Ethan Hawke is glad he didn’t achieve “instant celebrity.” The actor says he feels for actors like Julia Roberts and Matthew McConaughey, whose rapid ascent to stardom came with its share of difficulty. “It must be so hard,” Hawke tells Yahoo Movies as we revisit his breakout role in 1989’s Dead Poets Society. “I was just one of the Dead Poets.”
Perhaps it’s avoiding the pressures that come with overnight fame that has allowed Hawke to sustain an almost-30-year career that began with 1985’s Explorers and continues through this summer’s Boyhood. Directed by Richard Linklater, the critically acclaimed film was shot over 12 years to capture the aging of its main characters — Hawke, plus costars Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Lorelei Linklater.
Our latest edition of Role Recall (watch in two parts, above and below) will take you through three decades of the life and work of Ethan Hawke.
Hawke was only 14 when he landed a role (his first) in this sci-fi adventure that initially suffered from comparisons to E.T. but went on to achieve cult status. The actor’s memories of it mostly revolve around his late co-star River Phoenix — “already a professional movie actor” — and the ill-fated time they stole a motorcycle.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Hawke has no regrets about dropping out of Carnegie Mellon University during his freshman year to pursue this beloved prep-school drama, only his second movie. “I had no idea how grateful I should be at the time. That job was a little miracle for me,” he says. The film was a box office hit and earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
Portraying a group of freezing, starving plane-crash survivors forced to turn to cannibalism to survive was just as miserable as you might think. “I didn’t enjoy one second of it,” Hawke says of the shoot. He also reveals what it was they were actually feasting on.
Reality Bites (1994)
Winona Ryder was at a peak in her career when she fought to cast Hawke in this Generation X-defining drama directed by a then-unknown Ben Stiller. “Nobody wanted me for that part. I was teetering on being washed-up. I was the kid from Dead Poets Society who hadn’t really done anything.”
Hawke met his future wife Uma Thurman on the set of this stylish sci-fi noir. “The funny thing about Gattaca to me now is that it’s a movie about genetic engineering, and we genetically engineered two children, Uma and I,” Hawke says. “I feel like it was the ultimate blind date.” The couple separated in 2003 and divorced in 2005.
Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013)
“Whenever I think about any of the Before movies I think about feeling like 10,000 Nazis are chasing me because I have so many lines to learn,” Hawke says about this acclaimed trilogy directed by Linklater and co-starring Julie Delpy. Some of the takes shot for the movies ran well over 10 minutes long, almost unheard of in modern filmmaking.
Training Day (2001)
Hawke says he was originally told Nick Nolte was set to play the role of the corrupt detective that would win Denzel Washington his first Academy Award – and even does a wicked Nolte impression. “I knew [Denzel] was going to win the Oscar,” Hawke says. “I knew it on about day three.” (Hawke also snagged a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.)
Hawke remembers when Linklater first told him the idea for this innovative coming-of-age story in 2001, and all the ‘what ifs’ that would follow over their 12-year journey. “We got so lucky. The cinema gods smiled on this project… There was a lot that just happened right.”