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The best things

We don’t want to put you off moving to the capital, so let’s start with the five best things about living in Berlin.

1. Endless entertainment

No matter what day of the week it is, or even what time of day it is for that matter, you will be able to find something entertaining going on in Berlin.

The capital is home to three opera houses, over 150 theatres and stages, more than 175 museums and collections, around 300 galleries and 130 cinemas. 

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Who is coming to – and leaving – Berlin?

And the nightlife isn’t bad, either. There are over 4,500 bars and clubs in the city, including the world-famous Berghain, and there are countless comedy nights, quiz nights, burlesque nights, cabaret shows, readings, poetry slams…you name it, there is probably an event (or 20) happening in Berlin right now. 

2. Diversity

The wide variety of entertainment on offer in the Haupstadt has a lot to do with the diverse mix of people living here. 

Berlin is a melting pot of cultures. In fact, almost every nation in the world is represented in the German capital.

People celebrate Christopher Street Day (CSD) in front of the stage at the Brandenburg Gate in 2022. Last year’s parade was “United in Love! Against hate, war and discrimination.” Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Monika Skolimowska

The city also has a long history of openness and tolerance, making it welcoming to foreigners and people of all cultures, beliefs, genders and sexualities.

READ ALSO: ‘I came to Berlin for Gay Pride six years ago, and never left’

You can find a vibrant mix of languages, cuisines, and traditions, creating a rich multicultural environment and if you move here on your own, you will soon be able to find a group of like-minded people here.

3. Summertime

Summer is hands down the best time in the capital.

There are over 25 open-air swimming pools, plenty of lakes and acres of green space to hang out in. Bars and restaurants spill out onto the street, making it feel more like a city in southern Europe than in northern Germany. 

READ ALSO: 7 reasons why June is the best month in Germany

Two people row their rubber dinghy down the Spree in the setting sun. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

The river Spree also becomes a hub of summery fun and frolics too, and many Berliners can be seen in their Schlauchboote (inflatable boats), on stand-up paddles, or even just floating down the river on an inflatable armchair (I’ve seen it).

The city’s laissez-faire attitude to drinking alcohol in public means that virtually any green space can become a party scene.

4. Thriving creative the scene

Berlin is, without a doubt, the home of art and creativity in Germany.

According to the Senate Department for Culture, there are around 20,000 professional artists living in the capital and around 160,000 employees in the cultural and creative industries. 

READ ALSO: ‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Creative business is also very much at home in Berlin. The German Capital is the highest-ranked startup ecosystem in Germany and there are almost a thousand startups based in the city.

5. History

Berlin has a rich and complex history marked by periods of division and reunification. From the Prussian era to the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city has witnessed significant political and social transformations and much of this history can still be seen and experienced in the city today. 

View of the old border crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Britta Pedersen

From the Brandenburg Gate to Checkpoint Charlie, there are countless fascinating historical landmarks and museums charting the history of the capital. 

READ ALSO: ‘Their experiences need to be understood’: What was life like for East Germans?

But it’s not just the major tourist attractions that offer a glimpse into Berlin’s past. You can find traces everywhere, from the Stolpersteine to remnants of the Berlin Wall, even to the Altbau or Plattenbau flat you may be living in.

The worst things

Now that you’re ready to move to Berlin – or unpack your bags and stay here after all – we come to the downsides of life in the German capital. 

1. Finding a place to live

In recent years, the property market in Berlin has become highly competitive, leading to a huge surge in rental prices and in demand for flats. 

READ ALSO: Berlin rental prices rose by ‘almost a third’ in three months

In a few short years, the city has gone from being one of the most affordable western European capitals to one of the most expensive areas to reside in within Germany.

Tales of 100 people queuing to see overpriced studio flats and adverts for new rentals being flooded with hundreds within five minutes are everywhere. 

2. Winter

While in summer, the streets are bustling with smiling, beautiful people eating vegan ice cream and drinking cold beer, winter is the opposite.

A tourist walks across Pariser Platz at the Brandenburg Gate in temperatures around minus 10 C in Berlin in February, 2021.

A tourist walks across Pariser Platz at the Brandenburg Gate in temperatures around minus 10 C in Berlin in February, 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

From November to at least February, temperatures generally drop to between 0C and  -10C in the Hauptstadt, though it’s been known to reach less than -20C here. While there are nice things going on in the winter (think Christmas markets) which can offer an uplifting distraction, generally the winters are pretty brutal.

This most recent winter (2022/2023) dragged on until April, and that is not such an uncommon occurrence.

So my advice for anyone moving to Berlin is: try and get out of the city during these frosty months.

3. Dog poo

According to the available latest figures from May 2022, there are around 126,000 dogs living in Berlin.

While the four-legged creatures are generally a welcome addition to the capital’s population, one thing that is definitely not welcome – and sadly very common – is their poo.

A dog ban sign hangs on a fence in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Sebastian Kahnert

Unfortunately, it seems that many owners in the city neglect to pick up their canine friends’ post-digestive offerings, which means that coming across an unsightly and smelly brown pile is by no means an unusual occurrence in the city.

Actually, it’s one of the few things that can take the edge off the amazing Berlin summertime.

4. Bureaucracy

Germany as a whole has a bad – and well-deserved – reputation for its slow bureaucracy. But the capital really takes the biscuit.

Those trying to get an appointment for a Wohnungesanmeldung (apartment registration) have to get up at the crack of dawn to try to nab a slot within the next few months from the constantly over-booked registration offices.

People stand in front of the Berlin State Office for Immigration.

People stand in front of the Berlin State Office for Immigration. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Britta Pedersen

Those having to deal with the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office) tell tales of pre-dawn queuing and months of unanswered calls and emails. 

READ ALSO: Why German citizenship applications in Berlin are facing delays

Currently, Berlin is also in the midst of a huge backlog of applications for citizenship, as all of the city’s Einbürgerungsämter (naturalisation offices) are being combined into one central office. That means a lot of applications are on hold at the moment.

5. Customer service

Everyone who lives in Berlin will surely have a few favourite bars and restaurants. Usually, what makes them endearing, is that the staff are friendly.

That’s because, in Berlin, the prevailing service culture is that of disinterest with a touch of hatred for the customer.

That, combined with the fact that many bars and restaurants are very slow to catch on to the availability of card payment options – and still insist on cash (often without telling you before your meal – making you hurry to a cash point with a full belly) doesn’t make for great customer service either. 

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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?”

Diego Luna wears an Etro sweater and jacket.
Diego Luna wears an Etro sweater and jacket.

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.

The Andor star wears Prada pants and shirt and Alexander McQueen boots.
The Andor star wears Prada pants and shirt and Alexander McQueen boots.Charlie Gray

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.”

Here, Luna wears an Ami Paris jacket, pants and sneakers and a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shirt.
Here, Luna wears an Ami Paris jacket, pants and sneakers and a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shirt.

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.”

The Mexican actor wears an Etro sweater and jacket.
The Mexican actor wears an Etro sweater and jacket.

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

Unless you’re someone who often spends a few days in a row at Berlin’s famous Berghain nightclub, sleep is an activity that most of us do every day.

It helps us prepare for the day ahead and sift through events in our lives, or alert us to something we’re worried about with a dreaded anxiety dream. When we’re deprived of it, it’s absolute hell, but nothing is more heavenly than a blissful lie-in. 

Unsurprisingly, sleep is a topic that comes up regularly in conversation in Germany, so it’s essential that these words are part of your German Wortschatz (vocabulary). 

Here’s our guide to some of the key terms that may crop up, whether you’re coaxing a child to finally go to sleep or enjoying some kip yourself. 

The basics 

As you probably know, the German word for sleep is der Schlaf, which can be turned into the verb schlafen, meaning to sleep. 

If you want to announce to whoever will listen that it’s bedtime for you, you can use the phrase: “Ich gehe ins Bett” (I’m going to bed), “Ich muss schlafen.” (I need to sleep) or “Es ist Schlafenzeit” (It’s bedtime) to make it clear that you’re ready to sleep.

For a slightly less direct way of indicating how tired you are, you can also reach for sich hinlegen, which means to lie down. As an example, you might say, “Jetzt ist wohl Schlafenzeit – ich glaube, ich lege mich hin.”  (It’s probably bedtime, I think I’ll lie down.) 

If you’re dealing with a child who’s determined to stay up past their bedtime, you’ll probably require the following phrases (and you may need to use them a number of times):

“Es wird langsam Schlafenzeit” – It’s slowly getting to your bedtime. 

“Du müsstest schon lange im Bett sein!” – It’s way past your bedtime. 

Your sleep habits 

When it comes to talking about your sleep habits, a lot can be done by simply adding prefixes to the word schlafen

For example, if you want to talk about falling asleep, you can use the word einschlafen. For example, you can say: “Ich bin um 22 Uhr ins Bett gegangen, aber um 23 Uhr eingeschlafen.” (I went to bed at 10pm but fell asleep at 11pm.) 

This might be a little confusing for English speakers, because einschlafen instinctively sounds like “sleeping in” – so try not to confuse the two.

If you do want to talk about having a lie-in and getting your fill of sleep, the word you need instead is ausschlafen. Generally, when “aus” is at the start of the word – i.e. ausreden (to finish talking) or auslesen (to finish a book) – it means you’ve done an activity to completion, and the same is true of sleeping.

READ ALSO: Eight of the most common (and funniest) mistakes German learners make

A man falls asleep next to his phone

A man falls asleep next to his smartphone and headphones. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Franziska Gabbert

But what about those awkward moments when you snooze through your alarm and wake up far later than you should? For those you’ll need the word verschlafen, which means to oversleep.

Of course, some of us have problems falling asleep in the first place, and that can be helpfully described by referring to die Schlaflosigkeit, which means sleeplessness or insomnia. 

Over a long period of time, this may develop into a fully blown Schlafstörung, or sleep disorder, which you may want to talk to a doctor about.

One important thing to note is that, as in English, schlafen can also have a double meaning, so if you say, “Ich habe mit jemandem geschlafen.” (I slept with someone), people will usually assume you’ve done a lot more than having a snooze.

Starting the day

The opposite of being eingeschlafen (asleep) is being wach (awake), and when you want to talk about waking up, the word you need is aufwachen.

The thing that wakes you up is called der Wecker (the alarm) and after you wake up, the next thing you may do is get out of bed, or aufstehen (stand up). Like einschlafen and aufwachen, this is a separable verb, which means you say: “Ich stehe auf” (I’m getting up) rather than “Ich aufstehe” when using it in the present tense. 

However, the two parts of the verb come back together when you use it in the past tense. 

An an example, you might tell a friend: “Ich bin um 8 Uhr heute wegen meinem Wecker aufgewacht, und um 8:30 bin ich aufgestanden.” (I woke up at 8am today because of my alarm clock and got up at 8:30.)

READ ALSO: 10 German words with hilarious literal translations

Dreams and feelings 

Sometimes we may not be so keen on describing our sleep regimen, but we do want to communicate with colleagues and friends that we’re desperately in need of it.

For these situations, you may find the following adjectives useful:

Müde: Tired
Erschöpft: Exhausted
Kaputt: Broken / Exhausted (colloquial)

And what if you want to talk about your dreams? Well, luckily, the word for this isn’t too different from the English: der Traum (the dream) or die Träume (the dreams). 

A woman sleeping in bed.

A woman sleeping in bed. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Bernd Diekjobst

The verb form of this is träumen, which can be helpful if you want to describe your dreams or say that you don’t often have them. For example, you could say:

Ich habe gestern von dir geträumt. (I had a dream about you yesterday)


Ich schlafe sehr tief and träume sehr selten. (I sleep very deeply and dream very rarely)

READ ALSO: The 10 false friends English and German speakers keep muddling up

As we know, not all dreams are particularly pleasant, so the word Albtraum (m.) – meaning nightmare – may come in handy. This apparently dates back to Germanic mythology, in which mythical other-wordly beings called Alben were believed to be responsible for dreams.

As in English, you can also use this word metaphorically to describe a particular unpleasant experience or situation.

For example:“Ich hoffe, ich verpasse mein Flug nicht. Das wäre ein echter Albtraum!” (I hope I don’t miss my flight. That would be a total nightmare!)

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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.

Ethan Hawke in 1991.
Ethan Hawke in 1991.Pool BENAINOUS/REGLAIN (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

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.”

The cast of 'Dead Poets Society.'
The cast of ‘Dead Poets Society.’Francois Duhamel (Sygma via Getty Images)

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.”

Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke in 1998.
Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke in 1998.Gene Shaw (Getty Images)

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.

Ethan Hawke and Pedro Almodóvar.
Ethan Hawke and Pedro Almodóvar.Alicia García (EFE)

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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