.

It is midafternoon, and Hawke is playing DJ in his Chelsea apartment. The sound of Nina Simone singing a Bob Dylan song is thick in the air, and the home is, indeed, the kind of place where Henry Miller would feel cozy. In the back office an antique typewriter sits on an even more old-fashioned desk. On the exposed brick walls hang enormous old movie posters and various mementos from Hawke's career: a photograph of Hawke and his Midnight Clear co-stars standing in the snow; another cast picture, from Dead Poets Society, signed by director Peter Weir; posters from this year's Malaparte theater season. Across from Hawke's couch, not far from his piano and an over-stuffed book shelf, are two seats that once served time in a movie theater. More than 50 scripts are piled in the fireplace.

"I don't think this place is somehow contrived," says Hawke, looking around. "I think it's a really nice apartment. This place gives me pleasure."

It is within these walls that Hawke is already plotting strategy for next year's theater season. It is also where he occasionally writes letters. To himself.

"I write myself letters for when I'm 40 or 50 and put them in a drawer," says Hawke. "The letters are sort of 'If you wonder what you were like, this is the deal.' And 'This is what I hope for you: If you get bored with acting, quit. If you're going to do shit for money, don't be in the arts. Don't be an asshole playboy. I hope you're not single and screwing half the town.' Things like that."

About the only sound advice that Hawke doesn't follow is from his mother. "His one big flaw is that he's such a slob," says Leslie Hawke with a laugh. "And it's not my fault. Ethan will say, 'Mom, this is how everybody looks,' but I look at his friends, and I study how they look, and they don't look quite as bad as Ethan. He's always been like that, even as a small kid."

Hawke admits that his mother still obsesses about his fashion sense. That, however, is not all. "She always takes my agent's side," says Hawke. "I'll say, 'I'm taking this Rick Linklater movie, but I'll have to turn down such and such for this much money. I feel really good about it.' And she'll say, 'What does Bryan say? These people have been in the business for a long time, and work is work. I don't want you to be 40 and think, "I could have had it all."' I just say, 'Mom, I'm gonna get it all, don't you worry. But what's it all? Define success.'"

For Hawke, what seems to fit the bill is an eclectic mix of theater and small-film roles. Not that he wouldn't want larger-film success. He was terribly disappointed when he read for the Brad Pitt part in A River Runs Through It, only to have director Robert Redford tell him he was too young. It's just that Hawke measures happiness not so much in prestige parts as in whether or not he feels he is living up to his bohemian ideals. Yes, it might be a sign of his youth – clinging to an idyllic, Beat Generation dream. Especially considering most of the Beat Generation didn't live up to the Beat Generation dream. There are, however, worse sins than being painfully sincere and accommodating.

"Last year, Ethan was directing a play, and I brought 40 students," says Dineen, Hawke's former teacher. "After the performance, Ethan got everyone in the cast to stay and talk to the class. It was so nice and so inspirational for those kids." It's also not surprising.

"I'm turned on by that romantic idea of being in artistic collaboration," says Hawke. "If that turns into a scene, fine. These people in the theater company fucking make me feel alive. It's not about interviews and fame and millions of dollars. It's generated out of a desire to get something off your chest."

The CD player goes silent, and Hawke walks the long corridor of his apartment. He wades through a stack of albums by overly earnest folkie types and slides one into the machine. The music blares, and Hawke smiles a smile of utter contentment. At least for the time being his dream is very much alive.

This story is from the March 9th, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone. 

From The Archives Issue 703: March 9, 1995