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January 2005
Assault on Precinct 13: An Interview with Ethan Hawke

Assault on Precinct 13: An Interview with Ethan Hawke

by Wilson Morales

Ethan Hawke's been working pretty hard lately. After being nominated for an Oscar for his supporting work in "Training Day", the workload has piled up. Not only did he appear as a diabolical menace in Taking Lives with Angelina Jolie, he also starred in the widely acclaimed sequel to Before Sunset, "Before Sunrise". In just a few weeks, he will starring on stage in Hurlyburly along with Parker Posey and Catherine Keener, and later this year, he will team again with his Gattaca director Andrew Niccol in Lord of War. In the meantime, Hawke is once again playing a cop trying to save the life of criminal, played by Laurence Fishburne, in the remake of John Carpenter's film, "Assault on Precinct 13". At a press conference at the Regency Hotel in NYC to promote, Ethan went over the film and his career thus far. Is it a pre-requisite that if a movie has snow, you're going to be in it?

Yeah, I think so. And my fear on that is that when people like the directors read the script and they see snow, they somehow conjure some image of me and they don't want to cast me. I did Dead Poet's Society which had a bunch of snow scenes, White Fang, Midnight Clear, Alive, Snow Falling on Cedars. I've had a bunch of snow pictures. That's my own particular niche. I don't think anybody else can claim that one.

You didn't get the offer for Sahara?

EH: No, not interested.

During the Taking Lives junket, you said that you might keep doing mainstream police thrillers for a while. Is this still in that vein?

EH: I don't know. When we did that interview, I think I was thinking about doing this movie, right? I didn't know I was going to be doing it, but I was pretty sure that would be how it worked. After Training Day, I was looking for another - I liked that experience of doing that movie, and I was looking for another script that, y'know, might feel like a '70s action movie, depending on [feedback]

Are you entering the action hero phase in your career? Is Hurly Burly, where I presume you're playing the coked-up Hollywood screenwriter, a way of getting contrast to the guy who picks up the gun and kills people?

EH: No, I think everything - I don't think about it like that. I'm doing this because it's an opportunity that's never been presented to me before, and I want to do it. I've always been interested in theatre, so I'm not doing it in contrast or anything. To my mind, it's pretty much - y'know, they're all in keeping with my own sensibilities. How it comes off, I don't know.

Did you see the John Carpenter movie first? Did you go back to look at Rio Bravo? Can you see the line between the two films?

EH: I do. I've seen the John Carpenter movie when I was like 19 years old, and I haven't seen it since. I don't even remember it that well. I remember that I liked it. And for some reason, I didn't feel inclined to watch it again. I don't why, but I didn't feel that I wanted to. I did watch Rio Bravo again and I do - y'know, this movie is aspiring to be some kind of modern Western in some way. I like those old kinds of movies. In a way, my only problem and why I haven't done many action movies before is they tend not to have very many interesting characters anymore. When I was growing up, they did. You had Bullitt, who is a fascinating guy. Whatsisname from the French Connection -

Popeye Doyle.

EH: Popeye Doyle. Even Dirty Harry is an interesting guy. They're all these complicated guys, and I was really, it was fun to be in a cop movie that had all these great characters. And because of these great characters that were drawn, we got a really good cast, and that makes it fun to do. Of course, it's totally different to a Before Sunset experience or doing a play like Hurly Burly. But for me it keeps things different.

Elaborate on the cast. It's a great cast.

EH: John Leguizamo - it's Fishburne, obviously. John Leguizamo, and Maria Bello and Drea DeMatteo and Gabriel Byrne and Brian Dennehy. It's a great group of actors and I think that - the director was French and his English was - well, it was better than my French but not much. He kind of did a very smart thing. He really wanted to hire a bunch of New York theatre actors to be in the movie, because he knew he wanted people who could bring a lot to it, and - I don't know, we were all flattered by that and enjoyed working with each other. I've known Leguizamo and Brian Dennehy and Fishburne for a long time. It was a very enjoyable movie to me.

Did John Carpenter stop by the set and did you meet him?

EH: I didn't. He never came by the set. They met before the movie and they showed him a couple of early cuts or at least one early cut, I know. He was incredibly supportive to Jean-Francois and I think he was psyched that it was getting remade. But there's a lot of - that movie, the original movie, is a peculiar film, because a lot of people don't have any idea that it even exists, and then the people that love it are fanatical about it, and feel that it's some kind of sacrilege to even make this movie. So it's just kind of a peculiar thing.

In this new version, do you detect any French view of American society?

EH: I think that would be overstepping it. The screenwriter's American and - I don't think that way. I think you'd be reading into it. I think that the movie is - all it really is is a giant anti-authority movie, which it was in the '70s and it is now, which is what I think is fun about it. I don't give that to the French. They don't have ownership of the anti-authority - although they enjoy that position, for sure.

Can you compare working with Denzel vs. working with Fishburne? And how lucky are you to have such beautiful leading actresses to work opposite?

EH: Well, I wonder how Laurence and Denzel would feel about those two, of all of the people that I've worked with, to be compared to each other, because they're just both black actors, but they're both tremendous and both completely different, completely different men. I don't know. I've always wanted to work with Fishburne and I think he's a tremendous actor. Y'know, that's the great thing about, if you get to be lucky enough to be successful as an actor in movies, is you get to work with a lot of sexy actresses. But I don't know - I think the best - there's so many - I'm so impressed - Leguizamo and Maria Bello to my mind are both - do such a remarkable job with - in the script, their parts were - they did the most with the least, y'know, is what I mean. And Drea, too. I dunno. It's been a great luxury of my life, to get to meet so many interesting women.

You've taken some hits for being a Renaissance man. Does that fuel your creativity or do you just sort of ignore that stuff?

EH: You know, I'm 34 years old, I hope to do a lot of interesting things with my life. It doesn't mean anything to me one way or the other. What people view is - I mean, all of the real Renaissance people are the people whoa re into the sciences and also are an athlete and also are in the arts and, y'know, it's people like Benjamin Franklin and Da Vinci. These are truly great men. I operate in a small area of the arts and I enjoy it, doing a lot of different things.

Did you set out to do that?

EH: No. Part of it had to do with getting - y'know, I think anybody who has a notoriety or a certain celebrity at the age of 18, you're gonna watch that human being try different things. I mean, I couldn't just do the same thing for my whole life. I couldn't. And very few people who have any notoriety at 18 do. If you get famous when you're 40, you get famous when you're 35, when you figured out who you are as a human being, really who you are, what you believe in, y'know, that - then you don't - then other people don't have to watch your maturation process. I've had to mature as a human being while people are watching.

With that in mind, what are you writing at the moment?

EH: I've trying to write a third book.

What's it about?

EH: I don't know yet. I really don't. It's like two books I'm trying to write. One of them's going to win. I mean, I don't know yet. I really don't. I know the theme I'm writing about, but I don't have anything to say about it yet. It will probably be years before I'm done with it.

Can you talk a little about Hurly Burly? Why theatre now? Why this particular play? And are you at all nervous?

EH: I'm always nervous, and why theatre? Because always theatre - theatre's been my first love. Theatre's the - I find it very difficult to stay a disciplined, focused actor and not do theatre. I try to do one play a year. Sometimes that turns into 18 months or - but - when I was younger I ran a theatre company. It's a great place to push your own learning process without a lot of financial risk. Y'know, I mean - meaning that I don't get - y'know, when you do a movie, they don't ask you - you do a movie, they ask you to do the same thing you've done before. There's a lot of money at risk, there's a lot of producers involved and they want to know that you can do it well. In the theatre, you're given an opportunity to risk as a performer, so that's why theatre. Why Hurly Burly? I felt like doing something really hard, to be honest. I felt like really applyin g myself. And in a way, this part, I don't know how well any of you remember the play, but it's a giant. It's pushed the walls of my memorization skills, it's pushed - it's like - I'm really enjoying that aspect of it. And it's very dark and it's sometimes interesting to play characters that aren't likable because it's a - it removes one tool that you can use. It's fun. I don't know. It's an incredible challenge. And that's why to do it.

There are about a dozen Mexican stand-offs in this movie. How would you do in a real one?

EH: [Laughs] Terrible, I'm sure! How many real Mexican stand-offs do you think there've been in the world? I don't know.

Probably there are a lot of them in Mexico.

EH: Usually somebody pulls the trigger and the other people run, that's what seems to happen.

What are your favorite DVDs in your collection?

EH: I don't know. They change. I got the Cassavettes one for Christmas. That seems pretty good. But there are a bunch of those that aren't - I'm surprised - I wonder if they'll do another - they don't have Husbands and they don't have Minnie and Moskovitz. But anyway, I don't know. I'm not a huge DVD collector. I like to go to the revival houses, as few as there are.

You mentioned something about becoming famous. Very few people, I think, make this transition. Why do you think you've managed to be able to do that, to go through these different phases and grow up and still be a commodity and a name? Was there ever a thought of quitting the whole thing and just do something else?

EH: Oh yeah. For sure. Part of why I've always tried to do other things was generated out of a fear that I would not have this opportunity any longer, the privilege of being to do this kind of environment, acting in mainstream movies. I don't know why I've been able to - part of it is good fortune, part of it is maybe not - I've never tried to excel too quickly, I think, and sometimes that trips people up. I've maintained my love of it and that's something I have to work hard at doing. That's why I'll do the play. I think a lot of young actors get into trouble because they're in a hurry and then they end up burning themselves out and then - maybe because I've saved my money well. I mean, y'know, something as little as that. A lot of young actors end up having to do a lot of jobs they don't like because they owe somebody a lot of money or something. It's as simple as that, often. B ut I'm sure grateful for that.

Can you tell us about your involvement with U.S. Aid and your mom? And in that same vein, comment on the tsunami situation.

EH: Oh Jesus, I can't - well, my mother, for those of you who don't know, which I'm sure you don't, is, uh - she was in the Peace Corps for about four years and she left the Peace Corp - and she was stationed in Romania - and she left the Peace Corps and she started a shelter for gypsy women in Bacau, Romania and a daycare center for children. She's been doing a lot of fantastic work with the impoverished people in Eastern Europe, namely Romania and she just got this huge grant from U.S. Aid, which is a real kind of triumph for her, and they're having this, uh - it's going to allow her to keep running this home and everything. So it's kind of thrilling to watch somebody you love put five years of their life into something and it's starting - well, now she's going to be able to put 20 more years into it, I guess. In regards to this tsunami thing, I don't know. It makes everyb ody ask very large questions. But I do know one thing is that, people who really want to help all the tsunami relief things - as well they should - but there's a lot of places all over the world that need a lot of hope. I know like Doctors without Borders and places are really - so people want to give money to the tsunami, but there are a lot of places in the world that are in need.

Do you think that the trend for Hollywood remakes could have an adverse effect on film history, that people might not go back and see the original Alfie, because they maybe didn't like the remake that much?

EH: I wonder. Well, let's think of - it's never had an adverse effect on fiction, y'know, like a bad film of Slaughterhouse Five doesn't negatively affect the legacy of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, right? A good adaptation often enhances a book's reputation - I'm thinking that way. So now, in regards to remakes of other film, I don't know. Cinema's always been self-referential. Y'know? It's always - I don't know. It's strange. Another obvious example is all the Shakespeare movies. There can be another one - it doesn't really matter. I don't - a good work is still a good work. I don't think that Alfie will affect the Alfie, but maybe it will. Cinema's such a young art form, we don't know - that's one of the things that's kind of fun about it. It's only a hundred years old! Imagine if fiction was only a hundr ed years old - what they thought about fiction a hundred years in, or painting, or something. Who knows where we'll go with it. The other thing is 200 years from now, they might really like the Jude Law Alfie and really can't stand the other one. Like It's a Wonderful Life wasn't a hit, right? Now it's a hit!

Are you proud about Before Sunrise's success in the year-end Best Of lists? And how would you classify the screenplay, because a lot of people don't seem to know how to place it.

EH: It's definitely an original screenplay. I mean, I don't know - the only reason why there would be any confusion is the fact that it's a sequel, so it's characters based on another screenplay. But the irony of that is Julie and I created those characters, too. So to my mind, it's an original screenplay. There was nothing and we wrote it, and it could have been anything happens, but nine years later - I don't think there's any debate about that. But yeah, it's nice that people remember the movie and that people liked the movie. I don't - with that particular movie, the word "vindicated" is way too strong. I was so happy to have gotten to made it. I saw the whole thing as such a victory from - I wanted to make that movie for nine years, so I felt so happy to have made it. There was no disappointment about it not - I never expected it to perform at the box office. It's a m ovie about two people. It doesn't - that's not why you make that movie. So then to be on the critic's list - it's very rewarding, mostly because I think it's very good for the legacy of the film. It gives it a good chance to, people who watch it on DVD, people who find it - it's very helpful that journalists keeping it in the kind of collective conscious.

Can you talk about the IFC nomination?

EH: We got nominated for best screenplay, right? So that's fun. I like to get awards for not acting.

Have the changes in your life brought about changes to your craft?

EH: Yeah. Don't they in everybody's? You learn things in life and you apply them to everything. That's kind of what I mean - in a way, I think what you [indicates guy from the Boston Herald] asked earlier, I was like - I think that it was probably true, that when I was 25 or something, I wouldn't have been interested in making this movie. It was too important to me to try and figure out who I was. I couldn't - I didn't want to be in anything that was kind of perceived as being simply a commercial venture. And my taste has kind of expanded as I've grown up. Also, if I was 22, the part would have been really stupid. I mean, I love - what's like a '70s action movie to me, what this has to do with, is that your protagonist does not behave like the hero all the time. He has problems. That makes it infinitely more interesting to play, infinitely.

And changes in your personal life do the same?

EH: Yeah. Well, if you're in the arts - as corny as it sounds - your life is the stuff of which you work with. That's why it's important - y'know, like if you're talking to a young group of actors, it's important to read a lot. It's important to learn a lot. It's important to live a lot. But my children affect me. I feel like - friends of mine and stuff say that like after Training Day there was some kind of change in my work, and I chalk a lot of that up to simply [sounds like] developments like, my daughter and turning 30. All those things affect you.

Do the media affect your personal life?

EH: They sure did last year. That was one of the hardest periods of my life, but I'm glad to be through it.

Can you talk about working with Parker Posey in Hurly Burly?

EH: Well, Parker, I don't know - she's one of the most gifted comediennes and it's fun to work with somebody so pretty and smart and funny. Parker, I don't - I've been a fan of hers for a long time. But - Suburbia and Waiting for Guffman, she's had a lot of great performances and in the last year she was in Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, which is one of the best performances on stage that I've seen in a while. And she's just one of those people that can hit a jag where every breath out of her body is perfect. She's so funny and alive and awake. I'm really enjoying working with her.

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