We’ve watched him grow up before our eyes on the big screen. From his earliest screen moments, there was something about Ethan Hawke that connected with filmgoers, directors and movie critics. It wasn’t always smooth sailing — hello, “Regression” and “Getaway” — but there was so much other film work — from “Dead Poets Society” and “Reality Bites” to “Training Day,” “Boyhood” and the critically acclaimed Richard Linklater trilogy “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” opposite Julie Delpy — that gave Hawke indisputable screen cred.
Hawke’s no stranger to the boards, either. His Broadway credits include “Henry IV” and “MacBeth,” and his Tony Award-nominated turn in “The Coast of Utopia.” He returns to Broadway later this year in Sam Shepard’s “True West.”
The Academy Award-nominated actor will be feted with the 2018 Renaissance Award at this year’s Gene Siskel Film Center gala on June 7 at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago, in recognition of his vast body of work and his accomplishments as a director, screenwriter and producer. His longtime friend and co-star Vincent D’Onofrio will host the event and conduct an onstage conversation with Hawke as part of the evening’s festivities.
Hawke, whose most recent film work includes “Born to Be Blue,” “First Reformed” and the upcoming biopic “Blaze” (which he co-wrote and directs), recently spoke to the Sun-Times about his career and life.
Q. You were barely out of high school when “Dead Poets Society” came along. People forget just how young you were, and how new to filmmaking. How did the film affect you and the trajectory of your life?
A. It’s been 29 years. It’s amazing how much it did change my life. People were telling me at the time that it would, but I didn’t really clock it. I was still interested in that day or what the next day was gonna be. I now see how deeply the philosophy of that movie impacted life. The obvious way: It opened doors for me in this profession that changed the movement of my life. I dropped out of college and became a professional movie actor. The whole philosophy of the movie is one that unbeknownst to me inserted itself into my DNA. I had this powerful experience with Robin Williams and Peter Weir and all these other young actors — Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles — and it formed a kind of ethos of how I look at the job of making movies.
Q. What did you learn about yourself from the experience that you took with you?
A. I turned 18 while we were shooting the film. The value for young people, whenever they have an important experience, is knowing that you can contribute. It’s a real confidence booster to have the opportunity to show up on time and contribute. That’s an experience people can’t take away from you. I had a job [prior to ‘DPS’] in ‘The Explorers’ that hadn’t done well. It created a feeling inside me that I had failed as a young person. I had a chance and I blew it. What ‘Dead Poets Society’ presented me with was an opportunity to work with some extremely talented people and hold my own. That’s a valuable confidence builder as you go about the rest of your life.
Q. Let’s talk about THE trilogy (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight”). That was a unique and rare filmmaking opportunity, to revisit the characters over the span of nearly two decades.
A. [There really was] something about making the films, the collaboration with Linklater and Julie, the opportunity to revisit a character over time and use time as clay. Both in “Boyhood” and the “Before” trilogy the main character is time. How powerful time is. Those movies are appendages to me.
Q. What has to speak to you about a film before you sign on to a project?
A. My whole life I’ve been following my gut. I feel like a cat sometimes, just trying to take adventures. “Great Expectations” really was about Alfonso Cuaron, who turned into a great filmmaker but who hadn’t made an American movie yet. When I met him, you kind of feel an energy off a person that they have something to say, something to offer. I felt that way when I first met Linklater and when I met Alfonso. I’ve worked with Peter Weir and Sidney Lumet and now with [“First Reformed” director] Paul Schrader, you know you’re working with first ballot Hall of Famers. But when you meet people your own generation it’s more tricky because you have to smell each other out. I tried to find things that spoke to me personally. If writing is exciting to me I have a hope that it will be exciting to you. My job is to transfer that passion.
Q. If you take a project, do you care if it doesn’t go over well with audiences? Is it a case of, “I don’t care because it felt right to me”?
A. I have never been one of those people who have expended lot of energy trying to understand the Zeitgeist. The Zeitgeist moves in mysterious ways. I love “Gattaca” and I knew the writing was just brilliant, and I knew the people I was working with were gifted on the highest level, and nobody cared about that movie when it came out. But over time, people have found it. A few years back I made “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” and nobody cared about that movie when it came out. Now people are having 10-year anniversary screenings and I’m fascinated by that. The wonderful thing about movies is that time can be your ally. So I don’t sweat the Zeitgeist too much.
Q. Talk about Vincent D’Onofrio, who has often referred to you as “his brother.”
A. It’s an unbelievable honor to have him host this event. He’s really been the greatest acting teacher that I’ve known. The way that he thinks about acting elevates the form. He’s elevated the way I think about what’s possible. He makes it an exciting profession to be a part of. We all need friends to inspire us to be our best self. It always feels like the world is tugging at our sweater to be our worst self. You need people around you to challenge you.
Q. You were amazing as jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in the biopic “Born to Be Blue.” How did you find the character of Baker?
A. For about a year a I carried a trumpet around with me, practicing in various dressing rooms. [Chet] was such a unique personality. I’ve spent my life around people in the arts — lunatics and weirdos, you know, and wannabe desperados. The bohemian lifestyle is one that surrounds the arts. I was fascinated by Chet, someone who works so hard to come across as cool. I thought that must be someone whose incredibly insecure, and I just tried to explore that relationship between talent and insecurity and passion and confusion. It was wonderful character. It’s kind of related to “Blaze,” because when I was working on [“Blue”] it nagged me how all the music biopics are always about famous musicians — as if being famous made your story worthwhile. Most of the musicians I’ve ever met were greeted with absolute indifference their entire career. When I started thinking about “Blaze” and how interesting it would be to do a biopic where you didn’t have a scene where they “make it big.” Really just explore the life of an artist that isn’t championed by society. … What happened in working on the trumpet is that I realized Chet Baker’s most likable quality, his truest self was present in his playing. If I could communicate that, that could be beautiful. There’s a spiritual connection between “Born to Be Blue” and “Blaze.” It would be a great double-feature.
Q. You mention that Chet Baker found his truest self in his playing. Where do you find your truest self? Is it when you’re acting?
A. I don’t know. I’ve never been asked that question. The thing that [the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman] once said to me was something along the lines of, “You can lie to your mother, you can lie to your boss and you can lie to your wife and you can lie to your kids. But you can’t lie in front of the camera; you have to show the truth.” That’s our job as performers. Nobody wants to pay $15 a ticket to watch you lie to them. They want to see inside — your truest self. On some level I would love to believe that my family gets my best self. I hope that’s true. There’s a time and a place for everything. Sometimes your kids just need you to make dinner and get them to school on time. [Laughs] They don’t need you to tell them your inner truth.
Q. You’re going to return to Broadway at year’s end in Sam Shepard’s “True West.” He was a friend of yours. What’s it like to work on a Shepard play?
A. I met Sam Shepard in Chicago doing “Buried Child” at Steppenwolf [in 1995]. Our first day of rehearsal [LAUGHS] I was calling Linklater from Chicago as I had just finished “Before Sunrise,” and I had my first rehearsal with Sam Shepard. And I remember Linklater on the phone saying, “Man, you’re pissing in the tall grass with the big dogs!” [Laughs] That was a really defining experience for me. Gary Sinise is still one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. Man, just being able to [connect with] that whole company. And later I directed Laurie Metcalf in “A Lie of the Mind” [in 2009 on Broadway]. That whole influence of Chicago theater has been something I want to transfuse into my blood.
Q. Away from all the show business, how has fatherhood changed you? (Hawke has four children, ages 6 to 19.)
A. I think at it’s best it starts a process that hopefully develops over time. It starts a new level of compassion. We all struggle with being self-centered and just seeing the world from our own point of view. Having children, you start to see [life] from their point of view. I would say it’s changing me. It hasn’t changed me. It’s not a done, fixed thing. Having a daughter who’s 19, acting. Having a 16-year-old son who’s gonna be a grown man. I’m a different parent to my younger children than I was to my older children. It’s still a process.