It’s a good time to be Ethan Hawke.
In the past few years, the 44-year-old veteran actor has scored two significant genre hits with “The Purge” and “Sinister,” an Oscar nomination and ample acclaim for co-writing “Before Midnight” and, oh yeah, plenty of love from critics, audiences and awards-giving organizations for a little movie called “Boyhood.”
amNewYork spoke with the Golden Globe-nominated Brooklyn resident about his latest flick, the mind-bending Robert Heinlein adaptation “Predestination” about time-traveling crime fighters opening Friday, and the 12-years-in-the-making “Boyhood,” which just hit DVD/Blu-Ray/streaming this week and seems poised to earn Hawke his second Oscar nod as an actor.
You have a knack for finding top-notch genre films.
It’s [expletive] hard because you know my first film was with Joe Dante. And so you have to understand I sat in a movie theater with a 14-year-old River Phoenix watching “The Howling” and having Joe explain to us how it was about the Vietnam War. And the power that you can have if you make a good drive-in movie, a really entertaining movie, a movie that, hell, you turn it on at midnight and you’ll stay awake and watch it and want to talk about it afterwards; if you can do that in a way you can tackle much more sophisticated themes than you could by some pretentious [thing]. For example, if we were to do a movie about the Trayvon Martin story. It would be very hard to do that so it wasn’t a TV movie. But if you talk about class warfare and racism and economic disparity, how that works, in “The Purge,” it’s actually kind of interesting. Then you want to talk about it and you’re not sure how you think because you don’t have some kneejerk point of view about it. And I think Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut or Ray Bradbury, the best sci-fi, does that. It’s very hard to walk out of “Predestination” and not want to talk about what the [expletive] you just saw. And so I like a movie like that.
There’s an art to locating these projects.
I’ve always had an allergy to overtly mainstream movies. But if you don’t make movies that make any money or that people see, you don’t have a career. If you look at Joe Dante [and “Dead Poets Society” director] Peter Weir as my first major influences, they’re like a part of my DNA or something. Peter is one train of thought. I imagine Peter would love “Boyhood.” Peter would love “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” And Joe I feel like would love “Sinister” and would love “The Purge.” I’d love to sit with Joe and see “Predestination.”
When you read “Predestination,” were you familiar with the story? Without getting into too many spoilers, it’s pretty out there.
No. They told me it was based on a story called “—All you Zombies—” so I just assumed it was a zombie movie. That’s why we had to change the title. … I was shocked when I did read it how short it is. It’s an eight-page short story. What’s so hard is if you adapt a classic novel, invariably all you do is do a lesser version of it, whereas if you adapt a short story, we had the benefit of having a spark of genius in the movie. Heinlein was a genius and he thought in a way other people didn’t think. He had a sense of humor, and a wit, and brilliance to him. So we have that. We could just add to it. As opposed to stripping things away we could just add to it. One of the amazing things about doing the movie is it’s a futuristic movie that takes place in the past. It’s a ’50s imagination of what the ’80s would be like, which is so fun.
In terms of the ways it examines questions of identity it almost feels like a companion to “Boyhood.”
They showed together at the South by Southwest Film Festival. … I felt like I was in two time-travel movies. They both tap into this weird desire we all have, I think, to re-visit ourselves. The future is so scary. We don’t know what waits ahead. Am I going to lose someone I love? Am I going to get the flu? We have so much fear that the past gets romanticized because it doesn’t have any fear in it. You know what’s going to happen. I think that makes time travel exciting. It was fun, [“Boyhood” director] Rick [Linklater] came to the “Predestination” premiere and he said that too: ‘It’s all any of us want to do, is see ourselves and see where we’re headed.’ In some strange way, “Predestination” is also about understanding yourself in a similar way. It’s about forgiving ourselves for our inability to forgive ourselves. “Boyhood” has something else it’s working on with time. It’s about understanding, or witnessing.
Genre films aren’t usually honored by the Oscars. Why do you think “Training Day” was able to break through and get you a nomination and Denzel Washington a win?
Whenever anything works there are so many mysterious ingredients. A little bit had to go with Denzel being a huge movie star. I mean Denzel’s one of the few major, major movie stars who can act his [expletive] off. And B) it’s a really well-made film. It’s really well built. [Director] Antoine [Fuqua] and [screenwriter] David Ayer, the script was tight. When a genre movie is disciplined and tight like that, it can pop. Not unlike “The French Connection,” it tapped [into] a moment. … The crash units in L.A. were a real thing. [“Predestination”] is extremely heady in a way audiences sometimes resist. Perhaps my hope is that not unlike “Gattaca,” my hope is that it will find its audience. There are people out there that want to see a movie that’s gonna make them think. We live in a culture and a time period where I feel like everybody is trying to sell you something. “Predestination” is just unabashedly out of its mind.
Are you aware of the fact that “Gattaca” is regularly shown in high schools?
I hear that, which means a lot to me. I use that as a source of inspiration in darker moments. I remember [writer-director] Andrew Niccol and I went for a walk. We walked from Brooklyn to deep into Manhattan just licking our own wounds because the company that was releasing “Gattaca” couldn’t find one quote in all the national newspapers to put above the ad. It’s weird how a lot of times when things come out you’re faced with what people’s expectation was. And then over time their expectation changes and they can see it for what it is. “Gattaca” was advertised like it was some sexy, explosive action movie. It had more in common with “Fahrenheit 451” than it did with “Total Recall,” which is what everybody wanted. So all the critics were looking at it like, “This is boring.” I just did another movie with Andrew Niccol. It means a lot to us. Sometimes it takes time.
Do you feel like the need for immediate gratification has gotten worse over the years?
Definitely. There used to be a time when word of mouth could really happen. The funny thing is, right when I had given up hope “Boyhood” happened. “Boyhood” is a movie released by IFC, made for chump change, that is reaching a national audience. It’s connecting with audiences. I always knew that I would like “Boyhood.” And I always knew that “Boyhood” would have its fans. But I didn’t think people would get it until I would be at the Berlin Film Festival in 2041 or something and I’d be saying, “Well yeah, I really liked it.” And people would say, “Too bad nobody knew it when it came out.”
You watch the film and fundamentally, whatever stage you’re at it in life you can relate.
If you’re 18, it’s your life. If you ever grew up, you relate to it, because that experience doesn’t change. I saw it at Sundance and we’re doing this Q&A and I realized, “There’s nobody here this movie doesn’t speak to.” … It’s been fascinating, through the year, realizing that 18-year-old people feel like it’s the story of their life. They burst out crying when they see a certain kind of toy. And then, 80-year-old people come up to you, older people, and they’re like, “It’s my kids, it’s time.” And they’re looking at it from this whole other point of view.
The passage of time is a powerful thing.
I think we all relate to that, these landmarks going by. The reality is we all live in this daily thing concerned with today’s worries. There’s this larger thing that’s always happening. These big events happen, like your kid going to college, that make you go, “Oh [expletive] I’m going to die.”
Had you seen footage over the course of the 12 years of filming?
I’d written and developed “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” while we were doing this. I remember a couple years after “Before Sunset” came out I got to watch the first four years cut together. I had a shotgun seat to this, watching the quilt being made. That’s really what it felt like. It’s an interesting experiment for a lot of filmmakers, because unlike novels, a lot of novels get third and fourth drafts. You often here, “I tried to publish this novel in ’92 but I got rejected, so I revised it in ’96 and won the National Book Award.” … Rick got to constantly sand the movie.
What’s it like to watch it now for you?
The biggest surprise for me is that it’s not like a home movie. The biggest surprise for me is what our largest goal was, was to have character continuity over longevity. Anybody can do a Flip cam version. You can see it on the Internet, of time going by. It’s always interesting, I always love it. I remember when Rick and I first talked about it, it was like, I remember my first memories of my father, when the movie starts, first grade, who he was then versus who my father was at my high school graduation. If I could do a portrait of what that’d feel like for him. When you have big changes in your life they feel inevitable. That’s what we wanted was like, by the time this guy goes from this ne’er-do-well in a GTO coming back from Alaska to a guy in a minivan working for an insurance company, for that to feel inevitable. That was the trick every year, how to subtly turn the knob. My biggest feeling when I watch it is that you feel the story, you feel the family and you feel like these people really exist, which is always the goal.
“Boyhood” seems poised to win some major awards. What does that mean to you?
It’s just shocking to me. It’s like being an unseeded team making the Final Four or something in basketball. I can’t believe we’re even having that conversation. I was so proud of my friend Rick when I saw this. I couldn’t believe he pulled it off. It was always a neat experiment, but the fact that it’s a movie with a story, the fact that he sailed it into port, I just love the movie. I always thought it would be too radical for mainstream audiences and the fact that people are emotionally connecting … I haven’t had a movie nominated for Best Picture since “Dead Poets Society” and if that happens with this, it’s really amazing. I’m not so jaded. And also let’s face it, we live in at a time when I feel like nothing outside the system ever cracks through. And every now and then it happens.