The first thing that impressed me about Ethan Hawke – in real life, that is, long after he’d impressed me with his work on screen – was his blunt-spoken, self-effacing honesty.
It was 20 years ago, during a press gathering in a posh L.A. hotel to promote his latest movie, Mystery Date. He was just about to say something pithy and profound about the art of acting and the mysteries of life. But then he realized he really couldn't do it, just could not do it, with a straight face.
“You know,” he said, shaking his head at the ridiculousness of it all, “a 20-year-old talking about his work is so boring, it's unbelievable. Unbelievable.
“But it's a hard thing, because so many people ask you about it. And you kind of go, ‘Oh, yes, well, and I've been thinking about this . . .’ And you know it sounds silly. But, what the hell, somebody asked you…”
Hawke was just about to say something pithy and profound about the art of acting and the mysteries of life. But then he realized he really couldn't do it, just could not do it, with a straight face.
“What happens is, you sit here,” he continued, gesturing to suggest that “here” indicated the purpose as much as the location of the interview. “And you feel, 'Oh, shit! I've got to talk! OK, what do you want to hear? You want to hear this? I'll tell you that!'
“And then you read it all, and you say, 'Oh, wait!'”
Come Saturday evening, I’ll see whether, after two decades of doing other interviews tied to his high-profile accomplishments as actor, author and director, Ethan Hawke remains just as outspoken and unfiltered as he was that afternoon in L.A. way back when.
It’ll be my privilege and pleasure to be host for an on-stage Q&A with the multitalented Austin native at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston after the Cinema Arts Festival Houston screening of his latest film, The Woman in the Fifth.
To prepare for the occasion, I’ve be looking back at some of his more memorable movies. Among the most memorable:
MYSTERY DATE (1991)
THE PITCH: A college-bound young man (Hawke) runs afoul of his older brother’s “business associates” – including corrupt cops and Chinese mobsters – while on a dinner date with a beautiful neighbor (Teri Polo).
THE VERDICT: After attracting attention with supporting roles in Explorers (1985) and Dead Poets Society (1989), Hawke made a relatively smooth transition to lead player with his winning performance in Jonathan Wacks’ dark comedy-thriller.
THE PITCH: In 1974 Pittsburgh, a melancholy high-school history teacher (Jeremy Irons) attempts to dispel the anxieties of his working-class students by using his own life as fodder for detailed classroom lectures.
THE VERDICT: Stephen Gyllenhaal’s criminally under-rated drama – an arresting memory play deftly laced with touches of magical realism – features one of Irons’ finest yet least appreciated performances. Hawke proves to be an invaluable foil, as his character, a cynical student, challenges the teacher with his aggressive fatalism: “The only thing I see interesting about history is that it’s about to end.”
REALITY BITES (1994)
THE PITCH: Four over-educated, under-employed Houston Gen-Xers – played by Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn and Hawke – warily maneuver their way through life after college in an age of diminished expectations.
THE VERDICT: It’s easy to imagine the slackerish and sardonic guitarist Hawke amusingly plays here as a slightly older version of his Waterland character. It’s even easier to appreciate the dramedy – directed by co-star Ben Stiller, and partly filmed here in H-Town – as a surprisingly fresh and timely commentary on the various challenges (professional as well as personal) facing contemporary twentysomethings during our current economic malaise.
BEFORE SUNRISE (1995)
THE PITCH: Two attractive strangers, a vacationing American named Jesse (Hawke) and a homeward-bound Parisian named Celine (Julie Delpy), meet aboard a trans-European train and impulsively decide to spend some time – specifically, the 14 hours before Jesse’s flight back to the States -- together in Vienna.
THE VERDICT: Deftly juggling hip romanticism and intelligent wit, Richard Linklater’s intimate dramedy showcases his two well-cast leads at their most charming. Hawke is effortlessly engaging while conveying Jesse's mix of defensive cynicism and wistful longing. And Delpy impresses by playing Celine as a strong-willed young woman who is free-spirited enough to walk off a train with a total stranger, and self-assured enough to control, without any obvious effort, everything that happens next. Well, OK, almost everything.
THE PITCH: Three former high-school friends (Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard) reunite in a dingy Lansing, Michigan motel room for an evening of truth-telling and score-settling.
THE VERDICT: Back in 2001, I wrote: “If there’s ever been another movie in which any of the three leads has given a better performance, I haven’t seen it.” Know what? I still haven’t.
TRAINING DAY (2001)
THE PITCH: A rookie undercover cop (Hawke) finds his murderously corrupt partner (Denzel Washington) is a very, very bad role model.
THE VERDICT: Hawke earned critical and audience respect – and a Best Supporting Actor nomination – while more than holding his own opposite Washington’s Oscar-winning, exhilaratingly over-the-top histrionics.
BEFORE SUNSET (2004)
THE PITCH: Nine years after their dusk-till-dawn episode in Vienna, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) reunite in Paris – after Jesse has written a “tiny best seller” about their brief encounter.
THE VERDICT: Surprisingly – no, make that miraculously – lightning strikes twice in this exceptionally satisfying sequel.
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (2005)
THE PITCH: On New Year’s Eve in an isolated police station, a fallen-from-grace Detroit cop (Hawke) must team with a taciturn gangster (Laurence Fishburne) to repel a hit squad on a search-and-destroy mission.
THE VERDICT: Appropriately enough for a remake of a 1970s B-movie classic, this rock-the-house thriller takes an explicitly old-school approach to kicking ass, drawing blood and taking lives. Hawke hits all the right notes as he charts various steps – mocking humor, fearful indecision, steely resolve – in his character’s progression from guilt-wracked wreck to hard-charging hero.
THE PITCH: Everything goes terribly, tragically wrong when a financially strapped accountant (Philip Seymour Hoffman) enlists his chronically irresponsible brother (Hawke) to rob the suburban jewelry store owned and operated by their parents.
THE VERDICT: This last masterwork by veteran director Sidney Lumet is ferociously intense and flawlessly acted. Hawke is at the very top of his game as a doomed screw-up aptly described thusly by critic A.O. Scott: “If you gave him a quarter to feed the meter, you’d end up with a parking ticket and a stream of pathetic apologies.”
BROOKLYN’S FINEST (2009)
THE PITCH: The intricately intertwined stories of three stressed-out New York cops: A detective (Hawke) who robs drug dealers to provide for his ailing wife (Lili Taylor) and their children; an undercover vice cop (Don Cheadle) ordered to build a case against an old friend (Wesley Snipes); and a cynical uniformed officer (Gere) who gets a shot at redemption just a few days before retirement.
THE VERDICT: Hawke reunited with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua to persuasively illuminate all aspects of a complex, even contradictory character – a loving and devoted family man who can be a cold-blooded killer – whose mounting desperation helps propel a familiar but fascinating plot.
(The Woman in the Fifth will have its Cinema Arts Festival Houston premiere at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Following the screening, Ethan Hawke will receive the Levantine Cinema Arts Award in honor of his multifaceted career in the arts, and take part in an on-stage Q&A with CultureMap Houston film writer Joe Leydon.)