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The Ethan Hawke Actors Studio

Hawke in a rehearsal for A Lie of the Mind.  

“The irony is, from Rick’s point of view, he wants to make a period film. He wants McKay to play Orson Welles. So you need a star to be in it somewhere,” Hawke says. “Here’s the answer: We’ll get Zac Efron to play the young kid. Because they audition him, and you know what? He turns out to be a really good actor. So that’s the reason Rick gets the money to make the film. But that’s also the reason people struggle to take the movie seriously.” This is a predicament that Hawke knows all too well. “A part of my heart goes out for these guys like Zac or [Twilight’s] Bob Pattinson. I wish them well,” he says. “The world is very mysterious. It has the appearance that it’s rooting for them and giving them everything they want. Instead, it’s setting a huge trap. And it’s very difficult to get out of.”

“Badass” is a term that Hawke likes to use a lot. It may be his highest compliment. To him, it conjures a rare combination of authenticity, integrity, and outright awesomeness. He wrote a profile recently of Kris Kristofferson for Rolling Stone, and in it, he says: “Imagine if Brad Pitt had also written a No. 1 single for someone like Amy Winehouse, was considered among the finest songwriters of his generation, had been a Rhodes scholar, a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, a boxer, a professional helicopter pilot—and was as politically outspoken as Sean Penn. That’s what a motherfuckin’ badass Kris Kristofferson was in 1979.” And when Hawke laments our current artistic culture, which he finds distinctly un-Kristoffersonian, he says, “We live in a funny time. If you don’t go corporate, you can’t compete. You’re relegated as irrelevant. People used to admire that. There used to be something badassed and poetic about it.”

It’s worth noting that, at roughly the same age that Kristofferson was studying Shakespeare at Oxford, then training to be a Ranger, then struggling as a songwriter in Nashville, Hawke was already a baby-faced movie star. He did his first film at 13 and had his breakout role five years later. “I was being taken around by a press agent at the Venice Film Festival at age 18,” he says. “Was it fun? Sure. But it was a dangerous path to be walking on as far as having a substantive life. Because the casualty rate at the Venice Film Festival for 18-year-olds? High.”

Hawke is now nearly 40, and if you’re around his age (as I am), you might feel like you grew up with him, or at least near him—like he was the popular guy in your high school who, in your memory, never changed or got old. (In Daybreakers, he plays a vampire who celebrates his 35th birthday. “I’ve turned 35 ten times already,” he says wearily, which sounds about right.) He wears a goatee, which at this point is a bit like saying “Woody Allen wears glasses” or “Anna Wintour wears a bob.” And he suffers, still, from the curse of the poster boy. When Details did a 2002 retrospective on the nineties and Generation X, the magazine put Hawke on the cover.

He was born in Austin, Texas, in 1970, spent his teen years in New Jersey, and after high school went to Carnegie Mellon to study acting. But he hated college. So when an agent prodded him to read for Dead Poets Society, he looked the script over, saw there were six roles for teenage boys, and thought with youthful bravado, Well, if I don’t get one of these, I must suck. Then he told his sister that if he didn’t get a part, he was joining the Merchant Marines. Instead, he wound up at the Venice Film Festival.

Still, he did his best to live the badass life. He met a young actor, Josh Hamilton, who introduced him to the playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, and the three of them took off on a cross-country road trip when Hawke was 20. On the trip, they decided to start a theater company. When they got back to New York, they recruited Hawke’s friend Steve Zahn and another young actor, Frank Whaley, whom Hawke had met on the film A Midnight Clear. They called the group Malaparte, after a little-known novel Hawke had read about in a Kerouac interview. They stayed up late watching and rewatching a worn VHS copy of True West, by Sam Shepard (whom they worshipped), starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich of the Steppenwolf company (which they worshipped). They handed out fliers for their shows to cute girls in Washington Square Park. They haunted the Drama Book Shop, where Sherman would pull plays off the shelf and shove them at Hawke and say, “You haven’t read Balm in Gilead? What are you, retarded?”