In almost 20 years of acting on screen and on stage, Ethan Hawke has made a name for himself largely by playing in fairly high-minded fare. His breakthrough came with Dead Poets Society, the coming-of-age story that won the Oscar for Best Screenplay and turned him into a teenage heartthrob. He ascended further with Reality Bites, the definitive Generation X comedy from Ben Stiller about post-college kids trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. More recently, he starred in The Coast of Utopia, the Tony Award-winning play from Tom Stoppard about mid-19th-century Russian radicals.
The film he has opening Friday is not quite in keeping with that tradition. Daybreakers, directed by Michael and Peter Spierig and also starring Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill, is a piece of unabashed pulp in which vampires take over the world, only to face extinction because there’s no more human blood. It’s Hawke’s journey into the world of gory sci-fi movies, and he damn well enjoyed it.
“What I like about it,” he says, at an interview at the Ace Hotel in New York, shortly before running off to tape an appearance on Jimmy Fallon, “is that it doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not. It’s an old-school genre movie where heads pop off and things get chopped off, and yet somewhere in the subterranean text of the piece is a giant allegory. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the movie is saying, ‘We’re vampires sucking this earth dry, and we’re not going to stop until everybody’s dead.’”
In the film, Hawke plays a doctor on a race to find a blood substitute that could provide sustenance to a starving population. Instead, he finds a cure that could return his fellow vampires to humanity, but he encounters tremendous resistance from his employer, a pharmaceuticals-like giant.
• NYT Review: The Futuristic World Where Vampires Rule The Daybreakers role was an obvious fit for him, in a way; it is another project in which he plays a man torn between good and evil, a little isolated, and perhaps too smart for his own good. It’s the sort of guy Hawke’s played over the years with surprising frequency, in Training Day, for which he scored an Oscar nomination playing a rookie cop who agonizes over whether to turn in his corrupt partner; a millennial update of Hamlet, with Hawke as the tortured lead; or Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, about two brothers who bungle a burglary of their parents’ jewelry store.
Hawke is not completely sure why he gets cast in parts like this, but as one of the most celebrated, if not the richest, actors of his generation, he’s learned not to let it bother him. “I don’t think many of us see ourselves very clearly,” he says. “Sometimes you read an item in a gossip column where they throw in a couple adjectives about what you’re like and you think, ‘Am I like that?’ Peter and Michael came at me claiming they wrote this part for me, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it is that would make them think I was right for this part. But I do think you’re right when you suggest that I relate to characters who think too much and trip on their own thoughts. I worked with Jeremy Irons when I was younger, and he told me once, ‘I have an insight into a certain kind of human being. I don’t have an insight into every kind of human being.’ And I think that’s probably true for me, too.
“I sometimes use the expression like this: There are first-person actors and third-person actors. De Niro is a third-person actor. He can see into all these different characters. And then Paul Newman is a first-person actor; he seems to bring himself to every role. I’m not passing judgment. Laura Linney seems to be a first-person actress. You completely buy her as the person. The subtext can be different and change, and she’s one of my favorites, but it’s sort of like Sean Penn. Sean Penn understands a certain kind of guy. He doesn’t understand every kind of guy.”
Being aware of his limitations is a thing Hawke places an increasing premium on, particularly with his 40th birthday approaching later this year. He’s now directing an off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, which opens Jan. 29 at the New Group, on 42nd Street. Obviously, he’s doing it because he loves the theater, but it’s also part of an effort to figure out what his second act might be like. “I have to be careful,” Hawke says. “I love what I do. But the big business of movies is a young person’s game. There’s a few people, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Caine, who last, but you shouldn’t assume that you’re that person. Directing is exciting, it teaches me more about acting, it keeps me nervous and scared and putting myself in a position where I can fail, and it prepares me for a second profession. When I can’t be the lead of a movie, I’ll have something to do. I just think it’s smart all around.”
“I relate to characters who think too much and trip on their own thoughts. I worked with Jeremy Irons when I was younger, and he told me once, ‘I have an insight into a certain kind of human being. I don’t have an insight into every kind of human being.’”
Partly because of his 20-year love affair with the theater—much of his inner circle is playwrights, stage actors, and directors—Hawke has never moved to Los Angeles, making him one of a handful of truly famous thespians who have remained in New York full time. And like fellow downtowners Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, he has made a conscious decision to lead his life as normally as possible.
He still takes the subway, walks unattended all around Chelsea, where he lives, and eats out constantly at neighborhood places. It’s as if he’s protected his privacy by being as un-private and un-reclusive as possible.
“My joke has always been that if you go and sit courtside at the Knicks, or down in the front row at the Yankees, you sign autographs the whole time,” says Hawke. “And if you go and sit in the bleachers, maybe you sign three. People leave you alone. They think either, ‘He used to be somebody’ or ‘He seems normal. I’ll leave him alone.’”
Still, there are a few things he’d sometimes like to do but can’t. He had some desire to go see Daybreakers (full disclosure: the film was produced by Daily Beast founder Tina Brown’s brother, Chris) at a commercial movie theater this weekend, mainly to see the audience reaction, but in the end, he decided against it. “It would be really embarrassing,” he says, considering the possibility of being recognized watching himself on screen in public. “It’s just like, ‘What are you doing here?’”
Anyway, he acknowledges he’s not great at critiquing his own work: “The first time I really saw myself, in Dead Poets Society, it was like there was a giant hole in the movie. It was like it was broken. I thought it was good when other people were there, but when I was there, it was as if something had gone horribly wrong.”
Hawke considers it sort of like listening to your own voice on the answering machine—for two hours straight. Over the years, in fact, he’s come to realize that the movies he’s been in that he’s liked watching are generally the ones in which he looks handsome. “I’m so hopelessly vain that I think the performance is good when I look good,” he says. “If I can go ‘I don’t look too bad there,’ I’m fine. I remember being horrified when I saw Reality Bites because I’d refused to wear makeup in the movie, and I saw it and my skin was so greasy and I had pimples, and I thought, ‘I look like shit.’ My friends said, ‘No, remember. That’s what you wanted.’ But all your artistic integrity flies out the window when other people are watching you and you want to look good.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.