Ethan Hawke's Deal With the 'Devil'

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

If only we could bend time and existence to ask Troy Dyer what he thinks of Ethan Hawke.

Dyer was the ultimate disillusioned slacker from 1994's "Reality Bites."

Hawke is a middle-aged actor who rarely stops working.

Dyer said life is "a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes."

Hawke, who played Dyer 13 years ago, can't stop talking about how happy he is, how fortunate he has been. He'd love to go on and on, he says -- and you believe him -- but his kids are at the dentist's office waiting for him to pick them up. You know, family first.

Wow, Ethan Hawke, Mr. Contentment.

But that sure is him in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," looking haggard and scruffy and beaten by the world every which way.

The dark new movie from legendary director Sidney Lumet has Hawke playing the doltish younger brother of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has devised what he sees as a victimless crime: knocking off their parents' suburban jewelry store. (See review on Page 40.)

"I was like, 'Oh, wow. This would be hard,' " Hawke says, recalling the first time he read the script. "He's just a horrible guy and he's so sad, and he hates himself and he never does the right thing. But I had to admit that it was kind of the challenge I was looking for."

Which was actually the reaction Hawke, 37 next week, was hoping to have when presented with the project. Hoffman was just coming off his 2005 Oscar win when he agreed to do the film with Lumet, a mutual hero of his and Hawke's.

"I was really nervous to read it because I really wanted to like it," Hawke says on the phone from New York. "You know, 'cause I've had this problem in my life before. I'll get offered something by people I respect and want to work with, but I can't pretend I like it."

Hawke appeared in his first film at age 14 and has done 36 movies since. Shakespeare. Science fiction. Romance. Lots and lots of indies. Numerous well-received stage performances. Two novels. Two screenplays. Three directing credits. One well-documented failed marriage to Uma Thurman.

Troy Dyer would want a decade-long nap.

But like Dyer, Hawke is still suspect of the trappings of modern life, particularly the almighty pursuit of money and fame, which he deems the "worst thing that ever happened to acting."

At the moment Hawke is directing a play with lots of young actors, eager for their star to rise. "I think one of the things that's hard for young people now is that the world feels so impatient -- that if you don't grab this moment, it won't happen."

Of course, it did happen for him, early and often. His point, though, is that it has been about the acting as much as about the glory.

"I've tried to use whatever modicum of success I've had to create more creative freedom for myself," he says. "Especially once you've made enough money to pay your bills, buy your children health care. You're not supposed to muddy up the world with more crap."

To which he quickly adds the requisite qualifier: "I'm not perfect either. I've made bad decisions, I've made bad films."

But he has never grown tired of making them. ("I remember when I was 15, wondering, when you had sex a bunch of times, if it would start to feel old. It doesn't. Same with acting.")

Thus the productivity. And the profuse satisfaction.

"I love it," he says again. "I love my kids, I love my job, I love working . . ."

Turns out reality's not all that bad.

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