Eye of the Hawke

More than 30 years after a raw and fresh-faced Ethan Hawke made his screen breakthrough in Dead Poets Society, we are still watching him like — well, like the proverbial. He gives Tom Chamberlin the three keys to his success...

Eye of the Hawke

The music starts slowly, with a resonant B-flat from a distant dulcimer, like a mental lightbulb coming on for the virginal, repressed schoolboy Todd Anderson, soon to become a man. A crescendo marks the trigger-pulling of the rebellion. Not by manning the barricades, but by carpe-ing the diem and climbing with scruffy shoe onto the creaky and ancient wooden desk to say with his best (though still underwhelming) barbaric yawp, “O Captain! My Captain!” It is a knowing valediction to the departing mentor, Mr. Keating, who stops and observes half the class joining in this acknowledgement, led by the emboldened character played by Ethan Hawke at the denouement of Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society — and the dawn of Hawke’s career. 

In 2022, Hawke’s light still shines and his trip is not yet done. We speak to him while he has three projects ready for release or already showing, from movies to Marvel series. His is a career best known for screen performances, but he has many credits from treading the boards, too, spanning more than three decades since Dead Poets Society and including four Oscar nominations and, finally, one cover of The Rake with his (almost) namesake bird of prey. When we opened our Zoom conversation he did that disarmingly charming thing, which I often forget to do: he complimented my office surroundings and dispelled any potential awkwardness. Hawke is intensely thoughtful: he doesn’t waffle but considers his answers and plays with a straight bat. I will leave you to judge, dear reader, if he kept it up in our conversation, but from where I was sitting, I feel I know what the answer is.

Arguably, he had a head start in making Dead Poets Society. He was, at the time, an acting student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, but prior to that he had been at the prestigious Hun School, a boy’s boarding school that contained echoes of Welton Academy, the fictional school in which the film is set. This surely helped pave the way for his long-desired career. Hawke says: “Some agent I had met said they were looking for young kids around my age, and she sent the script and I read it and knew that world so well that I remember I called my sister and said, ‘You know what, I am going to leave school and audition for this movie and if I don’t get a part in it then I am not an actor’, because I knew the world and those people so well I felt I could play any one of those parts. If I know anything then I know this world.” 

Suede overshirt, Ralph Lauren Purple Label; jeans, Polo Ralph Lauren; Cash black leather boots, Barbanera; steel Datejust, Rolex.

I want to make a movie that is good enough that it would be studied in class. There is an arrogance to say that, but if you don’t think it somewhere in your heart, it is definitely not going to be.

It’s no spoiler to tell you he got the role and was lined up alongside fledgling young actors and industry greats, including the much-missed Robin Williams. He found himself sparring (artistically speaking) with Williams on a few occasions, especially when it came to the comic titan’s capacity to improvise and try something new in each take. Ethan has mentioned before that he had trouble maintaining a straight face on set; I wanted to know if this was a character choice or an intention to be seen, on set, as a serious actor. It was both, he says: “I just didn’t think [the character of] Todd would laugh. I thought my job would be to be the person in the room who didn’t laugh. In every team there is a position you play, and the goalie’s job is different to the right wing. What Robin needed was somebody not to laugh. I was trying to play my position.”

As you can see, although Hawke was as green as it gets, the elite character actor was in him from the start. “The wonderful thing about being young is that you don’t have any experience butyoudohaveidealism,”hesays.“Iwassuchafanofacting.I had read all these interviews with Sean Penn, Robert De Niro, John Malkovich, different people I admired, and they spoke with such ferocity and they took their work so seriously. And the arts are a funny thing to take seriously, as it’s kind of a joke. When you work with someone like Simon Russell Beale, the guy takes it seriously, so when you work with him you think, It’s not an accident that he’s extremely successful, he’s a brilliant mind who is dedicated to his field. I was young enough to know that to do this well, I couldn’t have an ordinary relationship with it, and if I did then I wouldn’t have a chance at excelling at doing the thing I love. So a little bit of that is trying to harness madness. It is not sane to practise the saxophone eight hours a day, but you’re never going to be Charlie Parker if you don’t.”

Screen-actor interviews aside, Ethan has a definite Anglophilic view of acting as a craft, admiring the approach taken by the British, which puts great emphasis on the stage and doing your 10,000 hours. He says: “What I felt from a very young age was that in America the goal is somehow to ‘make it’ — there is a culture of personality around the talent myth, whether you’ve got it, and if you do you’ll be discovered somewhere along the road. England, in my experience, there is such a culture of mentorship, of education, of treating this like a craft. Yeah, you might be successful young, but that doesn’t mean you’re an actor. But Judi Dench is an actor, John Gielgud is an actor. The reason Denzel Washington has excelled for the period he has is that he trained himself along the British theatre cfmoviemodel; there are few card-carrying movie stars in America that have a passion for the theatre. I think the theatre is incredibly humbling, whereas Hollywood, and the art of making movies, fans the flames of your ego to such an extent that if you get it too young it is very destructive to your approach to craft, because you’re told you have it. That sensibility is destructive to a lot of young American actors.” 

There is an element of hindsight here, and a heavy dose of learn-by-doing, by Hawke’s admission. “When I was young, every opportunity was so important,” he says. “What happens is you get a little beat up when you pour yourself into something that is really poorly shot or poorly edited. I didn’t realise that in Dead Poets Society — where the cinematographer was John Seale and the director was Peter Weir, the script won the Oscar — that I was working with a really high level of people. I thought that is what the movie business was like. I didn’t know how rare Peter Weir was.” 

From that point he found a rhythm that would keep him working through most of his professional life. His appearance in 1994’s Reality Bites turned him from awkward pupil to teen heart- throb. The following year would see him become a romantic lead, as he began his pas de deux with Richard Linklater in Before Sunrise. The collaborations between him and Linklater have this recurring theme of time passing, growing up, growing older, life playing out on life’s terms. They did this by creating films that involved the same people over many years. There would be two more films in the series, Before Sunset and Before Midnight

Leather western shirt, Ralph Lauren Purple Label; pleated trousers, Dolce Gabbana; Louisiana fedora, Lock & Co; Cash black leather boots, Barbanera; jewellery, The Great Frog; belt, stylist’s own.
Herringbone Donegal overcoat, Private White V.C.; wool polo shirt, Dolce & Gabbana; jeans, Polo Ralph Lauren; Cash black leather boots, Barbanera.
Herringbone Donegal overcoat, Private White V.C.

While the latter two were being filmed, he began another major project with Linklater, the critically acclaimed Boyhood, a film that told the story of a family over 12 years, with the same actors throughout. “They were gigantic undertakings,” he says. “We shot Before Sunset and Before Midnight while we were shooting Boyhood — that was a great decade of working together. Do I think we are simpatico? Yes, I felt that from the first night I met him. He doesn’t turn movies into an advertisement, he always accepts life for what it is, and I always wanted to do that as an actor. Life doesn’t need to be hyperbolised, life really is magnificent. He loves these characters, even if they are flawed, and he doesn’t need to make life better than it is in order to be cinematic. Growing old with a woman is magic if you capture it right.” 

Boyhood was a huge success by whatever metric you use to judge such things. The reviews, awards and box office numbers all reflected a reverence for the unprecedented cinematic effort and gumption required to make such a film, the type that our cover star is fond of. “I believe in ‘fortune favours the bold’,” he says. “When Linklater came to me and said, ‘I want to make a movie and shoot a short film once a year for 12 years’, that has balls, you can’t sign a contract for that. Who is going to finance that? What makes you think the actors will like you in four years let alone 12?”

This marathon had water breaks that allowed Hawke to do other work, which included Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, alongside Washington. It is a film that departs from the darling nature of independent cinema, but, as he points out, “Training Day may have been a commercial movie, but Denzel Washington is one of the greatest actors who ever lived, and I get to work with him”. It also earned him his first of four Oscar nominations, the most recent of which came from Boyhood.

He enjoyed another notable year of extracurricular activity in 2015, when he released a novel called Rules for a Knight. The story is broken into sections, each one named after a specific virtue, and together they act as a kind of chivalric code. I was interested to know, out of the total of 20, what he considered the most important. The first of three he selected is solitude: “An appreciation of solitude is important. If you can be alone with yourself, it makes it so much easier to be in a crowded room.” The second is courage: “As I have said, fortune favours the bold, and you have to take chances and risk failure. It is true that I have definitely learned more from failure, it is a much better teacher. Success is much  more difficult to learn from. It takes courage to fail.”

The third — and as they say in Corinthians, the greatest of these — is love: “I am not afraid to be corny. I have been to a lot of rallies in my life. I was at a rally for Ukraine a few days ago, and it was the first time I had been in a room where it was an actual call to arms. I didn’t know, I thought we were supporting Ukraine and peace and it very quickly evolved into a call to arms by some very compelling people in a very compelling situation — that there was no other answer. All the reading in my life, whether it be Shakespeare or Thích Nhat Hanh, or whatever you’re reading in your life, all bends to the cycle of violence and [the idea that] violence perpetuates itself. I kept having this vision of like, Is there no third path, is there no path of non- violence to not let Putin succeed, to not create generations of hate and dead Russians and bringing the world to war? I know that is probably a John Lennon or Bob Marley pipe dream, but I was thinking about how love would be my third rule.

Anything done without it tends to be misguided. If you do it with love then you can’t fail, as the attempt itself is a win. Solitude, courage and love. If you’re not loving yourself, you can’t tie your shoes.” 

Suede overshirt, Mr P.; denim western shirt and Trinity stripe trousers, Barbanera.
Olive gabardine jacket and parallel trousers, ivory tab collar shirt and spot tie, Edward Sexton; rings, The Great Frog; steel Datejust, Rolex.
Leather western shirt, Ralph Lauren Purple Label; steel Datejust, Rolex; rings, The Great Frog.

I strangely think that the Queen helps celebrity because she is the biggest celebrity, and the rest of us are just actors, athletes or politicians.

He would work with Washington and Fuqua again, in 2016’s remake of The Magnificent Seven, a huge studio engagement that juxtaposed neatly with his true-to-form outing as Everett Lewis in the indie Maudie. He says of his fêted co-star in Maudie that, “It is exciting to run lines with Sally Hawkins. You feel her hunting for that same thing that I was hunting for when not laughing at Robin’s jokes. She’d always be thinking, How can I go deeper, how can I disappear? It’s a little bit of a magic trick.” 

Before Covid, and 30 years into his career, there was no sense of abatement, fatigue or laurels on which to rest. He worked on the wildly complex First Reformed, a story of a priest struggling with his faith and managing a dwindling congregation. It is a social commentary on the state of the church and religion in America. For Brett Goldstein, the star of Ted Lasso and presenter of the podcast Films To Be Buried With, First Reformed is the best piece in Hawke’s canon. What is interesting to observe, as an Englishman, is that Britain had a recent television show with a similar premise, called Rev, which was on the BBC. The difference in approach is very telling. In the U.K. Rev is a comedy that lampoons the national church and its struggle to maintain relevance at grassroots level. First Reformed is much darker, a more severe exploration of the church’s role in American life and on its communities. Hawke says: “This [the U.S.] is a country that prides itself on its Christian ethos, but where was white Christian America after Martin Luther King died? Why are we still having these conversations? Why has the Christian community not led in terms of equality and environmental works? It doesn’t make sense to me.” 

As for the disparity between our nations’ approaches to similar premises, Hawke allows himself another dose of Anglophilia. “The difference across the Atlantic is that you show your age and we show our age,” he says. “This country [the U.S.] is still trying to form an identity. We have the right-wing, who interpret the constitution in one way, and we have the left, who interpret it another way, and they are both citing the constitution all the time and they are both claiming to be religious. I think you guys in your wisdom have realised that this whole thing of identity is something to laugh at because it is so big and so mysterious and so nameless, we just don’t have the vocabulary to unify us into one thing, but America is still searching for that one thing. I was told my whole life that New York was the great melting pot, but one trip to London and that is the international melting pot — the exposure to different communities from all over the world. So you guys have evolved because of that. All the globe meets in London and America is still trying to hold on to the question of” — here he holds up his fist — “what is an American?” We even managed to have a chat about our beloved Lady Sovereign. “I strangely think that the Queen helps celebrity because she is the biggest celebrity, and the rest of us are just actors, athletes or, more importantly, politicians,” Hawke says. “There are certain societal tropes that, yeah, it may be bullshit but it helps.” 

The pandemic has not stunted Hawke’s momentum. He is an elder statesman of the screen who, as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, has no fewer than three current projects to which he lends his name. Ironically, the most topical of these is as a Marvel superhero: despite its involving Egyptian deities, time travel and portals, Moon Knight is an explicit commentary on the new political split, where solutions come from extreme people with extreme ideas. He plays the antagonist Arthur Harrow, a long-haired Jesus-esque character who walks in broken-glass- filled sandals and talks in calm and assuring tones while at the same time possessing the power to suck the soul out of people in seconds, which he does to those he feels may one day commit a crime. Beware, false prophets! Hawke says: “I have lines in there that are straight-up Christian T.V. evangelist — ‘People don’t want to hear the good news’. People use dogma and zealotry to manipulate other people. One of the biggest problems we have is that none of us have an education in how to raise children in the environment of the internet. Confirmation bias is what the internet is all about. Someone tells me that Trump made a great speech the other day — I don’t see that article; my father in Texas isn’t going to see an article about AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] giving some great liberal speech. We all see whatever we are looking for. We are not forced to be kind to each other and listen to each other. What I loved about Harrow was how he can take true statements and manipulate them so they sound true — ‘Would you wait to weed the garden till after the roses are dead?’ is a really interesting way to justify killing children. It makes sense but it doesn’t make any sense at all.” 

Louisiana fedora, Lock & Co; denim western shirt, Barbanera; cotton vest, Sunspel; jewellery, The Great Frog; steel Datejust, Rolex.

He is the personification of his novel Rules for a Knight and the virtues contained therein. So in this platinum jubilee month, we at The Rake say, Arise, Sir Ethan.

Hawke also features in The Northman, the gory Nordic historical epic, and The Black Phone, the film that brings us together today, which is a remarkably creepy and disturbing horror thriller. I have been told in the past that an actor needs to find empathy in their characters to play them truthfully. Hawke elaborates on this by saying, “To understand your character, you have to understand” — he points at himself — “your character. I have to understand who I am to understand where this person I am playing intersect, and where my body language is wrong, but that means I really have to know me.” 

I cannot imagine finding the mindset of a child kidnapper, and assume, as Ethan is a father, it would be equally hard to search for and find that intersection. He says: “I get asked a lot about why I don’t like playing the villain. I often joke that if people saw the dark side they can’t unsee it — not completely unlike Jack Nicholson post-The Shining — but that’s not true. I don’t like to play the villain because it scares me so much. It scares me because the times I have played a malevolent person, Macbeth, Ivanov, people in a tremendous amount of pain, they take my life and my psyche in a negative direction, and I don’t like it. Paul Newman said that he feels like he ‘has become a collection of the attributes of the characters I like the most and strung them together’. I know what he means, and playing a villain, you get access to the part of your brain that might be mad or really clinically depressed or really hateful, jealous or malevolent. I find it is like controlled meditation, but to do it well you have to know how to guide yourself back. 

“It’s not hard to guide yourself back from a wonderful person you love: if I am taking on the characteristics of St. Francis, my family may think I am a little sanctimonious but they won’t mind. My answer to myself on The Black Phone was to really access this sense of play. You know kids aren’t scared of it, they will play the bogeyman, and I wear a mask a lot in the movie. It changes a lot but it is mask work, so I try and think of it more like Sophocles. I am not really playing the person, I am playing a child’s idea of malevolent forces in the world. I didn’t want to play the character, I found him very intimidating. The thing about the horror genre is that there is a certain math to it. You can meet great actors who are  terrible in comedy, as there is timing to it. The same can be said for horror: the difference between something that is absolutely terrifying or something that is silly and stupid is, like, two frames in the edit. Scott Derrickson [the director] is a very smart guy, so I feel safe with him, but I was wary of it.” 

In our conversation, Ethan alluded to an aspiration he has nurtured since he began acting. “I want to make a movie that is good enough that it would be studied in class,” he says. “There is an arrogance to say that, but if you don’t think it somewhere in your heart, it is definitely not going to be. ”So as much as he seeks to entertain, he also has a connection with the artistic pursuit, the function of actors as provokers, people who inspire and intrigue and act as potential forces for good in a world in which the paths of right and wrong seem at times so far apart and merged.

Objectively speaking, the best films he has made are indeed for studying — from Boyhood and its groundbreaking method to the enduring legacy of Dead Poets Society and the filmmaker’s favourite, First Reformed. You may think, then, that Hawke would turn the volume down from 11 and put his feet up. No, the hunt is still on to create extraordinary work, and as such we can all be grateful, for the more ethical, valiant and fearless elder statesmen we have on screen, the better. He is the personification of his novel Rules for a Knight and the virtues contained therein. So in this platinum jubilee month, we at The Rake say, Arise, Sir Ethan. 

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Grooming: Melissa Dezarate
Photography Assistant: Zack Forsyth
Bird: Falconry Excursions, New York
Photographed at Vandervoort Studios, Brooklyn