Interview: Ethan Hawke

James Mottram

With inumerable quality acting, screenwriting and directing credits as well as several published novels to his name, Ethan Hawke is a true cultural polymath. Here, he talks to us about the things that set his soul on fire and why it’s so hard to make a living doing what you love

In a converted building in London’s Holborn, Ethan Hawke is sitting at a keyboard playing a sweet, simple version of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” No, the actor-director-novelist is not making a late career switch to pop stardom. It’s all in aid of his new film, Juliet, Naked, in which he plays Tucker Crowe, a cult rocker from the Nineties who disappeared, mid-gig, never to return.

Dressed in denim jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, Hawke quietly growls his way through the tender lyrics of a love song he suggested for the scene. As so often with Hawke, there’s an emotional connection. “My son [Levon] is falling in love with the guitar,” he explains, when we sit down together. “We always loved that song. I put that on a playlist when they were kids. So it was one of the first songs he wanted to learn on the guitar.”

Ethan Hawke in Juliet, Naked 

"A lot of actors who have been acting as long as I have get burnt out pretty easily"

Taking it upon himself to further his kids’ musical knowledge, Hawke has two children—Maya, 20, and Levon, 16—by his first wife, actress Uma Thurman, whom he met on the set of 1997 movie, Gattaca. They divorced in 2005 and three years later Hawke re-married Ryan Shawhughes, who later gave birth to two daughters, Clementine, 10, and Indiana, 7.

When Maya turned 13, Hawke presented her with The Black Album, an unofficial compilation of songs (complete with extensive notes, written by Hawke) released by The Beatles’ members following the band’s break-up. This became interwoven into Boyhood, the Oscar-nominated film Hawke shot over 12 years for his friend Richard Linklater. “All that stuff came from conversations we had,” he says.

As legendary trumpet player, Chet Baker 

This is Hawke all over. As an actor, he’s got music in his soul. In 2015, he played troubled jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Born To Be Blue, while he recently appeared in The King, a documentary about Elvis Presley (director Eugene Jarecki reveals Hawke is a “fount of knowledge” about the singer and again penned “an elaborate set of liner notes” for Maya for a self-made career-spanning CD).

It brings us back to Hawke sitting in Holborn, in a room that’s been dressed to look like a museum in the fictional British seaside town of Sandcliff. After being drawn out of obscurity following a blossoming friendship with the museum curator (Rose Byrne), Tucker is now crooning to a crowd of locals. “He hasn’t played music in front of anybody in 20 years,” says Hawke. “What I hoped is it feels a little bit like an accident.”

"My father was a hero beyond heroes because it's so easy to love someone who's not present"

Hawke is good friends with musician Charlie Sexton, a regular in Bob Dylan’s backing band who even appeared in Boyhood. “When I told him about this, he said, ‘Oh, you’re playing me!’” he smiles. With the script adapted from the book by Nick Hornby, who previously wrote High Fidelity, another tale of music geeks, Hawke was immediately sold. “I don’t feel like I’ve done this movie before.”

 

Diversity is what keeps hawke keen. He’s written three novels, directed four films and acted in countless movies ranging from horror (The Purge, Sinister) to westerns (The Magnificent Seven, the upcoming The Kid) to cop movies (Brooklyn’s Finest, Training Day). “A lot of actors who have been acting as long as I have…they get burnt out pretty easy. And so one of the ways [to avoid that] is to shake things up.”

Born in Austin, Texas, Hawke didn’t come from a particularly artistic family. His mother Leslie was a nurse and father James worked as an insurance actuary, and later a mathematician (who once even calculated the odds of his son becoming a successful actor). Religion was a stronger influence in the Hawke household, although it didn’t exactly rub off on him.

Former husband and wife Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman attend the nominees luncheon for the 74th Annnual Academy Awards, 2002

“My father’s family is Baptist. My mother’s Episcopal. My stepfather was Catholic. I had zealots on all sides of me, so I got to experience it from a lot of different levels. My answer to myself was to pour all that thinking into art. It seemed the most logical avenue is expression. That’s been the church of my choice: movies, books, rock’n’roll.”

 

An only child, hawke’s parents married before they were 20 and split when he was just four. Over the next few years, he and his mother move around the country—Connecticut, Vermont, Georgia—until she finally remarried when he was ten, settling in New Jersey.

His relationship with his father remained turbulent. “When I was young, my father was a hero beyond heroes, because it’s so easy to love someone who’s not present,” he once said, “and then getting older, I really resented him and felt totally abandoned.” It’s no surprise to learn that his first two novels, The Hottest State, which he later adapted for the screen, and Ash Wednesday, both featured protagonists from broken homes.

Alongside Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society 

Understandably, he sought out the surrogate family that acting can bring. When he was 15, he won his first role opposite River Phoenix in the 1985 sci-fi film, Explorers. Four years later, he starred opposite Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, a formative experience. “[Even now when I act] I try to get back in the same headspace I was on Dead Poets Society, which was thrilled to be there and grateful.”

"You're forced to make dramas outside of the mainstream industry, which means you're not going to get paid to do them"

 

Hawke’s early years in Hollywood were tough. “One of the weird things about having celebrity young is that it isolates you. It isolates you from your immediate generation.” That’s why he sought out stability—and marriage to Thurman—in his twenties. “I think from a very young age I really did long for it. I think a lot of young people do. You long for a centre, something that you can build from. That’s why a lot of young people get married too young. That’s why I did.”

15-year-old Hawke in Explorers

Now 47, he’s on his second union and is at an age where he can pass on his wisdom—and musical tastes—to his kids. While Hawke has been very careful to cultivate a body of work he’s proud of, that’s not easy with a family to provide for. “For me the hardest thing about being a professional actor with four kids is doing the kind of work I want to do and making a living.”

Somehow Hawke has managed it—grabbing four Oscar nominations (two for acting, in Training Day and Boyhood; two for co-writing the second and third of Linklater’s Before movies). But he accepts it’s “a strange period” in Hollywood. “Studios aren’t really interested in making dramas,” he says. “You’re forced to make them outside of the mainstream industry, which means you’re not going to get paid to do them.”

No matter, Hawke keeps on trucking. He’s just completed Blaze, a directorial project that—surprise, surprise—has a musical theme. Dealing with country singer Blaze Foley, Hawke admits it was a “relief” to go behind the camera again. “I find it so wonderful not to worry about what you look like or sound like or what other people are thinking.” A smile spreads behind that trademark goatee. “You get to judge other people.”

Juliet, Naked opens in cinemas across the UK on November 2