Ethan Hawke

Around 2 A.M., Ethan Hawke and I have pretty much cleaned out his meagerly stocked refrigerator. We began sensibly enough, polishing off a bottle of fume blanc, and then moved on to the food items of a man who just had weekend custody of his children: string cheese and Tofutti ice-cream sandwiches. There’s not much left, except for the mustard and the squeezable yogurt, so Hawke lights another cigarette.

“I went to the doctor to do a physical and he said I’m smoking too much. Then he said, ‘Well, didn’t I read in the papers you got divorced?'” Hawke laughs hollowly and takes another pull from his American Spirit. “He said, ‘Give yourself a year. I’d rather you smoke than punch out a photographer.'”

We’re in the kitchen of Hawke’s rented house in Toronto. Hawke’s lit about a dozen candles; as we talk, Uma Thurman flickers through the conversation like the trembling light beside us. Sometimes Hawke still calls her “my wife.”

Hawke is in town shooting a remake of the 1976 cult classic Assault on Precinct 13, with a cast that also includes Laurence Fishburne, Brian Dennehy, and John Leguizamo. “It’s kind of fun to do a boy movie,” Hawke says. “It’s an action movie, but it’s a really good script. I have no idea how it will come out–maybe they’ll cut all the dialogue and Jerry Bruckheimer will come in for a reshoot.” A long day of shooting has delayed our meeting from dinnertime to after midnight, and as the hours grow late, Hawke turns meditative.

“I think for so many people, the desire to make your life substantive is motivated by the fear of death,” he says. “You realize, oh shit, I’m only here for a certain period of time. What am I doing. Stop, wait–I don’t want to be a movie actor–how did that happen?”

As a movie actor, Hawke has been nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Training Day, but he’s also a founder of the Malaparte theater company in New York and the author of two quite-good-really novels, The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday. I tell him that I regret having missed his performance in the 2003 Lincoln Center production of Henry IV; he played Hotspur to Kevin Kline’s Falstaff.

Hawke tells me that an archival videotape exists. “It’s not like seeing it in person, but you could fast-forward to my scenes. Skip Kevin Kline–that hack, he doesn’t know shit.”

In fact, Kline was exactly as impressive as Hawke expected him to be: the preeminent American Shakespearean actor, although he needed to purge his pre-show nerves nightly. “He would sit backstage every night and say”–Hawke does a good impression of Kline, low and guttural–“These fucking assholes, they don’t deserve this play. They wouldn’t know a joke if it fell in their fucking laps. They can’t wait to go to their party later, they’re gonna come here and sleep through this thing. None of you people deserve me!”

Hawke had previously attended theater school for just four weeks; as a young man, he was consumed by the idea that Jack Nicholson wouldn’t have worn tights. This time, Hawke made sure he learned proper breathing control and stage combat. “Theater is not a stepping stone,” Hawke says. “Independent cinema is not a stepping stone. I bump into a lot of young actors who are interested in it as a stepping stone, and it really pisses me off. Big movies aren’t a stepping stone to another movie. Do what you’re doing. You are your actions, and thinking motivates your actions. That’s why you have to be so careful what you think about.”

Hawke heads to the fridge for another Tofutti sandwich. “I find it interesting to talk about acting, even if people would rather hear that I did it for the money. But I’m a big bullshit artist. If you talk to me long enough, I just repeat myself.”

Hawke’s latest movie, Before Sunset, is a testament to the pleasures of conversation, of rolling big ideas around in your larynx until they become as smooth as marbles. It’s directed by Richard Linklater (School of Rock), who Hawke calls “my single greatest collaborator,” having appeared in his films Tape, Waking Life, The Newton Boys, and Before Sunrise, the film to which Sunset is a sequel.

“I always think of Ethan as a guy who stepped out of a Kerouac novel,” Linklater says. “He’s contemplative, but never boring or mundane.”

Before Sunrise, released in 1995, takes place in one night: Hawke and Julie Delpy meet on a train, wander around Vienna, and have an intense, evanescent romance. When the movie ends, they agree to meet six months later. Before Sunset picks up the action nine years later. In real time, the two wander around Paris, flirt, and discuss life–and how the hopes of their twenties have turned into lost possibilities.

“In many ways, it’s incredibly experimental,” Hawke says. Linklater would enforce the movie’s naturalism, periodically instructing the pair, “Okay, you guys are acting–you’ve got to stop.” Or as he sometimes put it, “No drama, no drama, no drama. If there’s any drama at all, then this movie is really boring–we’re going to want a plot. But if there’s no drama, it’s some kind of different movie you haven’t experienced before.”

Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy all collaborated on the script. Hawke reflects, “Shit, man, this might be our life’s work. Wouldn’t it be amazing to make five of these things and have this magnum opus on the male/female dynamic and to have written and conceived it over fifty years?”

The early scenes of Before Sunset cut in some footage of Before Sunrise: it’s startling to see the boyish Hawke, who had just become a Gen-X icon with Reality Bites. Hawke found it extremely strange to watch those old scenes, and pondered how he had changed in the intervening years. “There’s some brass-tack ways: I have two children. But there’s ways that I’m the same that I’m very proud of. One of them is that I’m still the kind of person that would want to make this kind of movie.”

Delpy comments, “I have to say, I like Ethan better now than I did then. Not that I didn’t like him then, but he’s grown up. He was a kid, now he’s a man.”

“It’s funny,” Hawke says. “When Before Sunrise came out, one of the first major profiles of me ever done was in Rolling Stone.”

As it happens, I’ve brought along a copy of that article, “Renaissance Boy” by Chris Mundy.

Hawke’s face lights up with curiosity. “Yeah? What’s it like?”

The young Hawke was a bit earnest, frankly; he wrote letters to himself, to be opened at age 40 to remind himself of his youthful ideals. Hawke says now, “You have to understand, my biggest fear was that you get a lot of success as a young person, you don’t know who you are. I was worried I would turn into somebody I hated. And I got nervous doing interviews. I wanted to be a serious young man and I was reading Bob Dylan biographies and I knew I was never going to be as great as him. And that’s what makes you come off as pretentious. But one thing you learn pretty quickly is that if you don’t take yourself seriously, nobody else is going to.”

The ’95 article also addressed Hawke’s first tabloid adventure ever: paparazzi photographs of him dancing with Julia Roberts. “What the hell was I doing in a restaurant with Julia Roberts? I don’t know. I remember the headline in the New York Post, something like ‘Julia Dances With Hawke Hunk And You Can Bet Lyle Won’t Lovett.’ What’s nice is that it felt like a really big deal, and you realize now it’s totally forgotten. Uma and I always used to joke about this–you’re never in the tabloids as long as things are going well.”

Hawke won’t detail the reasons why he and Thurman split. He has said that he still thinks the world of her, that the marriage failed over a period of years, and although the general public may feel confident that the reason for the split was Hawke’s infidelity, people have no idea of the actual causes. New material for tabloid reports: Hawke’s character in Before Sunset has a troubled marriage. “There’s no tension in the movie if he’s not married,” Hawke points out. “And if he’s happily married, the movie is, ‘Nice to see you again, here’s a picture of my wife, I’ll see you later.’ And then, of course, while we were shooting it, my marriage was completely falling apart, so there were some striking ironies there.”

Is writing a script about a failing marriage asking for trouble at home? “It’s more like, when you write, you’re probably revealing something to yourself that you didn’t know about. This has felt like a series of explosions going off where one sets off the next. It just felt out of control. I intellectually understand that I was a participant, but emotionally, I felt, ‘Why is all this shit happening? I didn’t want anything bad.’ The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

He sighs. “I don’t feel like the same person that I felt like a few years ago. And you’ve got to figure out what ideas were good and what ideas weren’t good and not throw out =all= the ideas. I never expected to be here. I always thought those so-called dark nights of the soul happened when you were young and then suddenly you passed into some stage of adulthood.”

Hawke thinks he’ll probably get married again someday, but for now, he just wants to concentrate on being a good artist and a good father to his daughter Maya Ray, 5, and his son Roan, 2. Marking a new chapter in his life, he’ll “drop out” this summer and go to his cabin in Nova Scotia, where he can write and have the kids visit him.

“I was in a relationship for seven years; I got hooked with Uma when I was twenty-five,” he says. “So I feel like I’m single again, but I’m not twenty-four. Going to a bar is different, what I expect from a relationship is different.” Hawke’s gone on some dates, but it’s been surpassingly strange–the whole time, he feels like he’s cheating on his wife.

Around 3:30 am, we take the dog for a walk around the block; as we amble through the cool night air, we discuss Nina Simone, the New York Knicks, and the fine points of the Lord of the Rings novels. Hawke is excellent late-night company, smart and convivial. He can be extremely funny–“Friends of mine who are actors or have elements of celebrity, they’re always at their most appealing when they’re not doing well”–but because he doesn’t flinch at fundamental questions about life, he inspires serious conversation. We have a long discussion about what it means to be a man, and how those issues relate to fatherhood, American culture, and the meeting point of those two spheres: the presidential election, when we pick our national patriarch.

“This topic makes people very nervous,” Hawke observes. “I’ve got four or five really good friends, and we wouldn’t have this conversation. So why would I have it in a public dialogue?” He shrugs. “I have no fucking idea.” But that’s hardly ever true with Hawke; in fact, he has some fucking idea. “I think that when you find yourself a thirty-three-year-old divorced man, you start looking for definitions. One thing that’s nice and dangerous about marriage, is you can find some borders in there. Some people, they have no idea who they are, so they just pick the ‘married guy’ personality. When you lose all these boundaries, you have to come up with some new definitions about why you do what you do.”

You could be snorting coke off a stripper’s ass.

“I could! I’m not married! So why am I not doing that? It brings up these questions of what kind of man I want to be. When you’re young, you can spend a year being a beatnik, a year being a bad-ass. I wish I’d tried on more hats so I knew which one fit. I’m supposed to know who I am now.” Hawke keeps walking into the darkness–but he seems to know the way.

Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a marginally different version) as “A Solitary Man” in Rolling Stone 952/953 (July 8-22, 2004).