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Actor and author Ethan Hawke plays a hard-luck cop in Brooklyn’s Finest (opening Friday).
Actor and author Ethan Hawke plays a hard-luck cop in Brooklyn’s Finest (opening Friday).

R.M. Vaughan: Q&A

Even when Ethan Hawke plays a loser, he's still the coolest guy in the room Add to ...

Despite everything he does to avoid his fate, Ethan Hawke is a movie star.

Read any interview with the actor/writer and you'll inevitably find him railing against mass culture and Hollywood's addiction to idiotic blockbusters. The man is determined to be an artist, and he is one. Apart from acting, he's published two novels and co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Before Sunset. And, unlike most Hollywood product, Hawke is fond of stage acting and, even more bizarre (by Hollywood standards) stage directing.

And yet, Ethan Hawke is truly a movie star. Glamour, albeit a scruffy kind, hovers over his public persona, and his choices of roles, although skewed to the indie/art house end of the spectrum, betray his innate "star quality." Even when he's playing a loser, he looks like the coolest guy in the room. No amount of low-budget lighting can defeat the fact that the camera loves the man.

In his latest film, the very gritty cop drama Brooklyn's Finest (opening today), Hawke plays Sal, a cop so desperate to move his growing family out of poverty he begins to blur the lines between policing and crime. Filmed in bilious greens and sulky blues, as if he's underwater (to match Sal's slow drown), Hawke nevertheless looks every bit the damaged heartthrob and soulful hunk women can't help but take home and renovate.

Why fight your own charisma?

You and your co-star Richard Gere were both positioned as "teen idols" in your early acting lives, and you both walked away from that kind of fame.

I don't know Richard that well, but I think that's true. It's interesting … I don't know to what extent he really "walked away" from it. Pretty Woman was certainly a very heart-throbby movie. But I know exactly what you mean. One of the things that makes me so happy about him in this movie is - remember him in Internal Affairs? He was so brilliant in that movie - I love it when he accesses that part of his personality.

Is Gere's career the kind you would like?

Definitely! That's a real victory, to get to be - is he 60 yet? I have no idea - and still making movies, still being engaged. No matter what profession you're in, that's the goal line.

I know that I was incredibly suspect of getting too much success too early, and it's not even about "too early," it's about cultivating the right kind of success. I started acting really young and I watched how damaging it is for young people to be famous for things they're not proud of. That path is littered with casualties.

The characters in Brooklyn's Finest , cops and crooks alike, are trapped in lives they cannot escape. It's a very film noir world view.

Oh, absolutely. I know those early, film noir films had a huge influence on Antoine [Fuqua, the director of Brooklyn's Finest]

It's like the walls are closing in on the characters, on them all. But what's funny is it's all their own choices. I find each one of the characters' stories is like a little Bible story: my character, specifically, learns that you can't do the wrong thing for the right reasons. But it's so tempting.

Sal has three faces: one for his family, one for police work and one for his criminal life. How did you approach this divided character?

For me, it's pretty simple. I kind of just look at it from the inner life point of view. For the most part, us humans, our experiences are not that unique. The specifics of them are incredibly unique, but, feelings of guilt, feelings of inadequacy, well, you gotta tap into those larger things, and then figure out what's really driving a guy like Sal. Sal is a guy whose whole sense of self is rooted in the idea of "male as provider," and when he starts to fail at that, he hates himself. He doesn't understand the world any more.

I get the feeling you're one of those actors who distrusts "actor chat."

Well, yeah. Because, there's something inherently self-serious about it, because the point is, if you do a good job, it should look easy.

You are quite thin in this film, and your character sniffs a lot - are we to infer that Sal is a coke head?

Ha! Ha! No, no! I kinda thought he was like a wolf. I thought, this is a guy who lives on Red Bull and cigarettes. Ha!

You once said that to be an actor today, you had to kill somebody on screen. Meaning, I think, that too many movies are about violence and superheroes. But, your character sure kills a lot of people in this movie.

Yes, certainly! I was just saying that for a long time in my career, I really tried to avoid movies where people killed each other. It just doesn't interest me that much. And, slowly, Ha! … I realized that if I really wanted to stick with that, I wasn't going to have a career.

For me, though, that quote is about how I wish we were more interested in other stories. One of the great joys of getting to make Before Sunrise and Before Sunset was the utter ordinariness of them. I love that. The idea that a life needs a gun in it to be dramatic is what I'm making fun of.

 

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