“They were young men who were very much in love with their lives,” says Martha Plimpton, who starred in a Malaparte production in ’95 and, more recently, both Hurlyburly and The Coast of Utopia. “They all shared a very attractive, ebullient form of hubris. For a woman looking in, it could be irritating—like, ‘You guys are so in love with yourselves.’ But it was also very exciting to be around.”
They were also becoming famous, fast, with Hawke the fastest of all. They were constantly taking off to do movies, jetting to L.A., flirting with celebrity. Whaley starred in Swimming With Sharks in 1994, where he was berated expertly by Kevin Spacey, playing Hollywood’s most evil boss. Hamilton did Kicking & Screaming in 1995, Noah Baumbach’s first film, about hyperarticulate slackers cast adrift after graduation. And, in 1994, Hawke starred in Reality Bites. His role as Troy Dyer, the snarly, sensitive, brooding Gen-X heartthrob, was part Ferris Bueller, part Christian Slater in Heathers, and part Brando in The Wild One. “I am not under any orders to make the world a better place,” Troy quipped aphoristically, as though dictating it for an eventual T-shirt.
“The year it came out, there was a strong current pulling me toward Hollywood, toward superhero movies and things like that,” says Hawke. “And there was this other strong current pulling me toward Malaparte and those friendships.” I ask him if his success caused tension among his New York friends. “Absolutely. We all stayed friends. But the company fell apart.” They fought about who would raise the money (Hawke, mostly), which plays to mount, and who would play the leads. Hawke was adamant about waiting for their friend Sherman to hand over his new play, but Sherman, after finishing the first act, slid into an extended stretch of writer’s block, lubricated by alcohol. “That stalled us out, and the air dissipated,” says Hawke.
Meryl Streep asked Josh Hamilton and Ethan Hawke about their rehearsal process. They said that they’d known each other since they were 18. “Oh. You cheated,” she said.
Reality Bites also left Hawke at the brink of stardom, gazing into what he later recognized as a trap. It was Linklater who pulled him back. “Ethan was on a track then that, had he taken it, he’d have had a very different career,” says Linklater. “He was getting offered every film in Hollywood. He chose Before Sunrise instead.”
Linklater was coming off the success of Slacker and Dazed & Confused, so they were like Gen-X bookends: the indie auteur and the poster boy. Linklater had seen him act in a play in New York, Sophistry, and gave him the script for his next film, about a guy who meets a woman on an overnight train trip from San Francisco to Texas. Hawke read it and told him, “If you’d just asked me to be in your next film, I’d have jumped at it. But I have to tell you, reading this script, I have to say no.” Linklater said, “I’m not offering you the part. I’m offering you an audition.”
They wound up relocating the story to Vienna and reworking the script into Before Sunrise. “Rick was a great director for me to work with right then, because he can’t stand posing,” Hawke says. “He’d say to me, ‘What are you doing?’ And I’d say, ‘Rick, everybody else thinks it’s great when I do that.’ And he’d say, ‘Real people don’t do that. It looks like you’re trying to look cool.’ And I’m like, ‘I am trying to look cool.’ ”
Looking back, Linklater jokes, “I probably bit into his future income pretty substantially.”
“What I didn’t know then was what a crossroads I was at,” says Hawke. “I thought that crossroads would exist forever.” There were other crossroads to come, of course; “You know, I auditioned for Titanic. Sometimes I muse on what would have happened. That would have been such a different life.” Another came after his Oscar nomination for Training Day. But “by then, I was more sure of who I was. Before, in your mid-twenties, the paint is still wet on who you are.”
A decade after Before Sunrise, Hawke and Linklater reunited with Julie Delpy and made a sequel, Before Sunset, in which the openhearted idealists of the first movie meet again in Paris to find each other more battle-hardened, knocked about by life, and burdened by success. (Hawke’s character has written a successful novel.) Then, in 2006, Hawke got a call from Sherman, who’d finally written the second act to his play. He gave the play to Hawke to direct, and Hawke cast Hamilton in one of the leads. “We set up a reading at the Public Theater,” says Hawke, “and blew the lid off that place.” The play, Things We Want, opened in November 2007. As recorded in a review in this magazine, Sherman had “entrusted it to a movie-star friend with no Off Broadway directing experience,” which seemed like a “hipster train wreck in the making.” Yet the play was well received: “slightly whimsical, slightly affecting, largely entertaining … Give Ethan Hawke credit for some assured and (usually) understated direction.” It was Hawke’s professional debut as a theater director, about ten years after Malaparte broke up.