Academy Award-Nominated Ethan Hawke Eyes NYC
by Tony Phillips
Sure, we all know how the Academy felt about Ethan Hawke’s turn as a cop in Antoine Fuqua’s 2001 film Training Day — they nominated him for best supporting actor — but what about the NYPD? Well, according to Hawke’s protégé Mark Webber, New York City’s Finest also gave the star a pass. When Webber, Hawke and their co-star Catalina Sandino Moreno were driving home from a Brooklyn rehearsal on their latest collaboration, the big screen adaptation of Hawke’s novel The Hottest State, they were pulled over just as they cleared the Williamsburg Bridge. To hear Webber tell it, the merry band of actors made an easy mark.
“We were listening to the new Feist song,” Webber explains, “We were just coming off the bridge. It was pretty funny because this cop just stopped us for whatever reason.” Whatever reason? One can almost hear the infraction being called in as “Williamsburg trendies approaching Manhattan: emo-rock blaring above legal dB level.” And if they were behind the wheel of the muscle car Hawke drives in the film, they’d be that much more conspicuous. “It was after a long day and Ethan didn’t put his seatbelt on,” Webber finally admits. “We got stopped. It was one of those moments where the cop obviously recognized him, but still asked for his license.” So, did they get away with it? “It was totally fine,” is all Webber will allow.
Ethan Hawke has, let’s face it, always been the smiling face of nihilism, at least since Reality Bites, but probably Dead Poets Society and quite possibly all the way back to his motion picture debut alongside River Phoenix in Joe Dante’s 1985 sci-fi film Explorers. But he will only laugh at the suggestion that his scoffing at New York’s seatbelt law belies a subscription to that old live fast, die young, stay pretty axiom. Before sitting down with him, there’s the tendency to assume that with two kids — nine-year-old Maya Ray and five-year-old Levon Roan — the 36-year-old is getting a little long in the tooth to remain the poster child for slacker chic. But then he sweeps into the room in a bright green tee emblazoned with a yellow globe that absolutely, 100-percent screams thrift store find. A cheap, but fabulous tan suit and long, still-wet hair complete the ensemble. I’m willing to give him at least five more years as the reigning king of grunge.
“I just heard the President of Ireland on National Public Radio being interviewed,” Hawke begins, apropos of nothing. “I’m just so embarrassed of our country. She’s a woman, first of all. And we’re all acting like this country might be ready for a female president. All over the world there are other places where females are leaders and it’s so embarrassing. She sounded like such a good, smart person and so obvious. It was like, wow, politicians don’t have to be horrible, egregious assholes." He pauses and smiles, then plunges on in his gravely voice. “They’re having a wonderful moment in their history, the Irish. They’re very wealthy and they’re really increasing their middle class and they’re doing a whole number on poverty in their county. They basically have a surplus, like people don’t pay much tax at all. And the arts are treated really well. If you’re a songwriter in Ireland — and to qualify for that all you have to do is be really serious and try to do it — you work tax-free because you’re considered working for the Irish state. And to listen to her speak about the environment, it’s just amazing.”
With that, Hawke looks up and the suite at the W Union Square swims into focus. “This movie does not take place in Ireland,” he adds, by way of apology, “but it does have strong women.” And the decade-long breather he took between penning the novel and throwing it up on the big screen? “It’s been ten years since I wrote this book,” Hawke admits, “so a lot of times it felt like I was adapting somebody else’s novel.” This is not a sentiment that will be shared by the casual viewer. In fact, the danger in our TMZ-driven celebrity crazed culture lies in just the opposite: the assumption that movie is all Hawke, a chronicle of the devastating break-up of his six-year marriage to actress Uma Thurman, but it’s important to keep the dates straight. Hawke published the novel well before his marriage so if anything, his chronicle of obsessive, crazy love is more premonition than reportage. There’s a deep, almost yogic explanation of breath. “I’m not the first guy to cry in my beer,” Hawke explains. “A guy gets his heart broken, but it’s a very old story. Boy finds girl. Boy loses girl. Boy finds self.”
Boy also finds Mark Webber, or rather reacquaints himself as Webber also starred in Hawke’s directorial debut Chelsea Walls. “It was great to be part of showing a male who’s had his heart broken and to put a vulnerable guy up there and show somebody who’s a real human being,” Webber explains, “But I wasn’t playing a young Ethan Hawke. We weren’t making his life story. He told me very early on, make this your own. We’re just two human beings in this love story, but on a subconscious level I developed certain mannerisms and soaked Ethan up a little.” Webber was not the only one in osmosis. Hawke details the differences between his Chelsea Walls and Hottest State. “I had a little bit more money this time,” Hawke admits, “So that was kind of nice. But I pinched my use of color from Alfonso Cuaron. I also pinched a lot from Richard Linklater. There’s a kind of moodiness to some scenes that I know I pinched from Peter Weir. I’ve been a student to all these people. I don’t know; you hope that you grow. The way I grew I think was by having a better time. I had fun making this movie. The first time out you’re so goddamn nervous about every little thing.”
One thing he did not need to sweat was the score. For that he tapped his pal, musician Jesse Green. “Ethan called me up and just said I want to talk to you about something,” Green remembers, “I had no idea what he wanted. I’ve known Ethan for a long time, but we’d never worked together on anything before. And actually, although we knew each other, Ethan never called me up before. We just met at gigs. So I was curious.” Once they met, opportunities presented themselves: everything from scoring the film to writing the songs Moreno sings in the film. There was even the opportunity for a bit part. “We were just talking about how to score the film and he said you can do any number of these things,” Green recalls, “And I said I’ll do everything if you let me.” What they got was a soundtrack crammed with new music from the aforementioned Feist, Bright Eyes, Norah Jones, Cat Power, even Willie Nelson. “Ethan was weary of all these films where all the music is licensed from pre-existing material. It’s like a mixed tape. He wanted something original so if anyone heard a song, they would remember this film and not some other personal experience.”
And it’s almost as if this film has become a personal experience for Hawke, these characters are people he knows. Well. “I worked on this book so long,“ he laughs. “I knew what the characters would be like if they went to buy a hamburger.” Still, one would think the long gestation would allow for the best possible film, but Hawke’s not even sure about that. “There were things I wanted to change that I still couldn’t figure out,” he explains. “This should work better, why doesn’t that? But mostly, the great thing about adapting a book into a movie is you have this wealth of material to create a two-hour piece. And I also had other versions of the book. So if I was really in need of a scene or a different moment or a line, I could go back and pinch something. There was something very cathartic about this for me when I first wrote it. There’s a certain kind of person that doesn’t like this kind of movie at all, but if you’ve been through an experience like this, if you have some tendency to be obsessive, then it strikes a cord.”
Certainly, that would include anyone who’s ever drunken dialed as the series of phone messages Webber leaves after he’s dumped by Moreno are some of the film's hardest moments to sit through. If you’ve gone there, you can’t watch these scenes without squirming a little. “There’s already a ton of material about women giving themselves over to love and getting hurt,” Hawke explains, “but it happens to men too. There’s very little that’s said about that. I remember when I was a young man I really wanted to read a book like this. There’s that great Mark Twain quote: 'the point of art is to alleviate shame.' I think that’s why people cringe watching William leave his messages. People cringe because they’ve done it. So those are the kind of movies I like: the ones that make you feel like you’re not alone in the world, but we impale ourselves on people sometimes.”