If there is one thing you can say about Ethan Hawke, it’s that he is a versatile actor, a performer who can adjust to just about any genre, be it comedy, thriller, action or horror. His latest venture The Purge falls predominantly into the latter, as a dark picture set across one fateful night, a night where there is no such thing as criminality or law.
Directed by James DeMonaco and set in the near future, Hawke plays James Sandin, an entrepreneur who finds his family in danger on the night they call ‘The Purge’, where people can commit whatever crimes they please across 12 deadly hours. Hawke – speaking to us exclusively from the States, discusses what crimes he would commit without consequence, his working relationship with on-screen wife Lena Headey, while also discussing the current state of cinema, and why it is harder for films to get financial backing nowadays.
So what first attracted you to The Purge?
It’s just a really old school idea which is a unique genre film, and you can say whatever you want as long as it works as an entertaining piece of cinema. I really like James DeMonaco too so when we saw this really radical script, we threw ourselves at it… There is a huge socio-political undercurrent to this movie that I hope people get. It’s like one of those sci-fi movies that leaves you looking at your own surroundings in a different way, and what’s fun about that is that you can talk about politics without having an agenda with the audience. If you make a political movie, it’s about a Republican agenda, or a Democratic agenda, or a film about equal right… But in science fiction you can just make an entertaining movie that deals with those themes on an intellectual level without tapping in to people’s knee-jerk political responses.
If you could commit any crime in the world and not get caught, what would you do?
Um, I’d be an environmental terrorist [laughs] I’d blow oil tankers and shit like that.
You’re starring alongside Lena Headey, as far as on-screen partners go, how was she to collaborate with?
She is a firecracker. I just think she is one of the most underrated actresses working today. There is rarely a woman as fierce as that who is also as beautiful as that. I’ve never worked with anybody better than Lena, she is the real deal.
You’ve worked with some incredible people…
She’s fierce. Most women who are pretty, you know, it somehow undermines them, they are too worried about being pretty all the time and it’s difficult because, it’s not their fault, it’s the world that makes women too self conscious and she is somebody who is as sensual as she is willing to just grit her teeth and throw herself at acting. It’s fun to be around.
Both Sinister and The Purge, despite having horror elements to them, are centered around family to an extend, as a father of four, is that something that attracted you to the role?
You know, it’s funny that you say because I have never thought of that. But I think you’re right, I probably get drawn to this material because it fits in to a part of my life, so I guess I can relate to the characters and I like these stories.
Have you had any thoughts of making a big children’s movie one day, that your young children can enjoy?
Yeah I would love to make a kids movie, I really would. I even have some ideas about it. Nothing would make me happier than to get to make a movie like To Kill a Mockingbird or something, it has always been one of my favourite stories and I would love to make a movie of quality for children.
So what is it about horror movies that attracts you at present?
To a large extent, it’s where the work is. I mean, right now is a very difficiult time for independent cinema and I didn’t know how good and easy it was in the 90s to get films financed. Right now genre movies are getting released and finding an audience so that’s been the main reason to be honest. I feel like it’s a little bit more how it was in the 50s, to make an artistic movie you have to operate in the subtext.
Why do you think it’s harder these days to get films financed?
There are more intelligent people talking about this, but I know it has a lot to do with technology. It’s never been easier to make a film, I mean you and I, if we had a really cool idea, we could make a great film on our iPhone and cut it together on the computer, we could make it next week if we wanted to. The trouble is finding distribution for the film and there is such a glut of independent movies that it’s created a thing where the studios are making less films because they’re trying to seperate themselves from the little independent movies by spending 100 million dollars on a movie. So instead of making five movies for 20 million dollars, they’re making one for 100, so there is a lot less work out there.
You have a wonderful versatility as an actor, and can do naturalism as well as you can genre movie – but do you approach the movies in a different way?
I try not to. The key to doing a movie like Sinister is that the character don’t know they’re in a scary movie, you’ve got to let the filmmaker make it a genre film. But certainly if you’re making a film like Daybreakers, there is something stylistic going on around you that you just have to be a part of, you just flow in the design of the piece as a while. It’s interesting because there is a certain kind of acting that Before Sunrise and Before Midnight requires, that is empathetical to the style of acting in something like Gattaca.
You mentioned Sinister – I was wondering if you’re able to get scared by the film when watching it back?
It’s kind of like asking a comedian if they laugh at their own jokes, when you work on these things there is a certain geometry and arithmetic in creating the right mood that makes something scary, and I watched that geometry. I watch the audience and see if it’s working, but really when I watched Sinister for the first time at a midnight screening and people were screaming, it was so fun that I just laughed the whole time. We’re the men behind the curtain, you know.
As an actor do you take more pleasure from scaring an audience or making them laugh?
There is no feeling I have ever had in my life that is better than making people laugh. I don’t know what a comedian or someone who has that feeling a lot would say, but I’ve spent my life as a dramatic actor and when a movie is funny or when I’ve done plays and get to experience the feeling of comedy, it’s an incredible feeling and I understand why people get obsessed by it. It feels really good. Scaring an audience is fun though, you know when you tell a ghost story to your friends at midnight when you’re a kid, it’s fun and it’s memorable because it’s difficult to do well and people appreciate it when it is done well so it’s hard to make a movie like Sinister, I feel really proud of it. But making them laugh is like eating dessert.
Let’s talk about Before Midnight, it must be such a great experience to play a character you’ve played twice before? Because it’s not something many actors have had the chance to do.
Yeah, you get to revisit the same character at these different ages, it is such a unique opportunity as a performer. It is a ball. Those films are really special to me and they hold a unique place in my heart.
You must feel like you’ve grown up with the character of Jesse?
Well yeah, I have. We also wrote him so it’s like a parallel life in a way.
If there was one other character from any of your other films that you’d most like to revisit, who would it be?
I’d be curious to know what happened to Todd Anderson from Dead Poets Society. Where is he now?
Where do you think he is now?
I have no idea.