ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
Ethan Hawke on Violence, Masculinity, and Donald Trump’s ‘Fascist Behavior’
The Oscar-nominated actor opens up about his thrilling new genre film ‘In a Valley of Violence,’ the wacky 2016 election, and the 25th anniversary of ‘White Fang.’
Amid the bloody vengeance of In a Valley of Violence, a pulpy Western pitting a haunted High Plains drifter against a town of wretched men, there is one bright, shining beacon of hope: Mary-Anne, a young innkeeper played by Taissa Farmiga. She is everything these men are not—a kind, nurturing, empathetic soul striving for familial harmony in a world where hegemonic masculinity has run amok, and fathers, sons, and brothers prefer putting hand to steel to diplomacy.
This brand of toxic masculinity, which we see acted upon week after week by the sadistic tourists of HBO’s Westworld, is a staple of the Western, a genre where men are often measured not by the content of their character, but by the size of their gun.
“There’s a case to be made that so much of the violence that’s acted upon in the world is brought about by unhealthy masculine relationships and gender imbalance,” says Ethan Hawke, who portrays the aforementioned drifter. “I was doing a Sam Shepard play [The Late Henry Moss] when September 11th happened, and there was this crisis in the cast about whether we should do the play on September 12th. Some thought it would be disrespectful if we went on, and others thought it was important. I remember one person saying, ‘Who wants to see a play about fathers and sons fighting when the world is falling down?’ and the director said, ‘If fathers and sons stopped fighting, the world wouldn’t fall down.’”
Hawke is Paul, a stoic gunman with a mysterious past, who lumbers into the town of Denton to stock up on supplies for his journey to Mexico. Joining him is his trusty canine sidekick, Abbie (played by Jumpy). He soon discovers that Denton is a veritable ghost town, controlled by the sinister Deputy Gilly Martin (James Ransone) and his gang of not-so-merry men. When the men kill Abbie and leave Paul for dead, he unleashes a roaring rampage of revenge, targeting not only the men but also the local marshal (John Travolta) who enabled them.
I’m seated across from Hawke, who these days sports a decidedly more mature version of the trademark goatee he’s repped since melting Gen X hearts in Reality Bites. He’s got a few more forehead lines—and Oscar nominations—since then, too. He says he was attracted to filmmaker Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence due to its volatile tone—a black comedy that shifts from hijinks to bloodshed at the drop of a hat. I also inform Hawke that the project reunites him with a four-legged co-star a full 25 years after the release of his children’s classic White Fang.
“Gosh it is the 25th, isn’t it?” he says, smiling and shaking his head. “You know, I find myself thinking a lot about White Fang right now, because of Jumpy. If I say this people will think I’m kidding, but I learned so much about acting working with those wolves on White Fang. If I were to run Juilliard right now, I would make them take a class where they worked with animals. Animals don’t know how to lie, so you have to just be with them. Whenever you act weird, or seem like you have an agenda, or are worried about what your hair looks like, they leave the set. They’re not interested.”
Hawke, 45, has had quite a busy year. He’s starred in a pair of Westerns (this and The Magnificent Seven), both portraying gunslingers suffering from crippling PTSD; turned in a riveting performance as the tormented jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue; and appeared opposite Greta Gerwig and Julianne Moore in Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan. Perhaps his most trying task, however, has been guiding Maya, his 18-year-old daughter with ex-wife Uma Thurman, through her first presidential election.
“You don’t need a daughter to be offended by what that guy says,” Hawke offers of Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president. “When you see a man, if he wins, threatening to put his opponent in jail? That’s fascist behavior.”
Opposing Donald “grab them by the pussy” Trump, a reality-show host turned demagogue who has been accused by 11 women (and counting) of sexual harassment or assault, is the first female presidential nominee of a major political party in Hillary Clinton. And the historical nature of her candidacy is often lost on younger voters.
“It’s easy to dwell on the negative but it’s pretty incredible for me to watch the debates with my 18-year-old daughter,” says Hawke, a longtime Democrat. “This is her first election she’ll vote in, and she wasn’t politically aware the last election, so this is really her first go-around. For her to get to see a woman in this situation is something I’ve never seen my whole life, but she has no awareness of it. That’s in the past now.”
He pauses. “So on the positive side, my daughter is seeing a woman in a position of power fighting back, not backing down, and staking her territory. So I find that very exciting. But something about the Obama administration evolving into this has forced the country to think about race and think about gender in a much more visceral way. And it’s creating an undertow, too. A lot of the poison is coming out in a way that it hasn’t the last 20 years.”
Much of the vitriol among Trump’s mostly white, mostly male supporters has to do with shifting demographics. “They hate the fact that minority groups are growing in number and in economic and political power,” Univision anchor Jorge Ramos told The Daily Beast. “They are blaming immigrants and Muslims and African Americans for this change in demographics.”
In other words, according to Hawke, it’s the last stand of the entitled white male. “What ‘Make America Great Again’ means is not lost on any of us,” says Hawke. “It means ‘white’ and ‘male.’ They think, ‘What could be worse than a black president? GASP! A woman!’ The sailboat is going way the wrong way to a certain part of the country, and it’s very upsetting.” “And Trump plays right into it,” he continues. “I think that’s why, at the end of Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven, Denzel rides off with a Mexican and a Native American. They’re the only ones who survive that battle. I think that’s very beautiful, but there’s a war in our consciousness about letting go of the past and embracing the future—a future that includes all people.”