Hawke shoots his way to the top

Cast member Ethan Hawke poses at the premiere of "Getaway" in Los Angeles, California

If you are an actor and want to earn a decent living in Hollywood, you are going to have to kill someone.

On screen, at least. This is the pet theory of actor Ethan Hawke, who made his name with touchy-feely dramas such as Dead Poets Society (1989) and Reality Bites (1994), before graduating to the science-fiction film Gattaca (1997) and corrupt- cop movie Training Day (2001).

His latest effort, The Purge, written and directed by James DeMonaco, may be the most violent thing he has done yet - and one in many projects that seem to herald a comeback for the 42-year-old, one of Hollywood's hottest young actors in the 1990s.

Opening in Singapore this week, it is a dystopian thriller that imagines a not-too-distant future in which the United States government sets aside a 12-hour period every year and allows citizens to murder, rape or commit any crime they want, the idea being to purge society of its darker impulses.

Hawke, who plays a father forced to defend himself and his family when their expensive security system breaks down during this blood-soaked free-for-all, chatted with reporters in Los Angeles recently about the film, which some critics have accused of glorifying violence and America's gun culture even as it ostensibly criticises it. The actor has given this apparent contradiction more than a little thought.

Hawke, who is also a novelist and Tony-nominated stage actor, waxes intellectual on this and a wide range of other topics during the expansive interview. Clearly delighted at the debate it is generating in the media, he tells Life! he will "be curious to see what people write about the movie, in regard to the fact that it's such a violent film with an anti-violent message".

"It begs the question of whether such a purge is an appropriate place to put our violence, and what we do with the violent part of our personalities."

Another big Hollywood name, Jim Carrey, recently boycotted the publicity tour of his own movie, Kick-Ass 2, because he decided it was too violent in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last year.

But Hawke does not buy into that logic. "I never thought that Catcher In The Rye made that guy kill John Lennon," he says, referring to the 1951 J.D. Salinger novel linked to the British musician's assassination in 1980 by Mark David Chapman.

"Sick people find reasons to name what they are, and I think this movie does an interesting thing by using violence to talk about violence."

Violence and story-telling have always been intertwined, says the actor, whose two novels, The Hottest State (1996) and Ash Wednesday (2002), received positive reviews.

"For as long as people have been telling stories, stories have been violent. Like the Greek plays. Julius Caesar ends with mass death, and everybody's still interested in it."

He and the film-makers behind The Purge are hoping that their film provokes a little reflection among moviegoers as they munch on their popcorn.

"I watch this movie and it's really difficult not to think about Sandy Hook and America's relationship to guns, which really is so outrageous. "In France, they've retitled the film 'American Nightmare', which I thought was kind of funny. "It speaks to the way America is perceived. Because we're the ones who are obsessed with protecting this idea of the right to bear arms, to the point where it is obscene," he says, before segueing into a brief critique of the pro-gun lobby in the US. He breaks off, joking that he is "going to be found dead in a car now".

Hawke concedes, however, that this movie is typically American in terms of its obsession with firearms.

"It would be just like America to make an anti- violence movie that is so violent. "But for me, I think the movie works kind of like A Clockwork Orange, in that it inundates you with so much violence that in the end, you just want it to stop," he says of the 1971 Stanley Kubrick classic.

As an actor trying to find work, his relationship with violence has changed over the years. "I was at a dinner party at the Cannes Film Festival when I was younger, and the late film critic Roger Ebert stood up and toasted me as the only male in Hollywood who had had a career without killing anyone. And I remember thinking, as he did it, 'Ah, s**t', because I had just finished shooting the first movie where I killed somebody, but he didn't know it yet," he remembers. "

The truth is, it's impossible to maintain a certain level of career as a male actor without participating in some sort of violence in movies and blowing heads off. It's just what we want from our stories.

"As a director, you can avoid it, but as an actor, it's difficult. And it's a real moral conundrum."

As Ebert pointed out, though, Hawke has managed to get away with doing more than just the action stuff. This year, he appeared in Before Midnight, an unconventional love story that he co-wrote with actress Julie Delpy and indie director Richard Linklater as a follow-up to their acclaimed Before Sunrise (1994) and Before Sunset (2005).

Hawke has done Shakespeare too, both on stage, where he has a successful, thriving career - winning a Tony nomination for a 2006 production of Tom Stoppard's The Coast Of Utopia - and on the big screen, in the 2000 film version of Hamlet.

Singapore audiences saw him as the troubadour Autolycus in a touring production of The Winter's Tale in 2009. At the other end of the spectrum, he has won acclaim for action thrillers such as Training Day, where his role as a rookie police officer with a corrupt partner (Denzel Washington) earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

He has mixed it up too, by appearing in the horror flick Sinister last year, and in the new car-chase movie Getaway with Selena Gomez, which opens in the US at the end of the month.

He is also planning to return to Broadway later this year, and to complete an indie film he has been working with Linklater on for 12 years.

Hawke says he has always "tried to base as much of my career on my own gut instincts as possible", but adds that "it's getting harder for me to navigate" because roles that are good, or a good fit, are now few and far between.

"I'm a dramatic actor, and they just don't really make that many dramas. If you don't get a part in the two or three real dramas they make a year, you don't have a job. "So it kind of forces you to have an openness to making other kinds of movies," says the actor, who is also driven by pragmatism, having four mouths to feed - his two young daughters with wife Ryan Shawhughes, and his son and daughter with ex-wife and actress Uma Thurman.

It was not always like this, he says, noting that there were more dramatic parts on offer in the 1990s. Now, he is willing to do movies that have broad commercial appeal - even "genre movies" such as low-budget horror or science-fiction ones - but that also smuggle in a subversive or thought-provoking message, or an alternative artistic approach.

"I feel like now is almost a throwback to the 1950s, where the art is to be subversive underneath the genre, and that's what I have been trying to do," he says, noting that there is a long history of "good theatre actors funding their careers with genre movies".

This is what attracted him to the low-budget and trigger-happy The Purge, "which is a flat-out genre, Friday-night, drive-in movie", but which was well-made and had "something sociopolitical that turned me on".

"My hope is that it functions like kind of a Friday night movie, but leaves people with a little bit more to think about than normal."

stlife@sph.com.sg


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