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Ethan Hawke Isn’t a Movie Star, Thank God

Over a career that’s spanned nearly 40 years, the Oscar-nominated actor has tested the boundaries of art and commerce in an industry increasingly dominated by blockbusters

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

I’m always thrown when people get upset that, as a compliment, I’ll say that a particular actor isn’t a movie star. Performers like Daniel Day-Lewis, Emma Thompson and Chiwetel Ejiofor are all terrific, but I don’t think of them as “movie stars” because I view that as a very limited term, and they transcend it. Movie stars are people you slap on a poster — they’re bright, shiny items, meant to sell things. I don’t mean to disparage movie stars — I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life being fascinated by the likes of Tom Cruise and Will Smith — but they’re one kind of thing, and not the only thing that matters when it comes to acting.

Ethan Hawke is someone I don’t consider a movie star, although he has been the star of so many movies over the years. In fact, he has one coming out this week, The Black Phone, and his name appears above the title on the poster. People will go see this film because he’s in it — that’s a very reasonable definition of a movie star. But one of the reasons I’ve liked him for so long is that he seems to push against those tight strictures. He can be the lead in a film, but he’ll never be a “movie star,” and thank god for that.

Born in November 1970 in Texas to parents who married young, splitting up when he was just four, Hawke was raised by his mom on the East Coast. He would occasionally see his dad. “I loved him so much,” Hawke told The New Yorker. “I wanted him to like me. I was aware that I was performing for him. I hated myself for it.” In that same interview, he talked about his childhood desire to get along with everyone at school. “Football team, church youth group, Black kids, white kids, graphic-novel-reading geeks, theater nerds, punk-rock girls, Deadheads — I was a good bullshit artist,” he said. “I also didn’t judge anybody.”

Hawke did theater in high school, going to Carnegie Mellon for acting. But by that point, he was already in movies, starring in 1985’s Explorers before landing one of the central roles in Dead Poets Society as Todd, a quiet student who Robin Williams’ inspirational teacher brings out of his shell. Hawke got his first agent thanks to Williams — “[The agent] called, saying, ‘Robin Williams says you are going to do really well,’” Hawke later recalled — and the experience of working with Oscar-nominated director Peter Weir, who had just come off Witness and The Mosquito Coast, was a big deal for the young actor. “I just thought all directors were brilliant, you know?” he said in 2019.” I didn’t realize the privileged position I was in.”

Dead Poets Society got nominated for Best Picture and helped elevate Hawke’s profile. He was still just a teenager but soon found himself in adventure films like White Fang and wacky comedies such as Mystery Date. (The latter movie’s poster tells you everything you need to know.) But he also focused on dramas like A Midnight Clear and Alive, although his next major role was in Reality Bites, where he came to embody the Gen-X ethos of Fighting The Man and Never Selling Out. It didn’t matter that his character, Troy, was actually kind of a sullen dick — whereas his romantic rival, the music-television executive Michael (Ben Stiller), while a corporate stooge was at least a decent dude — because the film clearly wanted us to side with Hawke, who was all about Art and Life and should, therefore, be the person Lelaina (Winona Ryder) ends up with. But despite its stacked-deck agenda, Reality Bites spoke to something elemental in that era’s youth culture — a fear of turning into miserable, working-stiff clones of their parents — and so Hawke’s floppy hair and brooding manner felt like rebellion.

Troy’s no-compromise attitude wasn’t a stretch for Hawke, who himself was at the kind of crossroads that his fictional alter-ego would have appreciated. “After Reality Bites came out, I had opportunities to be a different kind of actor,” he told The Guardian in 2000, “and rightly or wrongly, I grew up in a household where there was such anger and resentment towards anyone who had any money, that I never really had any desire to make any money. And I had the idea that a real artist wouldn’t have any money. That’s been problematic.”

For a long time, this ethos seemed to dominate his mindset. You can see it in his film choices over the next half-decade, with him gravitating to smaller, artier movies like Before Sunrise, a beautifully modest love story (with Julie Delpy) about strangers on a train who decide to spend the day together, while occasionally still pursuing studio fare such as Gattaca and Great Expectations. (And then there were the outright bombs —  most notably, The Newton Boys, where he reunited, unsuccessfully, with Before Sunrise director Richard Linklater.) 

But these post-Reality Bites years, which saw him struggling not to be a sellout, caused a portion of the audience to find him utterly insufferable. I still vividly remember him releasing his first novel, The Hottest State, in 1996, and the reaction being largely a collective eye-roll: “Oh, great, the pretentious actor just wrote a pretentious novel.” Or, as Kirkus put it, “A first novel by the young actor featured in [Dead Poets Society] has a lot in common with the world of his film Reality Bites: It’s a young man’s idea of hip romance, with plenty of gestures to satisfy teeny-bopper fans. … This clumsily written novel takes itself very seriously … Skip the movie, if there is one.” (There was one, by the way, which Hawke directed in 2006.)

In other words, he was running the risk of becoming a generational cliché, a worry strengthened by the fact that The Hottest State’s protagonist, a mopey young twentysomething named William bedeviled by his pursuit of Art and Love, sure seemed a lot like the characters Hawke played — and, if you weren’t feeling generous, might be who Hawke actually was. As much as Hawke had brought a soulfulness to Gen-X malaise in his films, as the 1990s raged on and that no-sellout mentality started to become a self-parody, there was backlash to the earnest wandering of a guy like Hawke. Essentially, the culture became like a lot of us were when we saw Reality Bites, wanting this twit to grow up, stop whining and get a job.

In that same 2000 Guardian piece, Hawke declared that he didn’t want to be a movie star. “I never wanted to be Jimmy Stewart,” he said, and I’ve always wondered if he meant that to be an insult to Stewart — a knock, perhaps, on a beloved icon who was never all that edgy. But for Hawke, the reluctance to “go Hollywood” might have been partly driven by fear, instilled in him thanks to his friendship with his Explorers costar River Phoenix, who quickly went on to be hailed as among the most promising of that crop of young stars of the 1980s. But Phoenix died from drugs soon after, in 1993 at the age of 23, and his passing haunted Hawke. “[M]y first screen partner overdosed on Sunset Boulevard, you know? He was the brightest light and this industry chewed him up, and that was a big lesson to me,” Hawke said in 2020. “If I had to put a single reason on why I never moved to L.A., it would be I think it’s too dangerous for an actor like me to be in that kind of climate.”

Regardless, whether it was his choice or Hollywood’s — or a combination of the two — Hawke greeted the 2000s by mostly staying small and avoiding bigtime stardom. He directed his first picture, the indie Chelsea Walls. He did an unconventional modern-day Hamlet, which famously featured his title character reciting the “To be or not to be” speech in the middle of a video-rental store. (The movie’s good, and so is he in it.) He reunited with Linklater, first to make the low-budget adaptation of the play Tape and then doing an unexpected, equally great sequel to Before Sunrise, Before Sunset. (He also had a cameo in Linklater’s trippy animated meditation Waking Life.) 

Around the same time, there were what seemed to be the paycheck jobs, like Taking Lives and Assault on Precinct 13, but he also did what you might call his “comeback” in Training Day, playing Jake, an idealistic cop who’s paired with the corrupt, magnetic Alonzo (Denzel Washington). A Hollywood movie that was elevated by its two central performances — both men got nominated, with Washington winning his second Oscar — Training Day gave us a more grownup Hawke, no longer the moody kid, more of a weary adult. It was a good look for him. Washington was the galvanizing movie star. Hawke superbly complemented his co-star.

This more mature Hawke appeared again in Before Sunset, which earned him his second Oscar nomination, this time for co-writing the screenplay. The Jesse we meet in the second film is a successful novelist — he’s no longer the poseur trying to prove his artistic bona fides in order to get laid — but he’s also been a bit beaten down by life. When Before Sunset came out in 2004, Hawke’s marriage to actress Uma Thurman was coming to an end, and it was hard not to read Jesse’s melancholy over his complicated love life as an extension of the actor’s real troubles. (Hawke would later admit that his marriage collapsed, in part, over his insecurity about Thurman being more successful than him.) What might once have seemed preening about Jesse, and Hawke, had melted away: You don’t want the world to beat up people too badly, but sometimes a little experience is good to shake individuals out of their self-involvement. 

“There’s a lot of myself and my reality in those movies,” he said earlier this year about the Before trilogy. (The finest of the three, Before Midnight, came out in 2013.) “They’re as deeply connected to me as anything could be. I can’t look at Before Sunrise now without remembering, so vividly, that time period. Who I was then is so different from who I am now; it’s difficult for me to watch it and exorcize it from my actual life.” And that has, weirdly enough, been part of the reason why the trilogy has grown stronger with each installment — in a sense, they’re about Jesse becoming a man and letting go of the annoying, pompous kid he once was. Not that any of us in the audience should be too smug about that — we all have a maturation process to go through. 

In interviews, Hawke has sometimes alluded to the fact that certain roles he signs up for are to take care of his family. (He and Thurman have two children, including actress Maya Hawke, who’s been on Stranger Things and in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and he has two more with his second wife, Ryan Shawhughes.) Presumably, the downside of doing so many smaller films, like his 12-years-in-the-works project with old friend Linklater, Boyhood, is that he’s had to pass up on higher-profile (and higher-paying) movies — and also, sometimes, he has to say yes to junk because it will be a quick payday. 

But Hawke has made those indies count. Boyhood, of course, everyone knows and loves, but less-heralded is his terrifically pathetic turn in 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, where he plays one of two crooked brothers, alongside Hawke’s good friend Philip Seymour Hoffman. As the weak-willed Hank, a fuckup hoping that robbing his parents’ jewelry store will get him out of debt, Hawke brought a frazzled desperation that was startling and exciting. 

Directed by Sidney Lumet, who died soon after, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was a smart, nasty little thriller, and in 2020, Hawke looked back in admiration at what Hoffman (who died in 2014 of a drug overdose) had done using his clout to get the movie made. “Why did Phil do that? Because Sidney Lumet was connected to the actor that Phil dreamed of being — Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network,” Hawke said a couple years ago. “People love it when you’re just obsessed with money, because then they know what your motives are. As soon as it’s about something else, they get nervous. But Phil used his power, not for money or success, but to be serious and substantive.” Without question, that’s the sort of person Hawke wants to be in the world, too.

But even his more mainstream efforts have sometimes been rewarding. In the last decade, he’s turned into a very interesting B-movie star, working with the Spierig brothers on Daybreakers and Predestination, sleeping on a couch and taking a small fee for The Purge, and working with Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson on Sinister. (By the way, Hawke agreed to being paid peanuts for The Purge in order to get a share of the profits, a decision that was very, very smart.) But Sinister was especially good, a horror movie about a pretentious true-crime author who stumbles onto a case that proves to be his undoing. Hawke’s performance as Ellison Oswalt was grounded and affecting, but it also slyly seemed to be a meta-commentary on Hawke’s reputation — deserved or not — for being a haughty artiste. Ellison gets what’s coming to him, and Hawke played the role with relish, as if acknowledging what the traps were in being somebody who took himself very seriously.

Of course, this is the problem that people like Hawke always face: If you don’t want to go with the flow — if you want to do things a little differently or challenge yourself in some way — you always risk being labeled pretentious. True, sometimes he can be a little too precious in interviews — too affected in his enthusiasm or lecture-y when he wants to get a point across — but on the whole I’ve come to forgive such indulgences as the byproduct of somebody who gives a damn. He cares about making good work, and he cares about elevating artistry. It’s hard to fault that attitude, especially because he himself often makes such good work. 

I’ve barely talked about Boyhood or Before Midnight, mostly because I assume it’s not necessary. But as examples of how good latter-day Hawke has been, look no further — although at some point I’m excited to catch up with his 2020 Showtime series The Good Lord Bird, which got fantastic reviews. (And as far as his career on the stage is concerned, I’ll leave that to those who know that world better, although I point out he received a Tony nomination for Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia.) 

As he’s reached middle age, Hawke seems to be more and more coming into his own, the self-consciousness of his youth replaced by calm confidence. Portraying the tormented minister of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, he gave a superbly emptied-out performance, believably playing a man who’s lost his faith and also his certainty about the world. His depiction of Nikola Tesla in Tesla, reuniting with his Hamlet director Michael Almereyda, was nervy and inventive, pushing back against biopic conventions. And he’s underrated as the hapless husband in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Truth, graciously ceding the floor to his powerhouse costars, Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. 

But does any of that scream “movie star”? I don’t think so — his has been some other path, one more unpredictable. In a 2020 interview, he mentioned that many of his passion projects don’t pay well, prompting the writer to wonder why he doesn’t just do a superhero movie. “But that’s not my dream,” he replied, a comment that would surprise no one who remembered his remark a few years earlier that Logan was “a great superhero movie,” but that it “still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is.” 

For a while, that quote inspired the same sort of (dumb) anger that visited Martin Scorsese when he wrote his 2019 New York Times op-ed about why he didn’t consider Marvel movies to be cinema. Hawke’s casting in the recent Moon Knight would seem to be an abandonment of principles — Troy would probably sneer with contempt — except for the fact that Hawke has always been honest about needing to play the Hollywood game. And as for the whole Logan debate, Hawke’s follow-up comments remain one of the sanest responses to superhero movies’ stranglehold on the multiplex:

It’s been rewarding to grow up with Ethan Hawke, watching him balance the need to do what feeds his soul with the realities of his profession. The Black Phone, his second movie with Derrickson, looks like the sort meant to put asses in seats — the crowd that loved Boyhood or bought The Hottest State isn’t necessarily going to rush out. But only small-minded dolts like Troy wouldn’t understand that an actor can contain multitudes, seeking out artistically nourishing projects but also wanting to do something bigger on occasion. (And who knows: Sinister was good, so maybe The Black Phone will be, too.) 

Ultimately, what Hawke has done better than anything is demonstrate how to be an artist in a society that makes that increasingly difficult — and is often openly hostile to the idea. But along the way, he also learned how to lighten up — about himself most of all. A “movie star” tends to be a fixed thing, something you can rely on. Meanwhile, Hawke has evolved over his career, holding onto certain principles but being malleable enough to adjust. He has declared he didn’t want to be a movie star, which can be an obnoxious thing to say. It’s a testament to his greatness that he found a graceful way to be somebody more interesting than that.