Ethan Hawke has never made it easy on himself. He has long endured glorious existential struggles in his pursuit of authenticity, it’s not enough for him to be good at what he does – he needs to feel that his work has the kind of integrity that adds definition and context to his world.
As soon as Hawke greets you, there’s an unmistakable sense of his artistic passion mingled with a general air of anxiety and restlessness. Hawke smiles easily and nervously and speaks with a rare candour and enthusiasm. He’s doubly proud of his two new films – Born To Be Blue, a portrait of legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker – and The Magnificent Seven, the remake of the 1960 John Sturges classic based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic, Seven Samurai. “Mag 7” follows seven gunslingers who come together to defend a small town against savage thieves reteams Hawke with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua and co-star Denzel Washington alongside Chris Pratt and Vincent D’Onofrio. Washington plays a John Wayne-style western hero while Hawke is cast as a former rebel soldier. These two films, the former a low-budget indie, the latter a big-budget blockbuster, are typical of Hawke’s longstanding desire to work both sides of the Hollywood fence.
“I’ve always tried to find the best roles,” Hawke says. “The size of the movie is only important when it comes to how much money you think you need to make at certain points in your life and giving you enough leverage to keep making more films. The Magnificent Seven is by far the biggest budget Hollywood movie I’ve ever done and also one of the best. I loved getting back on a set with Denzel (Washington) and Antoine (Fuqua) who puts his own stamp on the story as opposed to just doing a straight remake. I’m incredibly proud of this film.”
And over the course of 40-plus films, Hawke can lay claim to four Oscar nominations including that for last year’s Boyhood. In addition, he’s published two novels, directed several films, and co-authored the screenplays for the Richard Linklater trilogy, (Before Sunrise, -Sunset and -Midnight) trilogy that has become the object of cult worship amongst cinephiles.
The 45-year-old Ethan Hawke lives in New York with his second wife Ryan and their two daughters, Clementine, 8, and Indiana, 5. He also has two older children, Maya, 18, and Levon, 14, from his previous marriage to actress Uma Thurman. Recently, Hawke appeared in Maggie’s Plan, a romantic comedy co-starring Greta Gerwig and Julianne Moore.
Ethan, you’re best known for your acting career, but you’re also a writer who’s published two novels (The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday) and director (Chelsea Walls)?
Yeah, my agents are always telling me to stay a little more focused. But there’s a great Shaker (American) expression: “If you improve in one talent, God will give you more.” And then there’s that Zen expression which essentially says: “To master one profession, you have to apprentice three.”
I always felt it would be beneficial to my life as an actor to explore directing and writing and other things. If you isolate yourself and don’t let yourself be pretty much a human being, then you stagnate your own growth, particularly if you had started acting at 13 like I did.
Your career has enjoyed some ups and downs but things seem to be better than ever now for you. How do you feel about everything today?
The best thing is the kind of beautiful life I have with my wife and our children. I’ve become a better man and a better father over time and I’m so grateful for the kind of support and understanding my wife gives me and how good we feel about our life together.
I don’t know if one really ties in to the other, but I also feel that I’m doing some of the best work of my career and I’m very happy with the films I’ve been making the last few years. It’s been very encouraging and gratifying and in some ways it’s restored my faith in acting and what I always set out to do in this business.
Have you changed your approach to acting and the business over the years?
When I was younger, it was all about getting the role and then finding the next one. Now the pleasure I get from my work is finding the right project and then committing to it. I feel happiest during the process of making the film and when the shooting is over, I always feel a bit sad.
You’ve done many significant films but your trilogy of films with Richard Linklater as well as last year’s Boyhood has been a kind of defining point in your career.
I am particularly grateful to Richard Linklater for having given me this long continuing story that has left such a deep impression on audiences as well as on me. Those three films, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight, which began in 1995, have been milestones in my life. When I look back at those films, I think of my marriages, separations, periods of despair, and a long process of figuring things out in my life.
This year, audiences will see you in two very different films – Born to be Blue and The Magnificent Seven. Do you feel the need to keep your hand in both the indie and mainstream Hollywood studio universe?
I’ve always been allergic to American projects that are obsessed with money as being the be-all and end-all of what constitutes a successful human being. I’m more interested in projects that have less to do with glamourizing and more to do with honest behaviour.
Magnificent Seven is something that we’ve been talking about doing for a long time. I remember going to the premiere of The Equalizer (starring Denzel Washington and directed by Antoine Fuqua - ED) and that’s when they told me they were going to do the remake. They wanted to know if I would be interested in joining them and I told them that I definitely wanted in!
Photo: Boyhood / Courtesy of IFC Films 2014
Was there a special feeling to being part of this classic story?
I remember being out in the desert riding horses with Denzel and this beautiful feeling came over me about working on an epic Hollywood western in the style of John Ford. It was awesome!
I’ve always loved the westerns and I thought that Antoine had a great take on the genre about bringing together all these very different badass types. I thought it was so amazing to see Denzel playing a John Wayne kind of figure as an African-American who comes from the North. We also have a legendary Korean actor Byung-Hun Lee who plays James Coburn’s part and Vincent D’Onofrio, a crazy Italian character, and a Mexican actor, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and me as a former Confederate soldier.
Your other film, Born to Be Blue, sees you play the legendary Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. What was that experience like for you?
It was a dream for me to be able to play Chet Baker...I’ve been doing this for a long time, and so when you’re well cast for something, it makes it easier to do a good job, because you so enjoy the role.
I love music so much. I loved Chet Baker. I loved learning the trumpet. I loved learning about whatever made him tick.
He was a very troubled kind of musical genius, wasn’t he?
I feel like I’ve spent much of my life around people like that who suffered from addiction. That’s a world that has fascinated me pretty much my whole life. To understand that kind of addiction, you have to understand to an extent the jazz culture of that time when after the (Second World) War there were so many drugs on the street.
Photo: Born To Be Blue / Courtesy of New Real Films
The reality is that a lot of people who were serious about music were doing drugs and felt strongly that it was fun to play on them because they could keep their focus, yet lose themselves. A lot of Chet’s heroes - Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis - were known users. (Drugs) were almost like a badge of honour.
If you’re going to make a movie about a jazz musician, it should have that air, that mood, that timbre, that feeling you have when you’re lying down and listening to a couple of Chet Baker records.
You’re the father of four children. Do you ever talk to them about drugs?
A father can keep telling his kids how insidious and dangerous drugs are, but the only thing that matters is the example you set. There is nothing that kids find more irritating than when older people like me tell them what to do or what not to do. I try to show my children how to be happy and I hope that influences their choices and behaviour in the best possible way.
Do you give your children any specific kind of advice?
I’m often talking to them about how they should try to engage in life, to do things even if it’s hard or something you might not feel you have a gift for. I always remember when as a boy I left with a group of friends for a coast to coast trip across America.
I thought: “It’s going to be great when we get to San Francisco.” Then you get there and you start thinking that the Grand Canyon is the place you really need to see, then Texas. But when you get home you realize that the fun has always been in taking the journey and it’s the journey itself which is the most important thing.