Patti LuPone: ‘I wish the United States would just crash and burn and get it over with so we could start over’ | Culture
“I turned around to my press agent and I went, ‘well, you’re going to be handling some stuff tomorrow.’” That’s a common ending to the stories that legendary theater actress Patti LuPone, 74, is sharing this Friday. For example, when she recalls that time in early 2017 when she was asked on a red carpet if she would sing for the newly elected President Trump. She said no without batting an eye; asked why, she added with a smile, “Because I hate that motherfucker.” The publicist did what he could, sure, but that video went viral. The prima donna encapsulated the fury of the American left. “Yeah, that did go [viral.] I was proud…that I was the first person to call him a motherfucker, because then [Robert] De Niro called him a motherfucker and somebody else [Samuel L. Jackson] called him a motherfucker. And I was the first,” she says. “I really do hate the motherfucker… Not just because he was president. He’s been an asshole in New York City for as long as he’s been a celebrity. Everybody in New York hates him. Nobody likes him in New York.”
That episode set Patti Ann LuPone’s current renaissance in motion. Not so long ago, the acting legend thought that she’d begin her retirement after 50 years on stage; now, she is more popular than ever. That’s partly because of her many viral videos that followed Trump’s comments, in which she displayed the same tough charisma. Through the videos, a new generation found the Long Island-born LuPone to be an addictive – and cantankerous – source of gossip, criticism and rants about American culture. But her current popularity also stems from the fact that recently the theatrical establishment seems to have granted her the prestige that it had denied her for years (even the demanding composer Stephen Sondheim eventually allowed her to sing his scores after years of refusing to do so; LuPone won two of her three Tony Awards for those performances, Gypsy in 2008 and Company in 2022). Her impressive resume—made up of so many successes that have sometimes undermined her credibility—seems to have coalesced into an unquestionable whole: David Mamet’s pet actress since 1976, she made the leap to musical theater with the most recognizable voice in the United States and played the starring role in the über-hit Evita (1979); portrayed Fantine in Les Misérables (1984) and she appeared briefly as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1933). By the 1990s, she had a high enough profile to fight with the industry’s leading composers, and that she did. Even today, LuPone differentiates being the most famous actress in musical theater from a regular one. “I started out as a straight actor,” she declares. “A classical actor. But I have this voice.”
But there’s more to her renaissance than that. At her age, LuPone stopped doing musicals for good (she had to reconstruct the cartilage in a shoulder and both hips) and began to prioritize film and television. She’s recently appeared in the shows Hollywood (Netflix) and American Horror Story (FX), and she graces the silver screen in Hereditary director Ari Aster’s recently released film Beau Is Afraid. International fame, she says, suits her well. ” I have never understood why I don’t work over here. I’ve always felt that my career should have been in Europe because [I feel] so much more European than I am American. [her great-aunt was Madrid-born Italian soprano Adelina Patti; her parents have Italian roots]. When I was 16 years old in the apple orchard of our house on Long Island, and I didn’t have a career…I said in my head, my career is in Europe, and I was 16.”
Q. One gets the feeling that your career is on another level right now.
A. No, look at me, I’m down. Look…I got a sweatshirt on. I’m in Atlanta shooting some spin off of something. I don’t know. You know what? I’m grateful for that.
Q. How are you celebrating a 50-year career with such grace? When women get older, they don’t always become more prestigious.
A. Well, I’ve been trying to figure that out, too. I do think because it was 50 years on the stage, and I think instead of going west to Hollywood, where women become obsolete after a certain age, I think by staying on the stage, I elongated my career. And when I was doing Evita, because my applause used to dip after [co-star] Mandy [Patinkin]’s because they were so ambiguous about how they felt about Evita, I did a cabaret act at midnight so people could see who I was. And what that did was it established an alternative financial viability, which was concerts. So, when I’m not on stage or when I’m not in film or in television, I can go out on the road and sing. But I have been fortunate enough to continue to work because I think I spent so much time on the stage.
Q. In a way, not doing the Evita movie was good for you [LuPone’s opinion of Evita, the 1996 film adaptation, is famous: ” I thought it was a piece of shit. “Madonna is a movie killer. She’s dead behind the eyes. She cannot act her way out of a paper bag. She should not be in film or onstage. She’s a wonderful performer for what she does, but she is not an actress.”]
A. [Half smile] Maybe. But just the fact that I’ve continued to work… I just continued to work in various different things.
Q. Your career is full of successes but also disappointments. In 1993, you were going to play the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Suddenly, he fired you very publicly and replaced you with Glenn Close. You sued him and got a million dollars out of him. With that money you built a swimming pool at your house in Connecticut, which he calls the Andrew Lloyd Weber Memorial Pool. Is that right?
A. [Loud laughter] It’s fun to be a little spiteful.
Q. Forgive me for asking, but is Weber spelled with one B? The composer hates it when his name is spelled that way.
A. In my head it’s not spelled any other way.
Q. Andrew Lloyd Webber was the commercial giant who did Evita, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. But at that time the excellent genius Stephen also found it too much for his scores.
A. I auditioned to replace Bernadette [Peters] when Bernadette left [Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s acclaimed 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about Georges Seurat], and I didn’t get the part, I remember Steve [Sondheim] came down the aisle and said, I don’t want any belting…I hadn’t even opened my mouth.
Q. How was it that you finally started working with Sondheim?
A. I’d never done a Sondheim role, and the only reason I did a Sondheim role was because of this man by the name of Wells Kaufman, who was the artistic something or other with the Philharmonic in New York and then became the CEO of Ravinia [a Chicago music festival]. And…he wanted to do [several] Sondheim roles. And he knew who I was. I remember when I got the offer for the film [Sweeney Todd], I said, “Does Steve know?” And they said yes. And he said yes to me… That was my first Sondheim role, Nellie Lovett, which I never expected [it] to be. I didn’t think it would be Nellie Lovett, but that was the first one.
Q. Another Sondheim role to remember was when you played Fosca in Passion at Lincoln Center in 2005, at least because of Sondheim’s comment about your characteristic vocalization. He said only heard “monotonous mush” coming out of your mouth.
A. He was a taskmaster. And when he gave notes, he did not spare your feelings. There were many times when I was devastated by what he said to me and thought he hated me. He could be very mean personally, besides professionally.
Q. Let’s return to the present. You’ve spent the last few years starring in one of Sondheim’s most emblematic works, Company, which is directed by Marianne Elliott and one of the last projects in which the composer participated. Before he died, the composer sent you a message: “Every now and then I’m brought up short by realizing what a wonderful singer you are. That’s apart from the acting and performing and the attention to detail. In any event, I just felt I had to put it in print. Thank you for enhanceing [sic] my shows — and everyone else’s for that matter, Love, Steve.”
A. I think that was for Company [in] London [in 2018]. That was an email he sent, and I just had it printed up and put on my dressing room mirror. Because…he was a taskmaster … So, to get something like that was the biggest reward of my career, to have approval from the master…I’m getting emotional thinking about it. I really thought he hated me.
Q. Have you stopped doing musicals for good?
A. The reason I want to stop doing musicals is because my body’s broken from it. I mean, seriously broken. Two new hips and a shoulder. The hips, I must be arthritic. The shoulder was from Sweeney Todd, [from] holding a tuba [in it]. But it was also bone on bone. I was bone on bone in both hips. Bone on bone in the shoulder. I had a bone spur from bad shoes. The repetition. I chose a week of movement, and my body was broken. And I said, that’s it, no more. I mean, I did War Paint [in 2017, about the rivalry between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein]. I found out I was bone on bone on my right hip right after we opened. And I went through that whole thing. I mean, there was so much pain involved.
Q. Was Company an exception?
A. I had put out in the universe that I wanted to work with Marianne Elliot after seeing Warhorse and after seeing Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and after I said, no more musicals, she called and I said, no. But then I remembered what I had put out in the universe, and I said, if I don’t work with her, she’ll never ask me again. So, I said, I will do Company. And I’m very glad that I did. So basically, I [will] not come back to musicals. I left on a high.
Q. Your hatred of the Republican Party is well known. Are you glad Trump was arrested?
A. If something sticks, yeah. Because we’re really a mess over here. We are a broken country. I don’t know if it’s going to survive. I do not know. He unleashed something. He opened up Pandora’s box. So, obviously it was always there, and he just lifted the lid. But he’s also a career criminal, and he’s got to be held accountable. He has to be. And it may not be this New York indictment. It may be the Georgia indictment, it may be the papers, the classified papers. It might be the [January 6, 2021] Insurrection. But he has got to be held accountable. Everybody does. If it was me, I’d be in jail. I can’t be here anymore. I mean, I really feel like I’m preparing to leave the country and come to Europe. I’ve got PTSD in this country from the Trump administration.
Q. Do you want to leave?
A. I fear for this country. No, I don’t fear it anymore. I don’t want to be here. I just don’t want to be here because I think it’s over. I think we are crashing. I’ve said this forever. I said I wish we would just crash and burn and get it over with so we could start over. It’s such a slow descent. Yeah, it is a slow descent.
Q. In the great histories of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise takes up three volumes while the fall takes about 17.
A. That’s what it feels like… We’re going backwards. They’re banning drag shows.
Q. That hits close to home to your community, the theater community. Why do you think they’re doing that?
A. I think it’s a distraction. I think they want to go back. They want to be a Christian country. I mean…what’s the difference between our Christian right and the Taliban? I really don’t think there’s [any difference] between our Christian right and the Taliban. And I think they want to go back to a period when the white man ruled, and the woman stayed home and there was no abortion, and we didn’t speak [about] gay[s]. And unfortunately for them, the world will keep turning, and you’re not going to get rid of homosexuality. You’re not going to get rid of drag shows. It’s not going to stop. They’re hurting trans kids. They’re hurting the trans community. Oh, don’t get me started. It’s bad. It’s bad. And it’s hard to be here. It’s really hard to be here.
Q. How did you end up making Beau Is Afraid?
A. Well, I’m not sure, except I do know that, unbeknownst to me, we had a connection. Ari [Aster] is friends with David Mamet’s daughter Clara. And I’ve been doing Mamet plays since 1976… And David wrote a play that was on Broadway called The Anarchist [in which LuPone starred in 2012 opposite Debra Winger]. And Ari came to see it. It only lasted two weeks, but Ari saw it. And he said to me that he spoke for the next week to anybody [who’d listen] about how I handled the language. I have no idea. You have to ask Ari if he’s ever seen me on stage in a musical. But he knew that I was a straight actor and knew I could handle language. So, in [our] Zoom [meeting], I asked him. I found this out in the Zoom [meeting]. And I was thrilled that Ari came to me through that vein. And I actually wrote to David when I got the part, I wrote to David [and] I said, “thank you for the role.”
Q. You’re not the only theater actor in the cast; there are also legends like Richard Kind and Nathan Lane. Has the idea of theatricality changed your acting?
A. I’m Latin, it’s very easy for us to have emotions come out of our body. I’m pure Italian, and I understood that volatile energy. I understood her disappointment and anger at him. And I knew that I was responsible for that heightened emotional delivery. Acting is simple. If you let it be simple, it’s simply do[ing] what you’re supposed to do. And I had the capability, the emotional capability to do that, to understand what he wrote and delivered.
Q. Is it difficult to make the switch to films after working so long in the theater?
A. [When] I was starting out, you couldn’t cross over. The people that were in the film world thought stage actors were too big for the camera. And I have to say that stage actors have more technique than film actors because of the discipline of the stage … So, it’s really easy … well, for me… [it’s really easy] to go from stage to film…For a film actor to go to the stage, it’s a different discipline. It’s a harder discipline to go from film because in film, it’s a totally different thing. But if you have the discipline of the stage, you can go to film easier. You just have to figure out what they mean when they say, “camera left, camera right. Hit your mark.”
Q. Have you ever been asked to tone down your expressions?
A. I have a big, expressive face. So, you just have to figure out how to… harness the emotion so that it’s not too big for the camera. But Ari never said anything to me about that. He never said, you’re too big. Nobody’s ever said that to me. You’re too big. Actually, they have. They’ve [said], “Tone it down.” I just have a big personality.
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Diego Luna’s great triumph: ‘I pushed the limits, but I always found my way back’ | Culture
It is not exactly clear where Diego Luna (Mexico, 43 years old) lives these days. According to the biography his agency sent, he lives in Spain. But he denies it. “No, I don’t live in Madrid, I’m in London. Now I’d like to live in Madrid, huh?” he says. “Right now, my life is mostly in London and a very little bit in Mexico.” But what about his partner and three children? Where is his family? “That’s more complex. Let’s just say it’s someone else’s life and I’ll keep that to myself.”
It doesn’t really matter where he lives. Currently, the city that’s most important to Diego Luna is Los Angeles, where his representatives are located. Everything happens there, including this zoom call from Madrid, which he answered in the car taking him back to London from filming the second season of Andor (“what a pleasure to spend some time talking in Spanish; I needed it,” he says laughing). The Star Wars universe series has finally turned him into a Class A celebrity, a real star. “I think I realized the power of Star Wars the day the first article came out [saying] that I would be a character in Rogue One, not even Andor. That morning started with TV cameras outside my dad’s house. They asked him how long I had liked Star Wars. And my dad said, ‘He’s never liked it!’ And I said, ‘Oh my, that’s the scope of this project. I [hadn’t] even signed a contract and the cameras that one runs away from are going after my dad outside his house; they’ve never gone to bother him there [before].’ Clearly, it kickstarts a machine that is sometimes exciting and sometimes also very perverse. It is a project that [got] everyone’s interest from the start. I had never felt that [before]. The closest thing I’ve experienced in terms of scope was when I worked with [Steven] Spielberg [on The Terminal, 2004], which had a global impact, but nothing compared to Andor. How much has this project changed his life? “Dramatically,” he replies.
Luna has been in London since November and three months of shooting remain. That is, if it doesn’t drag on longer because of the writers’ strike that has caused Tony Gilroy, the showrunner of the Disney+ series, to stop filming. It’s the first strike of the streaming era, and at the center of the dispute is the amount of money writers get paid each time a show, series or movie in which they participated is watched. In addition to starring in Andor, Luna is the show’s executive producer and puts his own money on the line. What is his opinion about the strike? “It’s the first time I’ve been asked this question, so let me think about it,” he says, taking a few seconds to silently reflect. “It seems good to me. I mean, I hope it is resolved quickly, but a lot of rethinking needs to happen. The world, and this industry in particular, is changing very rapidly. And working conditions have to be rethought. You can no longer think in terms of cinema. I grew up thinking in terms of cinema…stories that had a beginning and an end, that lasted two hours, that were shown in a theater, that sold a certain number of tickets (or not) and later remained on a thing that you could buy called a DVD. That world is over. Now everything is in a cloud. And in that sense I think what the writers are doing is very, very commendable. I only hope that they receive a quick response so that this industry doesn’t get hit very badly and that the change comes so that all the families that make a living from it can continue to do so. But…I [have] always respected what it means for a union to agree…how could Tony not join in? Wouldn’t that be absurd? This series is about insurgency, about how oppression creates a citizen and [a] social awakening. It would be very contradictory if he wasn’t [participating in the strike], wouldn’t it?”
Andor is the story of Cassian Andor, a Rebel Alliance spy who first appeared in Rogue One (2016), the story of how the Death Star plans were stolen. The film’s tragic ending was a rarity in a saga that, since Disney bought the franchise, had become infantilized at times. In 2018, it was announced that Andor, the character Luna played, would have his own series to tell the story of his life before Rogue One. The first season premiered in 2022. Surprise, surprise, the storyline deepened that same path. For the first time, the rebels were not angelic beings without a trace of evil. Here, they are tinged with an almost fanatical determination. The message seems clear: revolutions, no matter how noble the cause, are dirty. “When you’re willing to go to the ultimate consequences and sacrifice everything, you can romanticize the story, but we try, as much as possible, to ground it in something realistic. And it’s impossible not to talk about darkness, moral contradictions, constant mistakes. The point here is: what do they do when they realize that they are wrong?” We will have to wait until the second and final season premieres in 2024 to find out the answer.
In 2001, Diego Dionisio Luna Alexander burst onto the scene with Y tu mamá también, a feature film by the then-unknown director Alfonso Cuarón. The movie starred Spanish actress Maribel Verdú and two young actors, who are so close today that they seem like a two-headed animal: Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. It is practically impossible to utter one’s name without the other’s name following close behind. They are partners in the production company La Corriente del Golfo [Gulf Current], but above all they are friends, almost brothers. They have literally known each other all their lives: “There is a story that I think sums it all up: His father was in a show, John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, directed by Juan José Gurrola. My father did the sets. My mother did the costumes and Gael’s mother worked with her. Gael was born during rehearsals, and I was born during the performance. That seems to be the origin of much of what has happened to us. The truth is that it’s a play that we could do together.” That sounds like a nice end to a cycle. “That’s why I don’t want to do it, because it sounds like the end of a cycle,” he says, laughing.
His mother, English artist Fiona Alexander, died in a car accident when he was two years old, leaving Diego and his older sister, Maria, to be raised by their father, Alejandro Luna, a set designer and architect. Little Diego grew up on stage. “I guess when I was six or seven years old I said as certainly and confidently as a seven-year-old can that I was an actor. At first, I wanted to do what the adults around me were doing. I wanted to be part of that ritual that my dad participated in so seriously. And suddenly I found myself doing it with my father’s full support. Whether that was an act of responsibility or irresponsibility is open to debate, but he always let me. It also would have been contradictory for my father to make his living in the theater…and tell me that I couldn’t do it. I had to go to school and in exchange I could dedicate the other half of [my] day to the theater. Then came television and movies and that made my head spin a little. But I also started to meet people, to feel like part of a community, and little by little I found my way. And I never stopped.”
At the age of 12, Diego was a Mexican television star. At 16, he dropped out of school and emancipated himself. Being a famous teenager with money while living alone seems like a perfect recipe for disaster. “Yes, I had it bad, very bad. [They were] difficult years, I’m not going to deny it. Between fame and unbridled freedom… but I never left my house completely. I no longer lived there, but I felt I could go back and that gave me [a sense of] security. I think my father handled things the right way, because if he tried to stop me, it would have been catastrophic.” His father—who passed away in December—comes up often in the conversation. “I am fortunate to have always had a very open relationship [with him]. He didn’t tell me what to do, he told me what he thought about what I wanted and that always helped me. I don’t want to say that I didn’t push the limits, but I always found my way back to safer ground. And I attribute that to my family and to my theater family, because they formed a protective core that helped me a lot. I had a lot of mothers throughout my childhood and adolescence. My mother died when I was two years old. Many actresses, directors and theater women took care of me, guided me and were there for me. They took my mother’s absence very personally. I think that saved me.”
It would take a book to describe Diego Luna’s career since Y tu mamá también. In addition to working as an actor with Steven Spielberg, Gus Van Sant, Harmony Korine and Steven Soderbergh, he has worked as a producer; he has directed movies (his second film, Abel (2010), was an official selection at Cannes); he has starred in Netflix’s Narcos Mexico and has even made a show, Pan y Circo [Bread and Circus], in which he cooks and brings people together to talk about complex issues, such as climate change, abortion, migration, democracy and racism. “It’s an exercise similar to journalism, but it starts from [a place of] total bias. I don’t have the slightest interest in sounding impartial but [rather] in being attentive and curious about opinions that are different from my own and, in the best-case scenario, learning. But I have very clear points of view on all these issues. My team and I chose the first topic. And at that moment we decided to bring voices to the table that have perspectives that we do not necessarily share; we’re always trying to leave toxic voices as far away as possible. But we seek a confrontation of ideas. Because in this polarized world, we don’t even have access to that anymore. We live in this bubble that we create for ourselves through what we consume, through social media, and suddenly it seems that everyone thinks like us, and it is nice and interesting to go out into the world and realize that it’s not like that.”
In 2022, he performed a one-man show in Madrid, Spain, Cada vez nos despedimos major [We say goodbye better each time], and directed a series for Amazon Prime Video, Y todo va a estar bien [And everything will be alright]; both seem to talk about the same thing: the possibility (or impossibility) of romantic love. “I’m so obsessed with that topic….. When I was two years old, I lost my mother, and then my father had a myriad of relationships in his life, and I had to [experience] that, jumping from one to another with him and constantly questioning what others called family. In my case, [family] was nothing like that of my classmates at school. The core didn’t mean the same thing. It could not be described in the same way. There is also something very beautiful that happens, which is that, in this world that sometimes seems to go too fast, there are also very beautiful examples of people finding new ways to love each other. That’s something that, in my line of work, I think, is very important. Love is there, always there, in this storytelling thing,. And if suddenly there are these new forms and these new structures, I think it’s only right to reflect on them.” What is his favorite way to do that? “If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I don’t like—I don’t find myself in—solitude. Definitely. I like what I have now. Now, I’m very good in that regard. I’m very happy and that makes me happy, to be honest.”
He repeats the concept of freedom when talking about directing, acting and producing. Having the freedom to do what he wants. How free is he right now? “I feel very free now, to tell you the truth. Freer than ever before in my life. I’m about to reach a destination that I mapped out for myself eight years ago [when he signed on for Rogue One] without fully realizing it, but five years ago [I became] fully aware. And I can see it now. In August, I’ll finish as an actor, then I have one more year as a producer and that’s it. That makes me feel very complete, and very free, because I have my life ahead of me, because I have a lot to do and because I have accumulated a lot of interests over the years.” The car has been stopped for a while. A message appears on the screen: we have to finish, they say from Los Angeles.
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EXPLAINED: The lingo you need to talk about sleep like a true German
The life, death and resurrection of Ethan Hawke’s Hollywood career: ‘I was only 30, and I was washed up’ | Culture
Ethan Hawke is proud of his crooked teeth. When a former agent asked him to fix them, he got angry. “I watched the Oscars on TV a few years ago, and they all looked like they were pod people. They looked so fake. And then crazy Sean Penn got on stage, and I thought to myself, ‘There’s a human being.’” He decided that day that he wouldn’t get his teeth fixed. “I just hate how homogenized people want us all to be. Nobody ever talks about Eleanor Roosevelt’s crooked teeth, because she was a woman of substance. And we don’t talk about how Mother Teresa would have been better if she could have lost 15 pounds, because she was a woman of God.”
In Cannes, among models and Instagram stars with many followers and little filmography, as well as unrealistically white teeth, Hawke looked like a normal person. Or as normal as one can be as a generational icon with four Oscar nominations and a four-decade-long career; an attractive man who formed one of the most beautiful couples of the 1990s with Uma Thurman; a writer, screenwriter, director and musician; Tennessee Williams’ second cousin twice removed; and, above all, a symbol. If Hannah from Girls aspired to be the voice of a generation, Ethan Hawke is, to his regret, the face of generation X, which has been reviled by those who belong to it, depicted by Douglas Coupland and deified by fashion magazines.
Now, at 52, Hawke co-stars in Strange Way of Life, director Pedro Almodóvar’s Western film that just premiered at Cannes. The actor is well-acquainted with the genre (he participated in director Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven) and complex relationships. His latest critical success came with the documentary The Last Movie Stars in which he honors icons like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and exorcises his own demons.
Unlike Pedro Pascal, his co-star in Strange Way of Life — whom the world discovered in his 40s — Hawke grew up in front of the camera. He is the son of teenage parents. When he was born, his father was 18 and his mother was 17; he was named Ethan because his mother thought the name would look good on the cover of a book.
Hawke’s parents separated when he was four years old and he went to live with his mother, who raised him between temporary jobs and lots of social activity: she was a teacher, joined the Peace Corps and founded a charity that helps provide education to Romanian children. Hawke was, and remains, involved in that work and committed to the rights of minorities.
He considers his parents’ separation to be his first acting lesson. To please his father, a deeply religious conservative, he would talk about soccer and religion, even faking a Southern accent. “I wanted him to like me. I was aware that I was performing for him. I hated myself for it,” he told The New Yorker. He played up his intellectual side with his mother, with whom life was unconventional. When he was four and could not yet read, she took him to see Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage in the original version with subtitles. For his fifth birthday, she chose to take him to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When they left the theater, they read Pauline Kael’s vitriolic reviews in The New Yorker together. The contrast between the worlds of his mother and father made Hawke an expert at fitting in everywhere, a contemporary Zelig.
When Hawke was 12, his mother enrolled him in an acting course. Six months later he was starring in Explorers alongside River Phoenix. They became inseparable during filming. “We were sure we were going to be movie stars.” On the day of the premiere, they hid in the lavatory of the Ziegfeld Theater to listen to the reviews; they were not flattering. “America has cast its vote, and Ethan Hawke is not a star,” he heard one executive say.
Hawke’s first film experience did not make him an instant star, but it indirectly taught him a lesson that he surely would have preferred not to receive. He confessed to The Guardian that his aversion to making big Hollywood movies stemmed from Phoenix’s death. “My first screen partner overdosed on Sunset Boulevard, you know? He was the brightest light and this industry chewed him up, and that was a big lesson to me.”
His next audition was for Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society. After racking up rejections, including the Stand By Me character that Phoenix ended up playing, he decided that if he didn’t get the part, he would join the U.S. Merchant Marine. It didn’t come to that: Weir cast him as Todd Anderson, the shy teenager who, in the final scene, climbs onto his desk and shouts Walt Whitman’s epic “Oh, Captain, my Captain!” The film’s success and influence exceeded all expectations. As he has recounted several times, hardly a day goes by without someone shouting “Carpe diem!” at him.
Such a critical and commercial success — at nearly $250 million at the box office, it is still the highest grossing film of his career — should have made its leading actors instant stars. But it didn’t, and Hawke’s career has been the best of the bunch. As he was trying to find his niche in the industry, he received a phone call from Winona Ryder, who was in Portugal filming House of the Spirits; she wanted him to work with her on Reality Bites (1993). Hawke didn’t understand how someone who had just filmed with Martin Scorsese could get involved in a film by an unknown writer and director.
Reality Bites is a difficult phenomenon to explain. When it was released, critics tore it to shreds and the few viewers who saw it hated it, but now millennial audiences are vindicating the film. Hawke’s character — the insufferable, affected Troy — made him a household name. People took it for granted that if they dressed alike and styled their hair the same way — that carefully ragged look and falsely greasy, disheveled hair that came from many hours spent in front of the mirror — they had to be the same, but that wasn’t a positive thing. Troy was an idiot and, with his affected philosophical chatter, his band, and his refusal to enter the fold while his parents paid his bills, he held a mirror up to the faces of countless humanities students in the mid-1990s.
Reality Bites was a parody within a parody, a product that vampirized grunge nihilism in order to sell cars under the stultifying slogan “young but over-prepared.” In the film, Rider’s character Lelaina chose Hawke, but during shooting, he and Winona, who now appears in Stranger Things with Hawke and his daughter Maya, did not hit it off. “I know a lot of young actors who live in these dumps,” the actress told Rolling Stone. “They have their books scattered and their mattress is on the floor — and they’re millionaires. That’s fine. That’s their way of living. But the reason they’re doing it is that they’re ashamed. And I’ve talked to them about it. You just want to say, ‘Don’t live this way to show people that you’re real and that you’re deep.’ It offends me because I know what it’s like to be in poverty, and it’s not fun, and it’s not romantic, and it’s not cool.”
Hawke recognizes himself in that description. He wasn’t a millionaire, but he could certainly afford a better life than the one he was living. But it was important to him to live in a ramshackle apartment. “The same one Henry Miller would have lived in,” he declared. He didn’t want to be Tom Cruise; he wanted to be John Cassavetes.
He was clear about what he wanted to do. He embarked on complicated projects like Michael Almereyda’s urban Hamlet, set up his own theater group adapting the classics, and published his first novel, The Hottest State. “Well, you’re no Chekhov,” his mother said after reading the first draft. It wasn’t Hawke’s worst review. “I remember my favorite review said, ‘Ethan Hawke achieves the impossible. He sucks his own cock.” Chelsea Walls, his directorial debut, didn’t fare much better. “The cinematic equivalent of going to a bar frequented by pretentious, talentless artists who enjoy bemoaning their cruel fate,” said one critic.
As was the case for Reality Bites, time has vindicated the beautiful and stylish Gattaca. The film was a flop at the time, but he met Thurman through it. They were together for seven years and had two children. Of his relationship with Thurman, Hawke told ICON in 2016, “I was looking for a home, security, a foundation, a family through marriage. I was looking for the opposite of what my life was, always exposed to flashbulbs, but I fell in love with someone who only added more flashbulbs to my intimacy. Our marriage became the antithesis of what I wanted, and we found it very difficult to find grounding, a connection cable. I know there are people who can handle it; I have friends who do. For me it was impossible.”
To get through his divorce, Hawke worked twice as hard. He believed that if he gave the media a lot to talk about in his professional life, they wouldn’t talk about his personal life. In 2008, he married Ryan Shawhughes, who had worked briefly as a nanny for his children; Hawke and Shawhughes now have two daughters together.
His career has gone through several rough patches. Hawke had to audition twice before he got his role in Training Day. “That was when I knew the ‘90s were over. I was in a unique position, which is that I was only 30 years old, and I was washed up. All my friends were going to audition for Saving Private Ryan. And I couldn’t even get an audition for it, because they knew me and didn’t want me.” Fuqua’s film brought him his first Oscar nomination. Today he has four of them, two for best supporting actor and two for screenwriter.
He is not afraid to take risks that go beyond traditional film roles. He participated in long-term projects like the Before Sunrise trilogy (1995-2013), which tells the story of a couple, and in Boyhood (2014), a beautiful experiment about twelve years in a child’s life. In both projects, he worked alongside Richard Linklater.
His staunch commitment to artistic purity has caused more than one controversy. At a tribute at the Locarno Film Festival, he commented negatively about Marvel, echoing Martin Scorsese’s sentiment. “Now we have the problem that they tell us ‘Logan’ is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is,” Hawke said. Years later, he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe starring opposite Oscar Isaac in Moon Knight. His daughter Maya was behind that drastic change; she recommended that he make a film that would appeal to the general public.
In recent years, he has been linked to horror films, such as Sinister (2012), Black Phone (2022) and The Purge franchise (2013-2021). Now, Hawke looks around him and sees that the industry has changed. “The most obvious example is that when I was younger, the absolute hallmark of mediocrity was having a fashion contract, having to sell jeans or colognes. Today everything is a commodity to buy.” Perhaps the fact that Saint Laurent produced Strange Way of Life represents another of those changes, but at least he retains his beautiful imperfect smile.
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