Yes! yes! it looks so good, Derek! Hey, Latham! That sounds awesome, man!” There’s a towering pile of junk onstage and a man is playing an antique wooden sewing table that he’s converted into a slide guitar, and Ethan Hawke is shouting at them both. He’s tucked into a back row of the theater, wearing a cord blazer and trucker hat, amid the chaos of a show that starts previews at the end of the week. Lights are being hung; speakers tested; set pieces rearranged. “How are we doing with those mikes?” he asks the sound engineer. Then he points to the set: a magnificent jigsaw jungle of refuse and bric-a-brac, stacked to the rafters, designed by Derek McLane and made up of wheelchairs and pool cues and school desks and lampshades and bookshelves and upturned trophies. “What do you think? Pretty intense, right?” Hawke is stoked. “If you came in here, wouldn’t you want to see this play?”
The play, directed by Hawke and set to open on February 18, is a revival of A Lie of the Mind, Sam Shepard’s 1985 tale of two embittered Western families, entangled by marriage and haunted by past cruelties. The junk pile, Hawke explains, is meant to represent their interior world, “all the things they’ve collected and held onto in their lives, surrounding them.”
When I ask him about his directing style, he offers an anecdote. “When I was being directed by Gary Sinise, in front of all the actors, he said, ‘We’re all familiar with the concept that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. Ethan, that’s you.’ He was not kidding. He was tough as nails. I am somehow the opposite of that.”
As he speaks, one by one, his cast trails into the theater for a noon rehearsal. First Frank Whaley, Hawke’s longtime friend and one of the guys he founded the Malaparte Theater Company with twenty years ago; then Karen Young, who appeared in the debut production of Lie, directed by Shepard; then Laurie Metcalf, who came up in Chicago’s Steppenwolf company; then Josh Hamilton, another of Hawke’s old buddies from the Malaparte days. Everyone’s seeing the set for the first time and they all have the same amazed reaction.
“I know!” says Hawke, from the back of the theater. “Isn’t it incredible? Man, I’m just soaking it in.”
The shorthand version of Ethan Hawke’s résumé is brief and familiar: Dead Poets Society (when he was 18); Reality Bites (at 23); all the films with Richard Linklater (most notably Before Sunrise and Before Sunset); two relatively well-received novels (which you may have dismissed and never read; they were written, after all, by Ethan Hawke); a few Hollywood highs (a marriage to Uma Thurman in 1998; an Oscar nomination for acting in Training Day; an Oscar nomination for co-writing Before Sunset); and tabloid lows (alleged affairs and a divorce from Thurman in 2004); his subsequent marriage to Ryan Shawhughes, formerly his family’s nanny. These are the things you already know. In fact, for an actor with no Top Gun or Ocean’s Eleven–style blockbuster in his past, Hawke is remarkably well known—or, as he might say, “remarkable, as in the kind of person who gets remarked about a lot.”
What you may not have noticed, though, is that in the past few years he’s led another, increasingly intriguing life, surrounding himself with old friends and new collaborators on film and onstage. He’s made movies with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) and plays with David Rabe and Sam Shepard (Hurlyburly; A Lie of the Mind). He stars in the occasional popcorn flick (like his current vampire film, Daybreakers) and potboiler (like his next film, Brooklyn’s Finest), but he also spent last year touring the world performing Chekhov and Shakespeare in the Bridge Project, a joint production of BAM and England’s Old Vic, directed by Sam Mendes. Before that, he appeared in Tom Stoppard’s nine-hour, three-part The Coast of Utopia; this on the heels of starring on Broadway in Hurlyburly, opposite Bobby Cannavale, Martha Plimpton, and Wallace Shawn. When he’s not turning up in impressive theater ensembles, he’s directing Off Broadway plays for the New Group, or making the occasional low-budget film of his own. In short, Hawke now finds himself at the center of a bright and enviable constellation of talent, living something pretty close to an ideal New York artist’s kind of life.
Over drinks at a bistro in the Maritime Hotel, however, we’re not talking about Stoppard or Shepard or Mendes or Lumet. We’re talking about Zac Efron. Hawke and Linklater are close friends, and Linklater’s latest film, Me and Orson Welles, released in November, stars the unknown British actor Christian McKay as Welles, and the very well-known Efron—who became famous in High School Musical—as Welles’s young protégé. And herein lies a dilemma.