Ruggedly handsome and insanely talented, Ethan Hawke’s burgeoning and multifaceted career as an actor, writer and director has not changed his humble and modest demeanour. Throughout his career, he has constantly challenged himself to grow as a passionate creative. Besides having appeared in more than 80 movies (mainly independent movies), he has directed four films, three off-Broadway plays, and a documentary, written three novels and a graphic novel, while also having co-founded a theatre group named ‘Malaparte Theatre Company’. It is fair to say, throughout hs career, Ethan Hawke has never stood still.
Now a four-time nominee at the Academy Awards (two of which were for Best Adapted Screenplay), Hawke’s versatile characters cannot be typecast into a particular genre; he has played a wide range of roles, starting from a lovestruck charming young man in Before Sunrise to a heroin-addict jazz trumpeter at his waning career to an angst-ridden priest questioning his beliefs in First Reformed. His expansive emotional capacity as well as the innate talent to embrace diversity has stopped Hawke from being pigeonholed to play typical white guy roles.
Hawke’s parents had separated when he was just a four-year-old. He missed his ‘absent father’ terribly and strove hard to gain the latter’s appreciation, it’s an aspect of his life which has influenced his vision. “I loved him so much,” once commented. “I wanted him to like me. I was aware I was performing for him. I hated myself for it,” he added. Despite the longing, Hawke developed into an “extraordinarily accommodating child” who desired nothing more than “undivided attention”. His anxiety of being abandoned is later best portrayed in his character of Everett Lewis, a gruff fisherman, in Maudie. In his autobiographical novel, Hawke’s restlessness is noticeable as he says he had no problem fitting in; “I was a good bullshit artist. I also didn’t judge anybody.”
Starring in Joe Dante’s film Explorers alongside River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke broke out of his shell and started living a reckless Hollywood life. However, the failure of the movie affected his confidence deeply and he spiralled out of control into a sense of self-loathing. Exposing the trauma afflicted by failure, he said: “I would never recommend that a kid act.” Phoenix’s steady success stood at crossroads with his own failure; “the envy was intense” and Hawke frequently ditched auditions. However, in 1989, while he was a student at Carnegie-Melon, he bagged the role of Todd Anderson in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, where he starred alongside Robin Williams and left an impact on the viewers: “Hawke, as the painfully shy Todd, gives a haunting performance.” Hawke dropped out of college when the “monumental” success of the film proved to be a breakthrough in his stagnant career and presented him with various opportunities.
Ethan Hawke has not looked back since. His first leading role as Jack Conroy was in the eponymous film adapted from Lack London’s novel, White Fang, and was praised for portraying “Jack’s passion for White Fang real and keeps it from being ridiculous or overly sentimental”. Hawke, who has never believed in streamlining his career, wrote his first novel, The Hottest State, in 1996, which showed his inner turmoil and “what it’s like to be young and confused”.
Over the next two decades, Hawke’s acting evolved further, where he mostly collaborated with the quite brilliant director Richard Linklater. In their first collaboration, he played the romantic fool Jesse in Before Sunrise, breaking hearts all over the world with his resonating presence and profound charisma. His role received high praise from critics as well as numerous speculations as they went on to say “each of them seems to have something personal at stake in their performances”. Hawke has had a difficult time writing for the Before trilogy, a project in which his personal demons have seeped into the screenplay. “How do you keep your innocence alive? How do you keep your sense of romance alive, your sense of joy?”
Ethan could resonate with Mason Jr. as well, in Boyhood, as his life reflected many of the key themes appearing in the plot. Playing the role of a divorced father, he finally understood and accepted the reason for his father’s absence, which was an emotional and tender moment for him. “Previously, I was looking through the eyes of a child, the victim – ‘How come you weren’t there for me?’” he once commented.
While he continued starring in numerous films, he shifted his focus to the theatre, starring in Shakespearean plays as well as ones adapted from the works of Chekov, Stoppard, Rabe and more, this helped him train himself in “the discipline of an actor”, explaining that “the stage lacerates you, exposes you”. In truth, Hawke has spoken openly about his stage fright and his efforts to overcome it. Gregarious and brutally honest, he has never held back from speaking his mind, describing it as scary and fateful as “accepting a Date with the Devil”. Theatre continues to be his “first love” where he is “free to be more creative”.
With a distinguished contribution to the world of cinema and stage, Ethan Hawke’s freewheeling career has borne testimony to his reckless creativity and artistic empathy. Unique and innovative, Hawke continues to flourish and diversify, much to the delight of fans and critics. On the actor’s 50th birthday, we have delved deep into the wondrous world of Hawke and sifted out ten best movies he has starred in.
Ethan Hawke’s 10 best films:
10. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)
In a biopunk version of the eugenics-driven future, genetically engineered children are considered superior and ‘valid’, while children conceived in the traditional manner are called invalids. Etan Hawke who plays Vincent Freeman is one such invalid who faces genetic discrimination; urged by his desire to explore space, he finds an unlikely ally in Jerome (Jude Law), a genetically superior, paralysed athletic and assumes the latter’s identity to realise his dreams.
Gattaca’s society is a futuristic dystopia where genetic discrimination has advanced forward in tandem with genetic engineering. The film raises pertinent questions regarding the socio-political implications of genetically-engineered children and the ensuing genoism. Hawke does justice to his role of an ambitious invalid, restlessly and anxiously waiting to ascend the genetic ladder to prove his competence. Jude Law’s exceptional performance is laudable; the audience feels vicarious joy as the duo stealthily execute their plan for the greater good.
9. Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994)
This rom-com revolves on a budding filmmaker, Lelaina, and coffee-house guitarist, Troy Dyer; the latter is more laidback in comparison. Lelaina, who aspires to be a documentarian, shoots a documentary on the tumultuous and eccentric lives of her friends. Troy and Lelaina separate, only to make amends later and rekindle their love for each other.
Labelled as a classic Generation X film due to its contemporary ’90s grunge aesthetic, Reality Bites had a stellar cast comprising Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofaolo, whose performances have been the highlight of this light and breezy tale. Ethan Hawke, in particular, left an indelible mark as Troy Dyer, and was disliked even in person. He confirmed: “Troy, my character, appealed because of his inability to like himself. It was strange afterwards: I was constantly meeting people who thought I was full of myself. They thought I was Troy – and they really didn’t like him.”
“Honey, all you have to be by the time you’re 23 is yourself.”
8. Maudie (Aisling Walsh, 2017)
Suffering from arthritis and reeling from the shock of having lost her child during childbirth, Maud Dowley moves into the grumpy local fisherman, Everett Lewis’s house as a housekeeper, and ends up marrying him. Her paintings receive a lot of exposure and media attention which drives in a rift between Maudie and her “cold and cruel” husband.
The warm and intimate aesthetic of the film reeks of domesticity, accentuated by Everett’s occasional outbursts. It is a poignant take on poverty as well as the character assassination that trails after a single woman once she is employed by a single man. Sally Hawkins thrives as Maud Dowley, continuous and flowing, while Ethan Hawke’s gruff and reserved role of Everett serves as a perfect foil to the former. His harsh and sulky nature is understandable; having been orphaned, Everett never knew the value of love and attachment. Hawke has been praised for his “committed yet unshowy performance”; he is aware of Maud’s significance on-screen, and respectfully makes space for Hawkins to bloom. Both the actors deliver brilliant performances and the film is drenched in a torrential downpour of feelings, contentment and benevolence.
7. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)
An entirely rotoscoped film, Waking Life boasts of insightful philosophical and intellectual discussions over a wide range of topics like dreams and reality, lucid dreams, existentialism, free will, the human conscious etc. This is explored via the lens of a young man who embarks on this endless journey where he encounters various individuals amidst surreal events.
This film’s niche audience most definitely has an affinity towards arthouse films. The idea of it popped up in Linklater’s head “probably 20 years ago”. He was quoted saying: “I think to make a realistic film about an unreality the film had to be a realistic unreality”. Thus, he used rotoscoping to create a swift and surreal landscape. Ethan Hawke has a brief appearance in the film as Jesse, his character from his first collaboration with Linklater, Before Sunrise, and is accompanied by Julie Delphy, who played Celine. “A cold shower of bracing, clarifying ideas”, it made its way into the famous critic, Roger Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ list for its innovative visuals and novel ideas.
6. Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, 2001)
LAPD Officer Jake Hoyt is assigned for an evaluation which is headed by narcotics officer Sergeant Alonzo Harris. However, Hoyt soon realises that Alonzo’s methods are not ethical; he is corrupt and hopes to frame Hoyt for his crimes.
Although the thriller has the classic ‘good cop’ meets ‘bad cop’ plot, Denzel Washington’s role as the malicious Alonzo earned him truckloads of praise from critics for venturing “into the dark side as a seriously corrupt narcotics cop…. And the results are electrifying”. Hawke as the beat and honest cop who despises dishonesty is compelling; his timid moral uprightness keeps the audience debating over whether he shall sell out. Brutal violence and crude profanities heighten the tension in this intensely gripping film.
“King Kong ain’t got shit on me!”
5. Born To Be Blue (Robert Budreau, 2015)
Described as “semi-factual, semi-fictional” this film is about the life of a jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and his romance with an actress Jane Azuka. Hired to play his earlier self in a film, his hopes are shattered when a brutal assault at the hands of a few thugs ruin his embouchure and he is unable to play the trumpet.
The film’s uncompromising, non-hagiographic portrayal of Chet Baker earned a lot of well-deserved praise from the audience. Ethan Hawke, as the struggling Chet Baker, is better than ever. He is a heroin addict, arrogant, jealous and conceited yet terrified of the events unfurling around him. By the end of the film, Hawke has an uncanny similarity with Chet, looking way more aged than he actually is. For this particular role, Hawke took trumpet lessons from Ben Promane. The melancholic essence of Chet Baker’s rise and fall in the music industry is well-portrayed by Hawke.
4. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018)
Alluding subtly to Bergman’s Winter Light and Schrader’s own script for Taxi Driver, First Reformed was considered to be one of the best movies of 2018, and earned a nomination at the Academy, while bringing home various other prestigious awards. This American drama focuses on Toller, a Protestant pastor of an old Dutch Reformed Church, struggling with his own faith and personal loss; this is heightened by his encounter with a young couple where Michael, an orthodox environmentalist, is tormented by his beliefs and commits suicide, abandoning his pregnant wife, Mary.
The film is appreciated for its “sensitive and suspenseful look at weighty themes. Deliberately slow-paced, the film unfolds, in wonderful shots, a perfect study of a priest tormented by his crisis in faith, and anguish at not being able to help his troubled parishioner. Hawke’s moral struggle, as the angst-ridden priest, and eventual descent into madness and frenzy, is excruciating. In this standout role, he single-handedly shoulders the responsibility of carrying the film forward gracefully and poignantly while battling with personal doubts, caught in the dichotomy of hope and despair. An ode to the German playwright Ernest Toller, Hawke’s character, too, suffers a similar psychological collapse as he comes to terms with the absurdity of existence. However, unlike his namesake, Toller survives as his suicide is interrupted by unexpected love and warmth which has a profound significance at the end of the film.
“A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”
3. The Before Trilogy (Richard Linklater, 1995, 2004, 2013)
Set over a period of almost two decades, the famous Before Trilogy comprises Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013); these films chronicle the relationship of Celine and Jesse from the first time they meet at idyllic Venice, in their twenties, to the disillusionment and pangs of their mid-life crisis. A wonderful document of their whirlwind romance and chance meetings, this trilogy is the most celebrated Linklater film, and rightfully so.
Linklater is indeed a phenomenal director as he dabbles in the evolution of relationships sans makeup and time constraints. He, as well as the actors, go through the same process as that of the characters to add a hint of realism and authenticity to the films. Linklater later confirmed why Jesse and Celine where placed in a foreign environment; he said: “when you’re travelling, you’re much more open to experiences outside your usual realm”. Produced at the wake of Hawke’s divorce from Uma Thurman, parallels had been drawn between Hawke’s Jesse and his real-life experiences. The film is effortless with beautiful scenes containing poignant and philosophical dialogues.
“Thought-provoking and beautifully filmed, Before Sunrise is an intelligent, unabashedly romantic look at modern love, led by marvellously natural performances from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.” Uneven, coarse and colourful, the films’ periodic “lulls” are indeed “disarming”. Celine and Jesse seem too familiar as their relationship mature on screen. From loving ferociously despite having known each other for a few hours in Venice to the feeling of lovelessness after years of marriage, the film is realistic yet dreamy. Hawke had a very morbid thought for the possible fourth instalment of this series, when he said that “a fourth film would have to work in some way that broke the rhythm of this cycle, maybe to address mortality”.
2. Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989)
One of the most fascinating films in the history of cinema, Dead Poets Society is set in 1959 at the elite ad conservative Welton Academy. It is the story of an English teacher, John Keating, and his awe-inspiring and innovative methods of teaching poetry via which he urges his students to “make your lives extraordinary…. Carpe diem”. Although it is mostly seen as a ‘Robin Williams Show’, the students have an enormous role in the movie, especially Todd Anderson, who goes from being the naïve and wary new student at Welton to being the one who leads the ‘O Captain! My Captain!” salute to Keating.
This coming-of-age drama challenges the students and, in turn, the viewers to appreciate their ability to think. Robin Williams as Keating is incredibly soothing, at odds with the superstitious old-school thoughts. His objective is to liberate the students from the shackles of subordination and regain control over their thinking faculties. Hawke plays the character of Todd Anderson with utmost skill and dedication; initially, he is emotionally withheld and nervous until the famous “Yawp scene”. Reminiscent of his shooting day, Hawke said: “It remains one of the most significant days of my life- professionally for sure. It was the first time I really felt the experience of being an actor, where I could lose myself inside a collective imagination”. His temerity to defy the administrative rules to salute his teacher by standing on the desk with a heartfelt rendition of Whitman’s poetry is electrifying; he is joined by the other students, within whose minds, Keating was able to cultivate new ideas. Uncynical and hopeful, this film sows in seeds of imagination and the desire to dream accentuated by a passionate teacher and his band of minions.
“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
“Life doesn’t give you bumpers.”
Boyhood chronicles the life events of a young boy, mason Evans Jr. for twelve years from childhood (age six) to adolescence (age eighteen) as he and his sister grow up with divorced parents in Texas. Directed by Richard Linklater, this film is certainly one-of-its-kind with a whopping twelve-year shooting span: “He wanted the raw and honest emotions of the characters to touch the hearts of the audience through the screen,” Hawke said.
The stupendous investment of time and patience on the director’s part makes it “a masterpiece in cinematic history”, and a “life project” for the cast and crew. Audacious and endearing, it captures the ill-effects of constant domestic squabbles and abuse on the development of a child psyche. In what is considered to be one of his finest performances as Mason Sr., Ethan Hawke delivers a stellar performance in this “emotional powerhouse”.
Hawke claims that working with a director is an “act of faith” as it is almost a spiritual union of their psyches. Having played a character for so long, who had matured along with Hawke himself, Ethan said, “There’s something so beautiful about the final moments of the movie, and it was clear to me that it’s about an adult being born. Yeah, I would love to see Mason Sr. get older. I’d like to see where he goes and what the evolution of his thought might be. But, that said, the magic of the movie is that it is over.” The film had been nominated for six Academy Awards and is one of the most memorable roles in Hawke’s career.