Q&A: Ethan Hawke on The Purge, Before Midnight, His Relationship With Richard Linklater, and Picking the Right Genre Movies

From his breakout role in Dead Poets Society to Reality Bites and Before Sunrise (followed thereafter by Gattaca, Training Day, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), Ethan Hawke set the parameters of the indie heartthrob as a preppy slacker, a wayward poet who could still wield a gun, albeit with a tremor in his trigger finger. Now, you’d never confuse him with Marlon Brando’s brooding mid-century mammoth or Harrison Ford’s put-upon ’80s hero, but Hawke’s been as definitive a leading man for his generation as the former were for theirs — at least judging by the number of Sylvia Plath–quoting girls I knew with a poster of him on their walls.

And although you could call him a reluctant movie star, Hawke’s outlasted other ’90s princelings precisely because he’s veered from the main path of male celebrity: writing novels, getting nominated for a Tony, and reimagining his iconic role of Jesse from Before Sunrise as a fortysomething dreamer with responsibilities in Before Midnight. Oh yeah, he also has gritty thriller The Purge coming out today, which continues a long cinematic tradition of social critique with B-movie bona fides. Seeing as I’d already talked about Before Midnight with Richard Linklater, it seemed logical to chat with his male muse on the unique alchemy behind the Before trilogy, his not-so-secret inner eco-terrorist, and charming the Internet (i.e., Reddit).

We interviewed Linklater for Before Midnight and he talked about the special process that you, he, and Julie Delpy have for these films. But I’m curious what it’s like from your perspective, bringing Jesse and Celine to life.

It’s funny — rarely in my life have I ever been asked so much about process. And I understand why. It’s the most bizarre and unique experience that I’ve ever had on all three of these films. Co-writing a screenplay with your co-star three times in a row over 18 years is something you would never plan to do. How we do it is still kind of a mystery even to me. Pretty much what happens is over a period of a few years we slowly start to crystallize what we want the film to be about. If we did a third film, we knew we needed to try to explore more deeply the dynamics of their daily relationship. Once we agreed on that, it just became a question of how and when and where. Before I knew it, Rick had an idea about Greece, then we went and spent 10 to 12 weeks locked in a hotel room in Greece coming up with this movie.

I’m sure going to Greece is one of the harder writing experiences you’ve had.

The funny thing is, it’s so beautiful there [that] it’s a strange place to be trapped inside an air-conditioned hotel room, watching Bergman films with Rick and Julie — but it was great.

Which Bergman films?

One of the models that we had for the movie was Scenes From a Marriage.

Right. Well, I understand why people ask the question. What I love is how you guys have turned the ultimate romantic fantasy into a natural, realistic relationship comedy. What, do you keep a notebook in your back pocket and, as nine years go by, you just amass a bunch of quotes from fights and life, etc.?

You know, we kind of do. It’s almost a parallel life. Sometimes something will happen to me and I’ll think, You know, this is very Before Sunrise–y, this moment. It would be right for Jesse. Or I’ll think of something that reminds me of Celine. And I know Rick and Julie do the same thing. By the time we can all agree on an outline, we all kind of have a wealth of material. It’s like an album. If a band makes an album too quickly after another album, usually the quality of the songwriting drops. What’s great is we have a few years to meditate on this, and it helps, it really does. We have time to have total bad ideas and just leave them by the wayside.

Well, you pick the right ones. Some of those lines feel like things I’ve said, or thought of saying, or thought better of saying.

The funny thing is I think a lot of Linklater’s films do that. He has a unique capability for taking very average moments, ideas that lots of people have had, and just doing them right. I remember even when I saw Slacker, I’d kind of had that idea for a movie. I think lots of people had. It would be cool if the camera just went from one character to another. You follow this person, then follow that person. But he pulled it off. Or Dazed and Confused: “I want to make a movie about my last night of high school; what a great night that was!” But it’s impossible to actually do. Before Sunrise: “I want to make a movie about connecting with a woman!” It sounds easy, but it’s incredibly fragile. He’s good at taking these normal, fragile human moments and making whole movies out of them.

It takes a weird discipline to be honest and open about yourself but not be solipsistic, and write something that people can relate to. It’s hard to do.

It is hard to do. I just completely agree with that. I think that’s where the collaboration really helps. Julie helps keep me from doing too much navel-gazing, and I help her. We both protect each other, and Rick, too, from our worst ideas, our most narcissistic ideas, you know?

Who comes up with Jesse’s crazy novel ideas, you or Linklater?

That’s Rick and I both spitballing. It started in Before Sunrise, where he had this idea of a video show, then in Sunset he talks about a novel. They all usually have to do with time. All the riffs are something about time, which is a really important part of these movies. In a lot of ways, the main character is time. People say the third character is Vienna or Paris or Greece, but really in all of them there’s some interesting relationship to time. I think whenever you talk about romantic love, that’s one of the big questions. How long does love last, where does it go, where does it come from?

It’s funny, you’re right. Jesse’s little time machine riff in Before Midnight really encapsulates the whole series.

Yeah, it’s a good riff.

And I’m not lying here, I’ve already used it during a fight and it totally works.

Good! That’s what it’s for. It’s there to be used.

I could talk Before Midnight forever, but we should talk about The Purge. It’s remarkable to me how you veer from these intimate little indie movies to hard-core genre fare so easily.

Well, it’s my parallel career. If all you do is make art house movies, you don’t get to work for very long. So I have a parallel career trying to do genre movies that I feel good about. I grew up loving genre movies. I met James DeMonaco on a remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. We have a shared love of these low-budget, punk-rock action movies. And that’s my feeling: A good genre film needs to be fast, a roller-coaster ride, and operate with some kind of allegory. The best ones all are allegories. That’s what The Purge is. It’s a wild thrill ride, but it’s also an allegory for class warfare. Take the trailer: “In a world where rich people don’t care about poor people … ” Can you imagine such a thing!

Ha, yeah. When I saw the trailer for The Purge, I thought, We had that growing up, we just called it the L.A. Riots.

Right! Well, you get the movie. There’s a character that Edwin Hodge, a great African American actor, plays who’s getting chased through a gated commuted by a bunch of guys who look like they could be in The Social Network. It’s impossible not to think of Trayvon Martin. What’s fun about sci-fi is it lets you kind of talk about ideas and politics without having an agenda with the audience — like telling them who to vote for. You can just bring up the ideas and let them have a great time at the movies, but have something to walk away and talk about. That’s the dream of The Purge.

Hmm, maybe communist intellectuals would have gotten a lot further in America if they’d just had better sci-fi films.

Ha, I think so!

Seriously, what would you, the real Ethan Hawke, do if there was an actual Purge in the real world?

If I was in a situation where I could get away with anything terrible that I wanted to get away with? Well, I have a secret fantasy of being an environmental terrorist — like when I see these oil spills and all these dead fish and the chopping down of forests. I’d love to slip just a little dynamite in somewhere. That would be where my inner demon lurks.

So you’d find the guys responsible for murdering baby seals and slip a little something nasty in their cocktail, maybe?

Or the guys out there still killing whales.

Right, those guys! Haven’t they seen Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home? We’re apparently screwed if we don’t save the humpback whales.

I know, I saw that movie. It’s not lost on me.

Speaking of anarcho-communists: Didn’t you play Mikhail Bakunin in Tom Stoppard’s epic Coast of Utopia trilogy? How was that — exhausting?

You know, it wasn’t, it was thrilling. If I had to pick a highlight of my acting career, it’s that. We did these seven or nine times marathons at Lincoln Center. The play would start at 11 a.m. and finish around 11 p.m. They’d have a couple of dinner breaks, but we’d do this full nine-hour play. It was thrilling to be a part of it. But I was definitely tired afterwards.

Russian intellectuals don’t really know how to be brief.

Yes, that they do not know. Drinking, oysters, long-winded talks, they do.

I’ve often found that long-winded and drinking go together.

In every culture.

But their drinking had an impact. Vodka can change the world.

And it has, many times over.

I also have to ask you about working with Sydney Lumet.

No matter what goes down in my life, one of the highlights will be having starred in his last film. I’m just so proud of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It’s a young man’s movie and he made it at 83. It’s dark and merciless and well observed. I was being directed by a guy who’d directed Marlon Brando in a black-and-white film written by Tennessee Williams! He was so humble and gracious and no-bullshit and hardworking. He works real fast. I remember [Philip Seymour Hoffman] saying, “I feel like there’s another film crew with the same script on the other side of town and we’re racing to beat them.” That’s how hard that 83-year-old worked.

That just makes me feel lazy. Did he share the secret of great filmmaking with you?

If you haven’t read it, he has a fantastic book called Making Movies. It’s very simple and the great thing was that he was absolutely without pretense. There’s no magic, there’s no mystery, it’s called work, and that’s what he was so interested in. I remember him telling the people releasing the movie — they were saying we want to do an Oscar campaign but we don’t have the money. Sydney said, “Well, if we want to win the Oscar, we should just tell everybody, I have cancer, and then we’ll win.”

I’ll remember that if you ever announce cancer during awards season.

You’ll know that’s my old Sydney Lumet trick.

By the way, I saw you hopped on Reddit for a long, fruitful exchange the other day.

All that stuff is so new to me. I’m shocked at how many people participated. I felt like I was Major Tom; I didn’t think anybody would pay attention at all. I didn’t quite understand what those things are and how many people read them. I did that and then went to my son’s play and my 15-year-old daughter said, “Good job on Reddit.”

She would know: Congrats, you killed it on the Internet.

You know what, it’s much more comfortable for me. I struggle sometimes on those talk shows where you’re supposed to look cute and say witty comments and tell personal stories, but you have to tell them fast and succinctly. The Reddit thing I actually enjoyed more than any interview I’ve done in a while.

You can actually think about what you’re saying so you’re not misquoted.

Exactly.

But just FYI, the headline for this will be “Ethan Hawke, Eco-Terrorist.”

OK, good. Yeah, “Ethan Hawke Wages War on Oil.” Next thing you know, I’ll mysteriously die in a car accident.

I admit I would feel bad at that point.

Yeah, please don’t do that.

I also have to ask you about Richard Linklater’s 12-Year Project. [In which Hawke plays the father of a young boy in 12 short films each filmed a year apart.] How is that going?

It’s just amazing. I know he’s scared to talk about it because we want to talk about it when it’s done and you can see the film. But it’s really remarkable. He’s made a short film once a year for the last 11 years. He’s got one more to do. And the main actor in that time period has gone from age 6 to 18. It’s a movie about growing up, and the lead actor actually grows up onscreen — it follows him through all the major events of how a human being develops.

You two must have a unique relationship.

It is. It’s been so bizarre to do a scene with a guy when he’s 6 and 10 and 12 and 16. And now I’m going to go this summer and do my final episode where he’s graduating and we have a big father-son chat.

That’s a cool little bit of info.

Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.

We can leave it at that. Likewise, when you were making Before Midnight, it must be crazy to go back and look at yourself in the previous Before movies.

It is weird. There’s no words for it. A hundred years ago, one couldn’t imagine even doing such a thing — getting to visit your 23-year-old self? It’s also strange because it’s not just me acting; it’s also things I wrote about and cared about. One of the things that’s most remarkable is how much we’re all still the same, how much Rick and Julie and I are interested in making the same kind of movie.

The song — or rather the long, digressive riff — remains the same.

Absolutely.

Well, if I could go back and tell 18-year-ago version of me I’d be interviewing you with Before Midnight out, I’m sure he’d go back and tell that to all the girls who’ve just seen Before Sunrise to try and impress them.

Hopefully, it would’ve worked out well for you.

Filed Under: Before Midnight, Ethan Hawke, The Purge