Ethan Hawke: 'Real-life relationships aren't clean and simple'

One of Ethan Hawke's two new films is about the break-up of a loveless marriage. Sound familiar?
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The Independent Culture

Aside from the occasional unposed snapshot or paparazzi picture, photographs of Ethan Hawke rarely show him smiling. Even in the early days, when he briefly became a non-threatening boy pin-up in the wake of Dead Poets Society, he usually kept his pouty lips clamped closed, all the better to accentuate those sharp cheekbones, those deep-set, dark blue eyes.

I suspect this unsmilingness might have less to do with exuding cool for the camera than with the fact that he has wonky teeth. Snaggled round the canines and slightly bucky on the overbiting incisors, Ethan's rubbish teeth are a dental badge of his indie authenticity. Really big movie stars - your Tom Cruise, your Julia Roberts - have perfect teeth. Ethan's teeth are like an oral tribute to the Manhattan skyline: the city where he lives, writes his novels and appears in low-to-no budget films such as the digitally filmed chamber piece Tape or a modern-dress version of Hamlet.

These street-cred movies balance the books against the mainstream ones, such as Training Day, for which the 33-year-old was Oscar-nominated, and the recent thriller Taking Lives, with Angelina Jolie. With all that money in the bank, he could easily afford to have his teeth fixed. The fact that he hasn't seems like a plucky rebellion against Hollywood's orthodontic standards of normalcy. Either that, or he's phobic about dentists.

We've met in Berlin to talk about his latest film, Before Sunset, the sequel to 1995's Before Sunrise. The film - a beautifully shot, breathlessly romantic, real-time slice of life- has been a huge hit with the Berlin film-festival audience. But the gaunt-looking Hawke isn't feeling very smiley. "It's been a hard year," he says ruefully, alluding to the collapse of his marriage to Uma Thurman, with whom he has two children, and the concomitant media feeding frenzy. "But then again, it's also been one of the best years for acting," he adds, citing Before Sunset and playing Hotspur in Shakespeare's Henry IV on stage in New York last autumn, opposite Kevin Kline as Falstaff.

News of the split with Uma hit the papers last August, just when Hawke was filming Before Sunset in Paris with his co-star Julie Delpy and the director Richard Linklater. The flashpoint seems to have been an affair he had with the 22-year-old model Jen Perzow while shooting Taking Lives in Montreal, although, as with any split, the infidelity appears to have been more a symptom than a cause of fractures in the marriage.

It's impossible not to read an occluded parallel between real life and fiction, given that his character Jesse in Before Sunset is an unhappily married man with a young child who again meets Celine (Delpy), the girl he never forgot from a night nine years earlier when they walked around Vienna talking about life, love and the meaning of the universe. Jesse describes for Celine how he has drifted apart from his spouse into a sexless partnership, which feels like "running a small nursery with someone I used to date". Ouch.

Hawke co-wrote the screenplay with Delpy and Linklater, so the echoes from his own biography are not just coincidental, although he insists that Jesse is "a weird cross between me, Richard Linklater and Julie Delpy's fantasy male".

Doesn't he ever feel afraid to put so much autobiographical material into a movie?

"Ultimately, I feel as if it's my job," says Hawke levelly. "It's the job of art in the community. The job of somebody who does it is to share your feelings, whether it's through painting or performance or writing. Art is only valuable if it's honest."

It seems striking, I remark, that while the gossip pages are full of stories about his private life, he's putting it up there on screen.

"I know, it may seem odd, but actually we've been writing this movie for three or four years," Hawke points out. "Ultimately, this time, this moment in my life will pass and this movie will still be there and still be interesting or not. Opening up the paper to see stories about my private life - it's so irritating, man. The only way to get on, I keep telling people, is to just let it happen and then it will be over."

It seems like an unlikely project, I suggest, to make a romantic movie that's nothing more than two people talking for 90 minutes. "Rick always said that he wanted to make a romance for realists," Hawke explains. "So many romantic movies end up making you feel lousy about your own life because you don't have experiences like that. Things are not so clean or simple, and it doesn't rain every time you kiss. Given how complex relationships are, we wanted to do a movie that dealt with that, that took naturalism to a new level. There's no plot, no storyline. As an actor there's nothing to hide behind.

"The first movie is about hope and romantic projection and dreaming, and this one is about reality - it's in real time. It's sort of the difference between being in your twenties and your thirties, when everything is going by really fast and you only have a little bit of time to be together. Those were our thoughts on romanticism anyway. We want to do a third movie that's about eroticism now, a full-on porno movie..." he pauses for effect, and adds, "Just kidding. But Julie doesn't want to wait nine years to make another one."

Hawke compares the project to Truffaut's series of films about the fictional character Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud from childhood up, although he reckons the tone and style of the two Before films is more like that of Eric Rohmer.

Given that he is a novelist as well, whose two books, The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday, have been generally critically well received, it's hardly a surprise that Hawke is mellifluous, fluent talker. We speak on the phone again a month after meeting in Berlin, while he's in the middle of doing a press junket for Taking Lives. He describes it as "my first full-blown popcorn movie," although the critics have used rather more unkind words. Pointing out that he plays the bad guy for a change, I ask if he's been a duplicitous sort of person much, meaning in film. "Talk to my wife," he says candidly. "She'll tell you I've done that a lot."

He'd rather talk about Before Sunset anyway. "It's so boring talking about a Hollywood genre film," he complains. "I like Angelina [Jolie], I think she's cool and a good actress. I just wanted to do something different; by working in a different genre you don't get pigeon-holed as an actor, but apart from that there's just nothing to say about the film. The only thing you can say is whether it's entertaining or not, it's not trying to be anything else."

Less scope to bring in Rohmer, right? "Right," laughs Hawke. "You might be able to slip in, at best, Hitchcock, but when you do, you sound so like you're reaching."

Hawke's next project is a remake of John Carpenter's classic 1976 film Assault on Precinct 13. "It's a popcorn movie, but it's got more of what I've been looking for in the past couple of years. What I liked about Training Day was that it was a mainstream movie with human beings in it - it had characters," he stresses, as if too many movies don't, "something to play, some acting in it. This has that, too. It's like an old-school 1970s action movie."

Given that the original Assault on Precinct 13 was a remake of Rio Bravo, Hawke will effectively be playing the John Wayne role in this latest film, which seems somehow ironic given his status as a hipster star and a minor-league counterculture icon, like the Beat writers he so admires. He makes some fairly outspoken remarks in Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Pictures, Peter Biskind's follow-up book to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. There he talks about how he "resented working for Time Warner when I did Training Day," and how, although he admired Tom Cruise for shooting PT Anderson's Magnolia, "I don't know that I could bear to make the other 18 movies he had to make to get there."

I ask him if he's a little worried about a backlash against him in Hollywood for some of his remarks, and he embarrassedly admits he hasn't read the book yet. "Biskind is a smart guy, and a good interviewer because he gets you to say so much more than you wanted to say," he remarks. "But whatever. When I met with him he was claiming to be writing a book about independent film in the 1990s and what the book turned into was more of a book about Miramax/Sundance, which was probably always what it was going to be.

"One of the things I always liked about Rick Linklater was that he's a major force in independent cinema but he never worked with Miramax. Is Kevin Smith [the director of Clerks, Dogma and this week's Jersey Girl and one of the most extensively quoted people in the book] one of the most important film-makers of the 1990s? I don't think so. He just happened to make a lot of movies with Miramax and has some funny stories to tell about it."

It doesn't take much to get Hawke on to a theme that crops up a lot in his interviews: the shoddy quality of most mainstream movies. "I think people go to the movies now and they don't expect much," he observes. "I go to see some of these big Hollywood blockbusters and afterwards everyone is walking out of the theatre just laughing at what a piece of shit it was. Everybody is going to go, but they're just going to mock it and in that way we live in such a cynical, ironic time. Everybody wants to be smarter than the movie they're seeing. If you try to make a smart movie then you're pretentious."

Indeed, Hawke's own first directorial effort, Chelsea Walls, was likewise charged with being pretentious when it screened at Cannes, but Hawke defends it loyally and describes making it as "my graduate school," which is more than just a figure of speech considering he never quite managed to finish university. Hawke started acting when he was 14 in the film Explorers, opposite River Phoenix, and his education was frequently interrupted by breaks to make movies. Perhaps this is why there's more than a touch of the opinionated autodidact about him.

Is he planning another book? "I started working on one about a month or so ago - we'll see if that catches any flight," he says. "I never work on set. You can't get any good writing done on set- one thing at a time. I'm proud of the writing we did on Before Sunset, though. That was a fun bit of writing to do."

What, I ask, does he get from writing that he doesn't get from performing? His voice drops nearly to a whisper: "Writing is very important for me. The great joy of acting is collaborating and the great joy of writing is not collaborating, you know? I find it so relaxing and peaceful. It's a wonderful way to hear yourself. When I'm writing a lot, I'm usually very happy, and when I'm performing a lot I'm usually very miserable."

He has to get off the phone now to go pick up his daughter from school and pointedly thanks me very sincerely for helping him promote a movie, Before Sunset, he really believes in. After we hang up, I think what pleasant chap he is, and how I hope he starts writing again soon, if only to put a smile back on his face and some meat on those skinny bones. But I hope he keeps the teeth just the way they are.

'Before Sunset' and 'Taking Lives' are out later this year