Ethan Hawke may be one of Hollywood’s hottest stars, but as hot as he is, he has resisted the lure of the Hollywood blockbuster. With Training Day – in which he plays his first ever cop opposite a villainous Denzel Washington – that may well change. Following the film’s North American premiere at the recent Toronto Film Festival, Paul Fischer caught up with a very affable Mr Hawke.
There was a time when Ethan Hawke, shunned the media. “Yeah, I’ve often said I didn’t like doing this, but if I really hadn’t liked it, I could have stopped, right? I could have gone off and been a shopkeeper. They don’t do any press junkets.” Once ferociously shy, Hawke seems happy enough touring world film festivals such as Toronto, to talk about his new film, the darkly violent Training Day. Hawke is the idealistic cop at odds with Denzel Washington’s almost evil-to-the-core mentor, in this amoral look at police corruption in inner Los Angeles. Hawke, best known for playing introspective and poetic types in smaller cinematic fare, had never played a cop on screen until this project came his way.
No wonder, he says, he was anxious to give it a shot, no pun intended. “I always wanted to do something that people might actually see”, the thoughtful 31-year old muses, half-smilingly. “I wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t offensive to me, you know what I mean? Denzel Washington is one of the best actors in the world, plus this script was an intelligent, fun cop movie, in keeping with some of the cop movies I grew up on. In comparison with many of today’s movies, this has very little action it. It’s a high intensity movie and I like it a lot.”
Hawke, who made his screen debut at age 15 in Explorers, went on to play many thoughtful characters in the likes of Dead Poets Society, Reality Bites, Before Sunrise, Snow Falling on Cedars and even the latest screen version of Hamlet. In Training Day, as often thoughtful and idealistic as his character is, he is a cop. “My wife calls it my first boy movie”, Hawke adds laughingly. “Everyone plays cops except me – I never have”, which has its drawbacks, the actor adds. “I had to do all this research for it, unlike Denzel, who’s played like SEVENTEEN cops.” Maybe this won’t be Ethan’s last cop movie. “Who knows? I go where the most challenging and interesting material is. In this case, I wanted to do this particular movie. I just hope it doesn’t confirm my worst fears, which is that all you need to do to be a successful male actor is carry a gun.” Hawke laughingly adds that Training Day has led to numerous offers to play cops. “I’ve never been asked to play a cop in my life and here they are coming out of the woodwork.”
Hawke is more than just a talented actor. Following in the footsteps of many of his contemporaries, Hawke can now add ‘director’ to his extensive resume. But the film which he directed is as far removed from Training Day as you can get. It stars his real-life wife, Uma Thurman, plus Kris Kristofferson, Natasha Richardson, Steve Zahn and Vincent D’Onofrio. Chelsea Walls was shown at Cannes this year. “We shot it digitally, which is so fun. It’s like water colouring alone in your room. It really opens doors for people. I can’t wait for people to see it.” He is excited about his directing debut but scoffs at the idea of directing a big studio movie such as Training Day. “Are you kidding? I wouldn’t know where to start? Let the big boys do those kinds of movies; Chelsea Walls is a small, intimate film that I did for myself, not the studios. My interest would never carry me through a movie like this; I know nothing about this world. The movie I directed is about Bohemian artists living in a Chelsea hotel, you know what I mean?”
As an actor, Hawke had three other films screening in Toronto: Tape and Waking Life, both from director Richard Linklater [“both great experiences, hopefully more than my friends will see them”] and The Jimmy Show. And while most of his A-list pals like Leonardo Di Caprio are off making A-list piles of money, Hawke continues to fuel his passions for acting by returning to the stage, this time in New York in Sam Shephard’s new play The Late Henry Moss. “If I could survive on theatre alone, plus do the odd small movie, I’d be happy.” Hawke is not only an accomplished actor and director, but author as well. Ethan has already completed his second book, which will be published in about six months. “I love to write, it’s an affirming experience.” His first book, The Hottest State, was published in 1996.
Hawke is an unassuming presence, one who takes fame in his casual stride. He is well aware of his good fortune in having found something he likes to do and having found it so young. “It is luck, knowing what you want to do in life. The older I get, the more grateful I am that I had something I loved.” That professional life brought with it personal happiness as well. It was during the filming of Gattaca that Hawke and co-star Uma Thurman met and fell in love. They were married in 1998 and have a daughter, Maya, and are expecting a second child in January.
Ethan has grown up a lot, he says. His once dismissive attitude towards publicity he now describes as “a young man’s attitude; it’s a ridiculous one to have had.” Now as a filmmaker, actor, author and father, young Ethan is willing to do what he can to get people to see his work – big or small. “The truth is, I’m a fan of movies and I like reading about them; I know OTHER people like reading about them, it’s part of our culture. Oh, and it helps me get other jobs, I find”, he adds laughingly. Those jobs are certain to keep coming for the talented Mr Hawke.