In His Own Hothouse

Photo: Dan Winters

One warm Sunday evening a few weeks ago, Ethan Hawke’s every-other-weekend visit with his kids—Maya, 5, and Levon, 2—came to a close at Uma Thurman’s Gramercy Park apartment, and he didn’t know quite what to do.

He thought he would check out the revival of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, the story of familial bliss marred by a father’s death and a mother’s remarriage, so he trudged down to Film Forum. He stood in front of the marquee. Then he thought that if he went in, he was going to get suicidal. A person can’t drop off his kids at his ex-wife’s and go see Fanny and Alexander, he mused. So he headed back to his apartment, where his friend Josh Charles, a buddy from all the way back to Dead Poets Society, was crashing in Hawke’s office–slash–guest room for the duration of his run in Neil LaBute’s The Distance From Here. They listened to the new Wilco album and played some poker. Hawke kept waiting for a friend who was on a date to call—he’d said that Hawke could meet up with them later—but he never did. So Hawke watched the second half of the Lakers-Minnesota game, praying for Minnesota to win because he hates the Lakers, and being happy when Minnesota did, indeed, win. Then he took an obscure frontier-battle book someone had lent him into bed, a bed with caramel-colored sheets that would stay unmade the following day.

So that was a wash of a day, mostly because he didn’t do anything creative, and if Hawke doesn’t do at least one creative thing each day, he considers the day “pissed away, useless, wasted,” and even gets to feeling that way about himself. This summer, Hawke’s schedule includes finishing up a starring role in a remake of John Carpenter’s exploitation movie Assault on Precinct 13, filming in Toronto; constructing a three-bedroom hermitage in Nova Scotia, on an island he bought with Thurman but which most likely will soon be his; raising money to direct an adaptation of his first novel, The Hottest State; traveling to South Africa to film a part in Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War; and crisscrossing the country on a press junket for Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, a reprise of the much-loved 1995 film Before Sunrise that’s written by Hawke, Linklater, and co-star Julie Delpy (the film opens on July 2). He also wants to read for three hours a day, and spend three hours a day working on his next novel, a kind of paean to Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge he’s making notes for these days, in a small black journal he carries with him most places he goes.

“I always hear my old football coach talking in my head,” says Hawke. “ ‘Two hundred percent, Hawke! Ordinary effort, ordinary result!’ ” This was the coach who advised Hawke not to quit the team when he was cast in his first movie, the E.T. manqué Explorers, at 12. He was discovered at an open call at the then Gulf & Western Building on Columbus Circle, which he attended by train from Princeton Junction, New Jersey, one of the places he moved with his mom after his parents got divorced in Texas when he was 3. “The coach gave me a big speech,” says Hawke. “I was like, ‘I’m going to be in a major motion picture, bro; I’m going to quit this freshman football team.’ ” He smiles. “He might be right, in hindsight.”

Hawke’s drive doesn’t manifest itself in casual conversation—and all conversation with him is a fairly leisurely process, as there’s nothing Hawke likes more than a good long talk that meanders to a point far away, even on a banal topic like the process of interviewing. “When I first started acting, it was so uncool to even do an interview,” says Hawke, sipping a ginger ale from a wide blue straw at Gramercy Park’s Player’s Club, an old-timer-thespian hangout. “Last time I was here, a guy came up to me and said, ‘Loved your Hotspur, better than Sean Connery in ’60,’ ” he says, referring to his widely acclaimed performance last winter in Henry IV at Lincoln Center.

“I thought falling in love and having a baby were my defining moments, my dark night of the soul. Then I had another.”

“You know, Redford didn’t do interviews, you didn’t see Paul Newman on the cover of some magazine hawking his shit, you didn’t see Nicholson on the Jay Leno show,” says Hawke. “I remember when Reds came out, Warren Beatty didn’t do one press thing—he said, ‘The movie will speak for itself.’ ” Hawke sips from the straw. “Ginsberg’s Spontaneous Mind, a collection of all his interviews, is great. A ton of people know who he is but haven’t read one poem by him, and at the height of his celebrity, he made seventeen grand a year. Anyway, he decided that more people read interviews than read poetry—so he felt that doing interviews was more a part of his life’s work, that it was as great a way to communicate with the world as poetry was. So he’d try to speak as honestly and put as much thought into those interviews as he did his poetry.” Sip, sip, then later: “You know, though, I always want people to do interviews for me. However I present myself, there’s still something fake about it. ’Cause we’re all presenting ourselves all the time. So how does one go about it?”

“Aww,” he says, setting the ginger ale down and spreading his arms across the back of his chair. “I’m just babbling.”

Such musings are part of the Hawkean cliché, the sensitive pretty boy hanging around a patchouli-scented dorm hall discussing the meaning of life—“the Gen-X fruitcake,” as he describes his persona circa Reality Bites and Before Sunrise (before then, he was cast mainly as a soulful preppy in male ensemble films; see Dead Poets Society, Alive, and Midnight Clear). He’s been called pretentious. “I remember one of my really close friends saying, ‘Hawke. You gonna play Hamlet?’ ” he says. “I’m like, ‘Why not, man?’ He said, ‘People aregoing to kill you for it. You write a book, and now you’re going to play Hamlet?’ ‘Look, it’s got nothing to do with you, bro. It won’t mean shit to you when I’m dead whether I did Hamlet or didn’t do Hamlet. Your mama doesn’t care if I do Hamlet. Your mama just wants you to be nice to her.’ ”

Choosing Thurman as his mate seemed to announce Hawke’s appreciation of the finer things in life. She was the highly evolved Tarantino muse with impeccable parental credentials, her father a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia and the first Westerner to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk, her mother a model turned psychotherapist and a former wife of Timothy Leary. Ethereal princess and goofball naïf pushed strollers to the Magnolia Bakery and passed time at their farmhouse in Woodstock until the tabloids got wind of Hawke’s affair with a 22-year-old on a Montreal film set, reveling in the hypocrisy of the Über-sensitive star who nevertheless cuckolded his wife. One of Thurman’s brothers told reporters, “I want to kill him”; Hawke later pointed to Thurman’s career as a factor, declaring that he didn’t know if it was simply too difficult to be married to a woman who is a movie star.

Hawke calls last year the worst of his life. “Falling in love and having a baby made me feel the whole world changed,” says Hawke. “It brought up issues of faith and love, why would I want to be a parent, what am I living for, what’s worth dying for—all that interesting stuff. At the time I thought it was my defining moment, my dark night of the soul. I realize that’s not true. It was one dark night of the soul. Then you hit another one.”

On the Monday of the Sunday when he did nothing, Hawke is loping around Chelsea pointing out his favorite diners and record stores. He’s wearing ripped-up blue jeans and semi-laced Wallabees, a worn baseball cap with the rooster decal perched high on his head. The famous goatee, which Hawke shamefacedly reveals as inspiration for his nickname among his close friends—Goat, short for the Goateed Love Boy—remains intact, as does the ever-present American Spirit drooping from his lip, which he puffs at with thumb and forefinger as though it were a joint; he says that his doctor told him that he could smoke for a year after his divorce is final. He says, “Until I was 16, I wanted to be Holden Caulfield; from 16 to 23, I wanted to be Neal Cassady. I wasn’t cool enough. I guess after 23, I tried to be me.”

The world, however, saw him as representative of a generation, and not always in a good way. “When I was younger, I was always so sad that I couldn’t ride with the Merry Pranksters, or that I didn’t get to hang out with Allen Ginsberg,” says Hawke. “I found the label Gen X kind of irritating, sure, but I actually like the other people associated with that time, Douglas Coupland or Kurt Cobain, so no shame in that. When Before Sunrise premiered in Berlin, Linklater and I took off to Barcelona to see R.E.M., and for some reason at the hotel we ran into Michael Stipe and went to his room and smoked cigarettes. Rick and Michael were both vegetarians, and they were talking very passionately about that. It felt very exciting for some reason. Then we went to the concert, and Michael dedicated his first song to Rick, and we looked at each other like, ‘That is so cool. You just got a song dedicated to you in a 35,000-seat stadium’—Gen X! Yeah!”

Though Thurman and Hawke’s lives remain intertwined—“We’re both so busy, we need each other to take care of the kids,” he says—the existences that they are leading today significantly diverge. Thurman, who has been dating hotelier Andre Balazs, bought a $5 million, three-story, six-bedroom house on 19th Street, with intentions of moving in, then flipped it. Hawke, who has indulged in dalliances but says he’s found no one special, landed in a hotel in Chelsea that’s been the site of numerous haute-bohemian triumphs and tragedies, and inspiration for Hawke’s first feature movie as a director, Chelsea Walls, a dreamy pastiche of Kris Kristofferson monologues and Beat poetry. The two-bedroom he’s renting is the kind of place he always wanted to live in, the apartment he had in mind when in younger days he’d dream of living where Henry Miller might’ve lived. “I’ve struggled with the belief that anyone who is a really, really serious artist should be poor,” says Hawke. “When the revolution comes, who’s going to be hung? I don’t want some fancy apartment, ’cause I don’t want them to hang me from a chandelier when the revolution comes.”

In a lot of ways, Hawke takes after his mom, who left the city five years ago to work for the Peace Corps in Romania, sick of feeling like a middle-aged person in New York looking for a date. “She likes to read books about Eleanor Roosevelt and great people, and I think she started feeling like her life was incredibly empty,” he says. “I think it also did a weird whammy on her when I got married and had a kid: My son’s an adult now.”

Hawke steps into the elevator. “Are you an actor?” asks a woman with pinkies linked with a toddler daughter.

“I am,” says Hawke.

“Do you know Ethan Hawke?” she asks.

“I do,” he says. “I was born the exact same moment as him.” She looks confused.

“I am him,” says Hawke.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she says. “I thought you were Ethan Hawke, and then I noticed your hair was a different color.”

“Hmm,” says Hawke. “I’ve never been a hair-dye guy. That’s not my trip.”

The sun beats into Hawke’s apartment, and the A/C is on the fritz. It’s cluttered and messy, with toys strewn all over, dozens of furry things in a pile near white bunk beds in his kids’ room, the only air coming in through a small window looking out on an air shaft. Once inhabited by Andy Warhol star Viva, Hawke’s bedroom is painted gold and deep blue, with a fresco of the Holy Trinity on the ceiling. An impish Gabriel lurks over the doorway. He has a bar-code label stuck to his ankle. “I can’t take it down,” says Hawke. “It’s too funny.”

Mostly the apartment functions as a show-and-tell of Hawke’s many hobbies. Wistful black-and-white portraits that he took of his kids rest on the lip of a piano, next to a few guitars—Hawke likes noodling around on them, especially during downtime on film sets, and is currently teaching himself to play Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” (“Modern music lacks the spit and piss of good soul music,” he notes.) A portrait of the Newton Boys that Hawke painted on that set hangs on one wall. There’s a manual typewriter on his desk; he wrote both his books on it. “The computer has destroyed fiction,” he declares. “Paragraphs get so perfectly sculpted they lose all their juice.”

In the living room, there’s an art project of a sort going on, though Hawke doesn’t have much to do with this one. Two women are kneeling by a massive slab of plywood that almost covers his threadbare Oriental carpet.

“What happened to my coffee table?” asks Hawke, scanning the room.

“We threw it out the window,” one of them deadpans.

The coffee table is actually shoved up against a wall with a dartboard, to make room for the construction of this collage, a housewarming gift from Linklater. It’s made up of index-card-size frame grabs—numbers from a projectionist’s reel, stills of women’s faces. The workers are clearly nervous around Hawke, though, and keep asking if he has any advice. “Just do it as you think is cool,” he says, flipping through the rubber-banded stacks of cards. “God, this is going to be awesome!” he says, and shakes his head. “This thing is totally odd! It can’t be pretentious, because it’s too odd.”

If Hawke sees Before Sunrise as the high point in his early adult life, then the filming of Before Sunset seems to be functioning as a kind of marker for this phase of life as well. “Dead Poets Society was all about how brilliant Peter Weir was—anyone could’ve played my part,” says Hawke. “But being in Before Sunrise was the closest thing I ever came to being in a band. Both of these movies are really personal. There’s not a goddamn thing Rick, Julie, and I don’t know about each other.”

Before Sunrise is the perfect summer movie, recording only the beginning of a romance, with no bitter contrail. It’s one night between the Eurailing Hawke and a French graduate student: Adulthood has just arrived for both, and though they fall in love, they don’t feel compelled to seal their future together. Before Sunset chronicles one day nine years later, after Delpy appears at a Paris bookstore to see Hawke’s character read from his new novel, which is largely based on their encounter. She is now in a dead-end relationship; he is in an unhappy marriage and makes comments such as these: “What is love? Respect, trust, admiration. I felt all those things. So cut to the present tense and I feel like I’m running a small nursery with someone I used to date. I’m like a monk. I’ve had sex less than ten times in the last four years. I feel if someone were to touch me I’d dissolve into molecules.”

“I don’t know who wrote that,” says Hawke. He adds, “You don’t make a movie like this without putting some blood, spit, and piss into it.”

The next day, Hawke had to fly back to Toronto for Assault on Precinct 13, so he couldn’t go to a concert at Irving Plaza he’d planned to see with some friends, which was a bummer. So his last night in New York for a while was spent with two of his best buddies, playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman and actor Frank Whaley, and their wives. They took him to a nice restaurant near Madison Square Park, somewhere he’d never been before, and he ordered some “fancy catfish.” It was very weird to be sitting in that restaurant with them talking about kids, at the kind of place that they wouldn’t have been caught dead at ten years ago. “I don’t know what it’s like to be anybody else,” says Hawke, “but what was nice for me about being young is that friendships have a real power and a weight because nobody’s hooked. And then slowly everybody starts getting hooked and you have a priority above your friendships, you have a relationship and wife and kids, things that are more important to you than making sure your homey’s doing all right. Now here I am, 33 and single again, and all of them are married. It’s like, who wants to hang with me, man? Nobody.”

In His Own Hothouse