Ethan Hawke’s career has been a long arc of questions and changes

Ethan Hawke poses during a photo call before receiving a Donostia Award for his contribution to cinema in Spain in 2016. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP Photo)
Ethan Hawke poses during a photo call before receiving a Donostia Award for his contribution to cinema in Spain in 2016. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP Photo)

The sun breaks across rooftops in the early days of a Brooklyn spring. The sidewalks are quiet, and Ethan Hawke is inside editing a movie about a shot-to-death singer most people have never heard of. The screen fills with a misfit’s raucous delight at banging on drums and mocking Richard Nixon. Hawke laughs. Then he leans forward, scratches his graying goatee and turns serious. 

“You think we’re trying too hard to make that joke work?” he says.

“I’ve always liked the uncomfortableness of it,” says Jason Gourson, his editor.

Images fast-forward like blurred ghosts.

“The more manic we make the beginning,” says Hawke, “the more peaceful the scene of the song will resonate.”

“Blaze,” about songwriter Blaze Foley, opens next year. It’s one of many projects the actor, director, novelist, producer, musician, onetime slacker and long-ago Hamlet has in the works. He costars with Sally Hawkins in “Maudie,” a rustic bit of charm set in Nova Scotia about an arthritic painter and her cantankerous fishmonger husband. Light-years in another direction, Hawke plays a space-age pimp in next month’s sci-fi thriller “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”

Hawke, 46, arrived as a kid nearly 30 years ago in “Dead Poets Society.” He’s been with us so long he seems a co-conspirator in our lives: mischievous brother, sly uncle, troubled father, son who found his way. Wide gait, spiky hair, a spray of stubble and a pin-striped blazer, he roams his neighborhood of Boerum Hill like a loquacious character in a Kerouac novel who wants lightning in his thoughts but knows that age makes a man ponder the mark he wants to leave.

He can be both irresistible and irritating, a star and a journeyman who has veered across genres in more than 75 films and four Academy Award nominations. Some find him pretentious; others acutely reflective. A conversation with him can wend through Buddhism, sci-fi films, Chet Baker, Jimmy Carter, solar energy, Ibsen, the brashness of youth and early fame, and an imagined ancestor-knight who in the winter of 1483 died in the Battle of Slaughter Bridge in England.

He says things like, “I feel like an extremely young old person.” Perhaps that’s why, when assessing his many artistic iterations, he comes back to acting, whether it’s as vagabond-turned-husband in the “Sunrise” series or his sharpshooter in “The Magnificent Seven,” as his fulcrum.

“Acting pays for my child support. It pays for this house. It pays for my editing suite. My insurance … It’s no longer fun in the same way that acting was fun when I did ‘Dead Poets Society,’” he says. “‘Blaze’ is a passion project. I like to have that passion in my life, but if I’m ruled by it I’m not going to build a family and be the friend and son I want to be.”

That sounds less like his Generation X guitarist in “Reality Bites” (1994) than a man taking stock of fatherhood, divorce (he split with Uma Thurman in 2005 and later married their nanny), doubts and frailties, and the idiosyncrasies that confound and exalt us. To understand Hawke’s sharpened aesthetic and personal perspectives, one need mention the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and the different ways they came to their craft as young actors in New York.

“Philip played so many second guys to the left or the third cop or waiter No. 4,” says Hawke, who starred with Hoffman in the 2007 thriller “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” “I never played those parts. But what he learned to do was maximize every opportunity. He didn’t let one line go. And there I was 19 years old and the lead of ‘White Fang.’ I was like ehhh. When things come easy you don’t value them that much. But Phil didn’t take one line for granted. He was ferocious, and I started thinking I need to play more character parts.”

That realization has led to recent years of intimate portrayals. In “Maudie,” Hawke brings tender austerity to Everett Lewis, a man whose manner is as harsh and scoured as the coast he fishes. His Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue” is a study in whispery seduction and drug addiction during the rise of West Coast jazz. They are mature, broken men, but Hawke can also embody narcissistic charmers with hidden blades, as he did with John Harding, a philandering writer in “Maggie’s Plan.”

He likens acting to writing. His novels — “The Hottest State” and “Ash Wednesday” — are told in the first person. But the more subsuming grains are often found in characters written in the third person. Hawke says Hoffman and Daniel Day-Lewis are third-person actors, disappearing beyond semblance of self. Paul Newman, he says, was a first-person actor, always good, but always Paul Newman.

“For 20 years,” he says, “I was a first-person actor. Then slowly I’ve been exploring having a whole other interest in different kinds of characters. It’s made acting so much more interesting.”

“He’s very good at playing characters that have dark elements but at the same time are very sympathetic and endearing,” Robert Budreau, director of “Born to Be Blue,” says in a phone interview from Toronto where he’s directing Hawke in a new film, “Stockholm.” “Because he’s also a filmmaker and writer himself he’s able to be self-aware, but at the same time when he’s acting he’s so in the moment you wonder how someone can do both of those things.

Hawke is good at existential riffs and letting questions loose. They whirl and linger in dissonance and occasional resolution, as they did in his documentary on music teacher Seymour Bernstein.

He mentions he still feels the sting of his messy, tabloid-luring break-up with Thurman. “Divorce,” he says, “is like that cartoon when you get a pan in the face.”

And fame? “Other people’s judgments will not be as kind as you want.”

Jason Blum, a film producer who has been close to Hawke since they worked on the Malaparte Theater Company in their 20s, says, “Ethan can put an incredibly clear light on something that had never occurred to me. He looks at a situation with a lot of distance when there is no distance.”

 

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