There once was a day — well, two days, but they blurred feverishly into one — in 1989 when Ethan Hawke watched three films that left him changed: Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. At just 19 years old, even with Dead Poet’s Society freshly in his rearview, he felt he ought to quit, because what other greatness could possibly be left to come? And much less include him?
“That’s when my adult relationship with film really started,” he reflects, speaking over the phone. “I saw how high the bar could be — and I really wanted to be a part of it.”
That trifecta still remains the measure for Hawke, who, unbeknownst to his impressionable teenage self, would go on to work with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull writer Paul Schrader a mere 30 years later on First Reformed, the film that almost earned Hawke a fifth Oscar nomination.
He’s made a living out of choosing only the roles that speak to him — whether that’s playing a minister struggling with his faith, a jazz legend, or a rookie cop. Over the past year alone, he’s starred in an Icelandic war epic (The Northman), played a bad guy twice (The Black Phone, Moon Knight), briefly dipped his toes in a comedy for a little relief (Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery), tackled a family drama (Raymond & Ray), and shot a Spanish queer western with Pedro Almodovar (Strange Way of Life), the set of which he’s calling from right this minute.
Almost four decades into a healthy and varied career, Hawke’s voice still sounds as boyish and familiar as it did when he starred in White Fang, Reality Bites and Mystery Date, and found himself something of a ’90s teenage pin-up, smack dab on the inside of more than a few high-school lockers. But it’s gained a gravelly edge and is more thoughtful than ever. Hawke takes long seconds, even minutes when answering a question; you can almost hear him being transported to a set or a relationship from the past as he takes you with him. There’s a generosity to his intellect, and at 51, a youthful frenetic energy still roils through the Austin, Texas-born actor, whether in conversation or any given role, as if there is a universe of emotion waiting between his bones to burst forward.
But when Hawke first gave acting a go, it was meant to be temporary, and was really an excuse to drop out of college. He spent his days fantasizing about being a writer (which he also became, but more on that later). And when his first film, Explorers, an adventure- comedy co-starring River Phoenix, turned out to be a box-office blunder, it had him bristling and ready to leave it all behind. Mind you, he was only 15 at the time — but after being promised it would be a hit, he was forced to rein in his expectations.
And so even when Peter Weir’s Oscar-nominated Dead Poets Society dropped four years later, it took Hawke a while to trust its impact. He even went back to college for a bit. But the film, in which he played the shy, insecure student of maverick English teacher John Keating, played by the late Robin Williams, opened doors for the young actor and launched his career. (And so, yes, he dropped out again.)
“The longer I live, the more I realize what a master Peter was of this profession,” he says. “He showed me what filmmaking could be. It was a long time before I had that experience again, where I felt so held and a part of something bigger than myself. On a superficial level, that film completely changed my life and gave me a belief that I could do this at a high level.” That kept him working, despite a gnawing urge to quit. Besides which, he adds, he “slowly kept falling more and more in love with movies.”
What followed was Hawke’s certified twentysomething heartthrob phase, complete with the goatee, barely there stache, and tousled hair. But for a guy who was keen to have the focus be more on the work, it wasn’t so easy.
“I was very aware that pin-ups have a long line of casualties, and that it’s a dangerous road to walk to any kind of success as a young person, because you’re not really in charge of what happens to you, you don’t have any real ownership of what you’re contributing,” he says. “When Reality Bites came around, with gossip magazines and all that stuff, one could not turn a complete blind eye to what that does to your life, your friendships and the way people are around you. You are robbed of the ability to make a first impression, and everybody has these ideas of you; some are borderline accurate, and some are wildly inaccurate.”
At the time, Hawke had also started his own theatre company, Malaparte, and regardless of the attention, he was “hell-bent to make the most of my moment, and by that I don’t mean maximize my ‘success,’ but I wanted to learn.”
But then, as he puts it, “that whole confused period ended with Richard Linklater.” The director, fresh off 1993’s Dazed and Confused, was looking for the leads for his independent film Before Sunrise, the gentle romance that would kick off one of the most compelling trilogies of all time. He hired Hawke after seeing him in a play in New York and hired Julie Delpy shortly after. As Linklater would go on to tell the New York Times, “I was looking for two creative partners. I wasn’t looking for just two pretty faces.” Indeed, the pair would have a heavy hand in the script, and the two that followed, receiving co-writing credits on Before Sunset and Before Midnight.
“Before Sunrise was my first experience since Dead Poets Society where I really saw and really felt what it was like to be a filmmaker,” Hawke says. “To be working with someone from my own generation was even more exciting, because you didn’t have to bow at the altar of adulthood. We were trying to make our own art; it was extremely liberating.”
It also fostered a key relationship in Hawke’s life. With the trilogy sequels, the pair have made seven films together so far, including 2014’s Boyhood, which spanned 12 years in filming and storytelling, and earned Hawke his second Oscar nomination for acting, after 2001’s Training Day. During their partnership, there’s no mistaking it — Hawke’s performances grow sharper, more lived-in, more genuine.
“There was a period of those four films where I was just always working with Rick,” says Hawke, who names their work together (alongside 1997’s Gattaca and 2014’s Predestination) as his “obituary- worthy” personal favourites. “We were always daydreaming together, and those four movies feel like extensions of me. They’re really personal films, and are born out of that friendship and shared sensibility. You could easily say the main character of all four is Father Time. That’s a theme that sticks for us.”
The pair have got “a handful of projects” they keep trying to get off the ground, but in the meantime, Hawke is busy. In 2020, he wrote and produced the Showtime series The Good Lord Bird, and even found time to publish his sixth book, A Bright Ray of Darkness, the following year. Writing, he says, is something that “creates continuity in my psychic life” between projects. He’s also got into fictional podcast series, including the recent crime drama Fishpriest. And he’s itching to do a “broad, ridiculous” comedy.
“It really doesn’t matter if you’re doing a play in a church basement or on Broadway or a Marvel movie or some little indie that is being made for five dollars, the principles are the same: is this worth watching, and what am I contributing?” he says. “I love the challenge of working in different genres; there’s always different rules that apply to each setting. I find that really challenging, it forces me to be a different actor every time. Right now, I’m working with Almodovar, and his films have a certain vocabulary that is very different than a Marvel movie. I have to bend my imagination to this world that I’m in, and then find the universality of it.”
Speaking of Marvel series Moon Knight, in which he plays villain Dr. Arthur Harrow, Hawke got so into it, he even crafted his character’s opening scene, in which he smashes a glass, sets the shards inside his shoe and walks on. That’s certainly a level of pathos only Hawke might bring to a Marvel project, of all things. “Devising that scene was a way to keep forcing your brain to function in a different landscape, and to honour who owns that landscape, which is young people,” he says. “They’re very smart. They discovered the Beatles. They have great taste, and you can mock it or make it small, but that’s what people are watching. If you asked me 18 months earlier if I thought I’d play the baddie in some Marvel series, I wouldn’t have seen that on my horizon. After Oscar [Isaac] approached me about it, it was obvious the intensity and seriousness he was going to bring, so it seemed fun.
“If you’re doing a school play and the cast can make it a party, it doesn’t matter how terrible it is, whether the music’s any good, whether he can play the oboe, or she can actually sing. If it’s a party, there’s a joy to it, and that’s what you’re always hunting for.”
It’s a moment where I have to ask: does he feel the almost fidgety, unsettled energy he often transmits onscreen, or even in this phone call now? With a laugh, Hawke describes himself as a kind of “manic engine” at work.
“There’s something about passing 50 that makes you aware of how long the road is behind you,” he explains. “There’s definitely been a restlessness through much of my life, and with everything that I do. I think of that Willie Nelson song, “Still Is Still Moving to Me.” There’s something about being in movement that I really like, and I find enjoyable, like the way bliss is for other people.”
The thing is, he says, “I love what I do. I was really patient when I was younger, I didn’t try to force things, I had a certain confidence that I was going to find my way. Then, as I got older, I got a lot less patient and realized there’s a time period during which we’re able to work and to contribute, and it’s so fleeting.”
It’s a mindset that came from crafting the six-episode HBO Max documentary The Last Movie Stars, which profiles the lives of lovers and actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and which Hawke directed, and helped write and cast. It was no easy undertaking — and one he regretted taking on more than a few times, as it took about three years to develop and essentially “hijacked” Hawke’s life. What came out of it, though, is an incredibly affecting history project about the iconic Hollywood couple, but it’s also about the industry, an everlasting love for cinema, and, well, showbiz.
Showbiz is a part of the machine Hawke has never been all that attracted to. He says, “When people become a movie star, there’s almost a trademark brand by their head. My heroes were the people that walk the line between theatre and movies, and disappeared into their roles and didn’t feel like they were a corporation. If you talk to these people — the Denzels, the Georges, the Julias — it’s a great burden.”
Part of the recipe of being one of those classic stars was rarely being in the public eye or even doing press. Which makes Hawke’s current packed slate a little tough to reconcile.
“When I was starting, De Niro wouldn’t do any press for his movies,” he says. “Warren Beatty didn’t do any for Reds, Paul Newman would do an interview about every five years. It’s exceedingly difficult if you’re going to make under-the-radar movies and try to get them on the radar. There’s a lot of competition out there, so if you want people to have a chance to see a movie like Before Midnight, which I think we spent longer promoting than making, you have to do it. I started caring a lot less about the ancillary impacts of fame and am trying to just enjoy it, but it’s a young person’s game. When I was younger, I took it all very seriously, but now I try to have a sense of humour about it. I think I have to if I want to keep working at the level that I’m trying to work.”
Part of that’s included having an active Instagram account, and with each endearing post, Hawke has found a new way to engage. As he says, “I’m just trying to do it without debasing myself.”
What’s also added a new, thrilling lens on his experience is watching his daughter, 24-year-old Maya Hawke (a dead ringer for mother Uma Thurman, with whom he also shares son Levon), join the industry. She currently co-stars on Netflix’s Stranger Things and is a musician. Despite once saying he’d “never recommend” a young person to become an actor, it’s been a delight watching the younger Hawke discover it.
“It’s a dangerous profession, but it’s what she’s supposed to be doing,” he says, his voice rising with an audible joy. “It’s so clear as her father, and I really actually believe in her, I think she has a tremendous amount to offer. She’s funny and silly and forgives herself when she makes a mistake. I enjoy watching her; she does it better than I do.”
Although his daughter is just getting started, Hawke was recently quoted as saying he’s on the “last act” of his career. He’d like to take a moment to clarify: that is not at all what he meant. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“Life is kind of a seasonal thing; the last act is harvest time before winter comes in. Right now, I feel excited to implement what I spent a lifetime learning about writing and filmmaking, and we’re in this really exciting moment in regards to the way technology and storytelling are changing.
“I didn’t mean that it’s a farewell tour. I meant it’s time to get to work.”
Photography: Heather Hazzan (Eye Forward)
Styling: Michael Fisher (The Wall Group)
Grooming: Jennifer Brent (Tracey Mattingly Agency) using Bahamian and Brooklyn Grooming Lighting
Director: John Busch
Photo Assistants: Luke Nilsson, Yoel Collado, Ashlee Huff
Stylist Assistant: Brodie Reardon