Ethan Hawke, Time Traveler

The Boyhood star and Golden Globe nominee on revising his obituary.
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The Boyhood star and Golden Globe nominee on revising his obituary.
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Ethan Hawke, Hollywood’s least decorated actor’s actor, earned his first Golden Globe nomination last week for his role in Boyhood, the suburban epic he and director Richard Linklater shot over the course of twelve years. Hawke, who has long alternated between playing guys with guns and guys with feelings, might be the only legitimate movie star who would even consider following that prestige picture up with a sci-fi flick about time-traveling; And there he is playing a government agent named “The Bartender” in Predestination, out January 9. It’s not Boyhood, but it’s more complex and intelligent than you’d expect – in no small part because Hawke carries it. The guy gets up and goes to work.

We caught up with Hawke at a recent press day for the film to discuss why he’s so interested in a story about the passage of time. The actor, who is as intense and thoughtful in person as he appears onscreen, talked about the inevitability of life, his fascination with aging, and what it means to deal with awards season.

It’s pretty hard to find similarities between Predestination and Boyhood, but let’s try. Both are about – on some level – the fact that time passes and there is nothing we can do about it. Did you, as a guy who has been in the public eye for a long time, think about that a lot?

I’m always thinking about time. I made Before Sunset and Before Midnight while I was making Boyhood and those two movies are also about time. So time has been very relevant and it’s something I often think about. Even when I was little I remember thinking about what would be on my obituary. I remember thinking, ‘God, whatever college I choose will be in my obituary.’ Like, ‘He went to such-and-such university.’ It’s the first decision you make that’s going to show up in your obituary and that’s the way my brain has always functioned. Every time I do one of those red carpets people assume it must be glamorous, but I’m always thinking, ‘Will this be my last known photo? If I die later tonight, this will be the photo.’

That’s pretty dark.

It doesn’t feel dark. It creates this feeling in me like ‘I’m really glad to be here.’ I feel like it’s a privilege. But it makes you think about time all the time. I found a brother of sorts in Richard Linklater; he thinks that way too. We’ve made all these movies about it together.

When you first saw Boyhood all cut together as a film, what was your reaction?

I thought, ‘Holy shit, a friend of mine just made a masterpiece.’ I’ve been friends with [Richard] since 1993. I had started a theater company and he came to see a play we were putting on because one of the guys from Dazed and Confused was in the play. He came to it and we all went out and talked and flirted with girls all night long and had a good time.

I didn’t know I was meeting a lifelong friend that night, but it felt like that. I’ve known this guy a long time, more than 20 years. We’ve been talking and working on this movie and, watching it, I felt a penny drop where this friend of mine made something I’d never seen before. It’s really beautiful. I felt a sense of pride for him. That was my overwhelming sensation, like ‘Oh, it worked!’

How did you feel about watching yourself age onscreen?

I don’t care about stuff like that.

You don’t?

Well, I care about it in the same way I do when I see a photoshoot from 1995 and think ‘Shit, I don’t look like that anymore.’ I can tell in girls’ eyes. I don’t need a photo to tell me. But there’s something else happening and I prefer what’s happening now. I don’t need to wake up with another girl saying ‘This is just like Before Sunrise.’ I like my life. My relationship with my wife is something I never thought was possible. I heard corny people say things and I didn’t think it was really possible. But it is really possible to have a lover who is great friend. It’s a really amazing thing to happen.

Do you and Richard Linklater have anymore secret movies in the works?

We’ve got nine million secret movies, but whether any of them are any going to happen or not is up in the air. I just did a movie that reimagines the life of Chet Baker and 15 years ago I was making a Chet Baker movie with Richard Linklater. We couldn’t get the money for it. We worked hard trying to make that movie happen, but we just couldn’t get anybody interested. But life is mysterious. If that had happened I wouldn’t have gotten to do this version. Richard and I have plans for lots of movies, but one of the things that’s wonderful about him is that he’s on a mission to make good movies. I don’t know how the dominos will fall.

How are you feeling about the awards attention Boyhood is getting?

It’s hard in the world we live in not to pay attention to it. It’s everywhere. I’ll be on the subway and someone will be like ‘You got my vote!’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, I wish you were a voter.’ In truth, in this moment in my life, it’s about helping EllarColtrane and Lorelei Linklater understand all that. To see that we’ve won by even being in the dialogue. The arts are not a competition – everybody knows that – but having these ceremonies helps the arts. If you didn’t have these awards, producers wouldn’t make anything but zombie movies. These people who vote on these things like movies so if they say they like your movie, it is a compliment. But it doesn’t mean you have to hang yourself if you don’t win. The first time I ever went through this dance was when Dead Poets Society got nominated for Best Picture and I was 19. And now here I am.

It’s interesting because you are very much a working actor and you make unpredictable choices. What drew you from lo-fi to sci-fi for Predestination?

I felt like somebody shot off the roof of my head when I read the script. I’ve been doing this since I was a boy and it’s really rare that anyone does anything original. It’s so hard to find. Most movies these days are all trying to be successful, they’re trying this or they’re trying to be that. And this movie just doesn’t seem to give a shit and I love that. It’s an old-fashioned science fiction movie. It’s got a time travel action sequence but at the core of it there’s something incendiary and political and it has something to say.

It does feel like a throwback in some way.

You know what it reminded me of? When I was little I used to always watch the old Twilight Zone episodes with my dad. They were always these brilliantly acted, brilliantly shot episodes. They looked like movies. They were beautiful to look at and they always had cool actors in them. They would just bend your head. The second they would end you’d be thinking about something. They could manage to be philosophical in a way that most things are pretentious about. I felt like this was a feature-length Twilight Zone episode. It makes it sound small when I say that, but I mean it as the highest compliment. I don’t think there’s been anything better than those Twilight Zone shows.

In the film, there’s a discussion of how certain things in life are inevitable. Have you found that to be true?

I find it very weird that when you’re living life you have no idea whether you’re going to go left or right in the moment, and then when you look back at it seems like you were always going to go the way you went. I remember being can’t-sleep-at-night, out-of-my-head worrying about what to do when I dropped out of college, what my parents were going to say.

I look back at it now and it seems like I was always going to do what I was going to do. I don’t know why I had to torture myself about it. I think back about certain relationships in my life and feel like ‘Oh, if I’d said that’ or ‘If I’d done that,’ but in truth it was always going to go down the way it went down. It feels that way in hindsight, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe there’s another reality where I did stay in college.

What job do you have in that reality?

God, I don’t know. I have no idea.

Photos by Associated Press