One of the last film panels at SXSW featured four-time Oscar-nominated Ethan Hawke. An Austin native, Hawke has a deep connection with the city has appeared in many films set in the city and collaborating with fellow Texan Richard Linklater on numerous iconic indies including the coming-of-age opus and Before Sunrise franchise. With his films Blaze and First Reformed making his debut in his hometown, SXSW is fitting for Hawke’s sensibilities and passion for genre and independent film. As Hawke sat down with IndieWire’s Eric Kohn in front of a packed house to talk about his career which spans of three decades as well as his some of his most iconic films including the Before franchise, Reality Bites, Boyhood, and, of course, his very first film Explorers.
“13-year-olds don’t have an agenda when acting — they just want attention,” joked Hawke when he spoke about the start of his career.
The Academy Award-nominated writer and actor got his start in the Joe Dante movie Explorers alongside the late River Phoenix which captured the spirit of sci-fi through a youthful gaze. The movie came out during a time when movies like The Goonies, Gremlins, and Flight of the Navigator were all the craze and were a blatant inspiration for Stranger Things (the Netflix series recently cast his daughter Maya Thurman Hawke). As a writer-director-producer who has become an indie auteur, his initial movie with Dante sparked his interest in genre.
Hawke says that Dante introduced him to a number of films and opened his eyes to what genre movies can do. He remarks how if you can make a traditional narrative into an out-of-this-world metaphor, “it comes alive.” What he says rings true as his genre classics Explorers and Gattaca (which Bill Clinton told him was his fave) continue to resonate with audiences and have been on the table for remakes.
Beyond films of the genre variety, Hawke has done theatrical fare, but it’s his work with Linklater that has garnered him plenty of indie street cred. The romantic trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, two of which he c0-wrote with Linklater and his co-star Julie Delpy, has remained a touchstone for indie storytelling. But if you’re looking for a quadrilogy that continues the ups and downs of Celine and Jesse, don’t hold your breath.
“There’s something about Before Midnight that feels like a complete circle,” he said. He mentioned how in 1995’s Before Sunrise, the films starts with Celine and Jesse eavesdropping in on a couple in their 40s arguing. Fast forward to 2013’s Before Midnight, and Celine and Jesse have become that couple.
“It feels finished to me — which isn’t to say Rick or Julie [are] finished,” he said.
Hawke has an affinity for projects that span over a decade. In addition to the Before franchise, he teamed with Linklater once again in 2014 for the coming-of-age odyssey Boyhood which took 12 years to make. Although he said he would have fun doing a project like this, it took a lot of patience and doesn’t think he would go on a journey like that again. But if he did, it probably wouldn’t be as highbrow. “I think it would play at the MoMA or something like that,” he says.
“It was a really good idea,” he continued. “I had no doubt it would be high in quality, I just thought it would play at the MoMA or something like that.”
One of the many roles which Hawke is known for is the quintessential 1994 Gen X pic Reality Bites which also starred a collective of ’90s icons including Winona Ryder, Steve Zahn, Janeane Garofalo, and Ben Stiller — who also helmed the film. The movie popularized the song “My Sharona” and made us realize that Evian spelled backward is naive, but it also made Hawke’s Troy Dyer a Gen X poster child.
“I was afraid of being labeled as Gen X because it would lock me in a box,” Hawke admitted. But he says, “I knew that the walk was going to be incredibly rough,” but he managed to get out of that box and survived and pursued making things he believed in.
Even so, Troy sticks with him to this day. In his Sundance film Juliet, Naked (opening August 17), Hawke says that his character is “Troy Dyer at 50.”