A certain demographic fondly remembers Ethan Hawke as one of the stars of Reality Bites, a Gen-X-drama and primer for the young and pretentious. "There's no point to any of this," said Hawke's coffee-house guitarist and slacker philosopher Troy Dyer. "It's just a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes." Hawke, 45, now has written Rules for a Knight, a self-help guide for children, presented in the form of life advice from a 15th-century cavalier. The Globe and Mail spoke to the American actor about turning cheeks, forgiveness and his regret at failing a friend and fellow actor.
You've written a book about a code of morality that is secularly based, at a time when religious motivations are coming under heavy scrutiny. Is Rules for a Knight an ethical guide for children, coming out just in time?
My son was telling me this morning that the policeman who busted the guy with the bomb walking into the stadium in Paris was Muslim. Why I mention it is the fact that young people are so clocking what faith everybody is. In New York, you have such mistrust of mosques. And I did a movie earlier this year, Good Kill, about drone strikes. So it's been on my mind a lot.
What is your own religious background, and what were your motivations to write the book?
I was raised in a home that was clearly Christian, but I had chosen not to do that with my kids. I still wanted to talk about ethics, and I challenged myself to write a piece for my children that really touched on why to aspire to an ethical life, without mentioning God. Since 9/11, as a New Yorker these last 14 years, there has been a lot of religious antipathy.
Antipathy on one side, hypocrisy on the other, right?
Well, we're seeing how radical an idea like 'turn the other cheek' is. I find it really fascinating. The United States thinks of itself as Christian, and we watched President Bush pray while we bombed Iraq, when one of the fundamental ideas behind Christianity is loving your enemy. But it's so difficult for people to comprehend when a loved one is murdered. It's really hard for us to open our hearts.
A lot of what's going on now, with the reluctance to accept Syrian refugees, it's fear, isn't it?
It is. You know, something I'm trying to make clear when I talk about this book is that these are lessons that I'm trying to learn too.
You write, in the character of a knight, about a lack of purpose that had once weighed heavily on you. When it comes to your own career, you've recently talked about similar frustrations. How are you doing now?
I'm surprised at how ongoing it is. You have to renew your passion, or it gets dull. I've been acting since I was 13. Doing a book wakes me up, because it's out of my comfort zone. Born to Be Blue, the Chet Baker film I just did, was interesting because it was such a challenging part. You know, I'm interested in someone like Daniel Day-Lewis. How does he act once every three years?
Have you asked him?
No. I admire him. I think my general sense is that it costs him too much. There are parts that can do that to you. When I was younger that would happen to me a lot. With acting, you really blur the lines between the accoutrements of your own personality while you wear somebody else's. It can get really confusing.
With the parables in your book, you get into what could be called character tests. Has there been a test in your own life that you think about? And did you pass it?
Yeah. I put it in the book, and I failed it. There's a chapter on co-operation and working well with others and friendship. The grandfather takes another squire, and our hero is extremely jealous of this other squire. And for me, I'm writing about River [Phoenix], and how much I cared and was inspired by River, and how jealous of him I was. It wasn't until he passed that I realized how much better he made me. We have this illusion of competition, and that there is one pie from which people are taking pieces. So, I felt River was taking my talent. But the truth was, I was no more talented after he died. Actually I was less so. Because he inspired me, and challenged me. He was such a serious young man.
That doesn't seem like a failure, though. It's more like you were a young man and you learned something.
I feel that if I had been a better friend to River, I could have helped him. … If I had met [director] Richard Linklater, or if I had met Jonathan Marc Sherman, a playwright who has been a great influence on me. These are thrilling people to be around, and who take good care of themselves. You can have role models like Amy Winehouse, who was supertalented, but who were lighting themselves on fire. Or you can look to people who are really accomplishing something. And by accomplishing something, I mean being there for friends, and being there for family.
Where are you, when it comes to that?
It's an amazing journey. You're never done. We're all trying our best to walk that weird combination of asking the most of ourselves and also forgiving ourselves. Because we all come up short of the person we aspire to be.
This interview has been condensed and edited.