Ethan Hawke: Boyhood “scared the s**t” out of Hollywood

The Good Kill actor on the movie industry's desire to fetishise violence and plans to re-team with Richard Linklater

I wish I’d had hours and hours to talk with Ethan Hawke. Instead I had a mere ten minutes; such is the nature of film junkets where endless reporters are ushered in and out of manicured hotel rooms. Often it’s a determined tussle to extract anything but yawn-worthy sound bites from the actor or actress sat across from you (who has already been subjected to countless stop-watched interviews, one after the other), but in the case of Hawke there’s not a dull word.


Our brief conversation follows a resurgent 12 months for the 44-year-old actor, thanks to indie movie Boyhood – his seventh collaboration with writer-director Richard Linklater – shot over a 12-year period and the critical darling of 2014.

The film won him an Oscar-nomination and Hawke’s co-star Patricia Arquette a best supporting actress statuette. They may have lost out to Birdman in the coveted best picture category, but Hawke is more than content with “crashing that party”.

“Anybody who really knew anything about the industry knows we weren’t the frontrunner because no film that wasn’t released by a studio has ever won that prize in about 56 years. Hollywood celebrates its own so in a lot of ways we won by being there. We scared the shit out of them. And the history of movies that lost that prize is far better than the list that won.”

It’s a list populated by the likes of Inception, Saving Private Ryan, Lost in Translation and Good Will Hunting – the latter starring the late Robin Williams, Hawke’s co-star in his 1989 break-out film Dead Poet’s Society and a man he credits as his mentor.

Did he make any attempts to replicate that relationship with his younger co-stars Ellar Coltrane (above) and Lorelei Linklater on the set of Boyhood, I wonder? “Anytime that an older person tries to impart a lot of wisdom to a younger person, they turn into a giant blow-hard idiot. That advice is only interesting when asked for and advice in general is misguided. I find I’ve been most influenced not by the words people have said to me but by their actions, by the way people live their life and I think if Patricia and I have been any help to Lorelei and Ellar, it wasn’t anything we said.”

In fact, he says, the relationship worked in reverse. “In a lot of ways I did try to help Ellar but all that ended up happening is he taught me – being close to his idealism and purity of spirit, because sometimes you learn tricks as you get older and tricks have a certain dishonesty to them. There’s something about Lorelei and Ellar that was extremely honest and I love being near them.”

Following an expansive coming-of-age narrative, Hawke’s next film, a claustrophobic tale of modern warfare, couldn’t be further removed. Good Kill sees him play US Air Force pilot Tom Egan who used to do battle in the skies but now earns his pay check from a shipping container in the Las Vegas desert where he remotely deploys drone strikes on Taliban cells – and unfortunate nearby civilians – in the Middle East.

Much like this year’s box office monster American Sniper, Good Kill follows Egan’s domestic life with his wife (January Jones) and children as he battles post-traumatic stress disorder within the confines of his suburban home. Does the success of Clint Eastwood’s film reflect a growing appetite for the portrayal of the after-effects of war as opposed to front line heroics?

“There’s a lot of nationalistic killing in [American Sniper]. That movie falls in a long line of the history of war films. It’s a real desire in movie making to fetishise violence and the audience finds it really pleasing. One of the reasons why I’m proud of Good Kill is, unlike a lot of war movies, it doesn’t fetishise violence. It speaks really honestly about what the battlefield is looking like today.”

Did he find playing a character grappling with such a deadly day job took its toll once the cameras stop rolling? “That aspect of what I do remains a mystery because it seems to me pretty clearly that the more you internalise something, the better it is. And the more you internalise it… your body doesn’t know you’re acting. You teach your body to see the negative in everything. You teach your body how to be unhappy and it’s really difficult.

“I remember doing Chekhov’s Ivanov – his first play where the character commits suicide at the end – and it’s very difficult to play that part and have a decent life at the same time.

“Oftentimes people who are feeling things really dramatically excel in the arts because the arts deal in an emotional currency and when your emotions are readily available, it does make it easier. But it doesn’t mean you are skilled at navigating them.”

It’s a sentiment Hawke is sadly all-too familiar with. Williams’ tragic suicide last August came just six months after the premature death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, aged just 46. Hawke shared a close relationship with both (having worked with the latter on Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). He’s since called Hoffman “my favourite actor of my generation” but it’s an intimacy that’s no doubt left him aware of the struggles faced by himself and his peers.

“Amy Winehouse can sing ‘I don’t want to go back to rehab’ and everyone thinks it’s dynamite but it’s obvious there’s some piece of her in that song – a very real piece of her. What makes a great performance in anything is when there’s a piece of you in it – when something personal’s at stake.”

As for his career, Hawke couldn’t be busier with a string of films cued up for release, including In a Valley of Violence (with former Doctor Who actress Karen Gillan) and Regression co-starring Emma Watson. It’s hard to see how he’ll find time, but Boyhood fans will be pleased to hear there are also plans to re-team with Linklater. “We’ve got a handful of good ideas. Whether or not they come true or not is up to the cinema gods.” Who, after the last twelve months, are no doubt eagerly listening… 

Good Kill is out in UK cinemas now