Sixteen years after decreeing what many Gen Xers still refer to as the definition of irony, Ethan Hawke has at least one thing in common with his Reality Bites role: He's a philosopher, albeit a much more optimistic and well-adjusted one. Maybe this is what happens when you deliberately cast aside your Tom Cruise--like potential for a career of indie films (Before Sunrise), theater challenges (directing Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind), offbeat Hollywood efforts (Training Day) and riskiest of all, books. This guy's even working on a graphic novel. Hawke, 40, says the secret to his sustained success is friendships. And he's built plenty of them, oddly enough, on old-fashioned values like loyalty (you'll see a lot of the same directors and actors listed in his repertoire) and hard work. On Monday 13, he'll show off his newest pals onstage in Blood from a Stone, a family drama costarring Hawke, Natasha Lyonne and Daphne Rubin-Vega. As he was prepping for the play, we phoned him to hear various pearls of wisdom.
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You seem to work with the same people in many of your projects. Is that on purpose?
[Laughs] It's on purpose. None of the arts are all that different from music. If you find a good band, you want to keep the band together. I feel that way about Richard Linklater; every couple years or so I play bass in his band.
Do you also play in an actual band or just these metaphoric ones?
No, I'm just using a metaphor, and to be honest I think I tired it out pretty quickly there.
You get to do things with a lot of other cool people—Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, Sidney Lumet's film with Philip Seymour Hoffman. What is it that everyone likes so much about you?
I just think that most people are horrible, so by comparison I seem all right. [Laughs] I've been doing this since I was a kid, and I'm very much aware that you can't do any of it on your own. That's something I learned really young from Peter Weir on Dead Poets Society. It sounds corny, but he was a major mentor to me about a belief in the arts, and in its reaching its full potential when you have a collective at work and something bigger than any one of our conscious minds manipulating it.
So you play well with others?
Yeah, [Laughs] that's what it said in my seventh-grade teacher's report.
But then you write novels, which is a solo activity.
You get sick of playing well with others, you know. The joy about writing for me has always been not having to put on any public face and to just be alone with yourself.
And then the book comes out. You've had decent reviews.
It's really not up to me or anyone else about whether the work you do is any good. Anybody can shoot you down if they want, but they can't touch your aspirations.
How did you get so confident and philosophical?
You know, the older I get, the more I realize that I got that confidence out of ignorance. The more educated I've become, the more insecure I become. But imagine if Neil Young felt that way, if he didn't want to make an album because there were so many albums.
But most people aren't Neil Young.
But my point is that Neil Young doesn't know he's Neil Young. It's not up to you whether you're Neil Young; it's up to us whether we value beautiful music or beautiful writing or beautiful theater or beautiful movies. And if we know that is a valuable entity, then we should go chasing after it. Who cares? Let the chips fall where they may. God gets to decide who gets to be Bob Dylan and who gets to be a schlub.
Everyone wants to know: Is there going to be another Before Sunrise?
Let me put it this way: I would be shocked if there wasn't. My dream is that not only would I want there to be a third one, but five of 'em—twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties—to do some kind of magnum opus on romantic love. Of course that means we all have to live a long time, and it means we also have to have something to say. It was easy to do the second film, because everyone had forgotten about the first, and we didn't feel any sense of pressure. But I go to dinner parties and people talk to me about what they think the third film should be.
I would've thought that Troy in Reality Bites is the role most people recognize you for.
I know, I know. It's funny, after that movie came out, I would go on dates—oh, never mind, I don't even want to say this. [Hesitates] That character affected people. I dated a few women who wanted to call me Troy.
Creepy. Did you let them?
Um, eh, [Laughs] for a little while.
Blood from a Stone starts previews Mon 13 and opens Jan 6.