It’s always impressive when an actor can promote three or four movies within the same span of months, but Ethan Hawke has demonstrated a unique gift for doing so while publicizing projects that are broadly – if not diametrically – opposed to one another. Before Midnight, the third film in a series of relationship vignettes with Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater, opened in limited release just a few weeks ago, and the speculative-fiction thriller The Purge premieres Friday, throwing the gifted character actor back into the world of genre filmmaking he ventured into with 2012’s Sinister.
Spinoff Online recently joined a small group of journalists in Los Angeles for a conversation with Hawke about the new film, in which he plays a security broker who provides the wealthy with protection from “The Purge,” an annual event in which citizens are free to commit any crime (including murder) for one 12-hour period. In addition to offering his thoughts on the plausibility of the film’s scenario, Hawke provided his perspective on America’s fascination with violence, and reflected on his own eclectic career and what drove him into this recent renaissance of genre filmmaking.
Why do you think that putting families in peril makes for such good suspense or horror?
Ethan Hawke: Nightmares are a strange thing because [sometimes] your worst fear is sometimes something you enjoy thinking about for some strange reason — I don’t know why that is. And it’s some kind of fantasy people play out, what would I do to protect my children? You know, anything, I’d do anything — and then you’d watch it play out. But I’m petrified by such a thing. I don’t enjoy thinking about that. My favorite element of the script is Lena Headey’s character. I think she plays this part so interestingly, it’s kind of my favorite aspect of the movie. It made the whole family dynamic amazing.
After doing Sinister just last year with Jason Blum, what was it about that experience that prompted you to return to this genre so quickly?
We just finished Sinister, and Jason Blum gave me this script. We both over the years have loved James DeMonaco, the guy who wrote and directed this movie, and so Jason said, “Hey, I just read this crazy script from [him],” and I said, “Let me read it.” And I had so much fun on Sinister, and when I was younger I had loved genre movies and one of my first directors was Joe Dante, who directed The Howling and Piranha and Gremlins. He had taught me a real love of what was possible with a genre movie and namely that a good genre movie is a really scary, really fun thing to go see on Friday night, but also has some subterranean political message. And The Purge is perfect.
Good genre movies are a little bit like trying to write a haiku. There’s certain things you have to do you know to fulfill the audience’s expectations, but inside that you have complete freedom to talk about whatever you want. I mean, who wants to see a movie about gun violence in America and class? But if you set it in this terrifying, fun roller-coaster ride of a movie, you could talk about whatever you want. And that’s always been from the ‘50s on that’s been the game that genre movies play when they do it well.
How realistic do you think the premise is, and what do you think would happen if it were instituted in real life?
I think it plays into an age-old human fear — whenever any of us see glimpses of revolution or riots on television or absolute anarchy. When you’re younger, kids act like a pack of wolves or something. It could be really terrifying.
What do you think that says about society?
It’s extremely violent film with an anti-violent message. It’s almost an oxymoron — it doesn’t make any sense at all. I feel there’s something powerful about watching this African-American actor run through a gated community being shot at — that is all of a sudden not so wild science fiction. The whole Trayvon Martin incident happened while we were making this movie. Our country is obsessed with violence and our right to protect our violence. They call you unpatriotic if you’re not violent. It heightens it, it’s just taking a certain thing and exaggerating it. And that’s what the best Philip K. Dick stuff does, and that’s what this is trying to do.
Was there more backstory told to you about what had happen in society to get us to that point?
Yes, in longer versions of the script, there were lots that was explained. But when further edits of the film came it started to seem that people could do that better in their own head. Most people are kinda smart and they can run with it. I enjoyed the backstory. I wanted to see the kid’s oral report on the history of the night. I thought it should open with that oral report. But they ignored me.
How did you originally conceive [your character] as a father? Because when they show him at the beginning of the movie he’s very attentive to his children, he seems to be genuinely concerned about their well-being. He’s not selling weapons, but an opportunity to defend themselves.
Yeah, that’s what’s subtle about the movie. You take a movie like Lord of War, for example, that’s a very clear-cut thing — it’s a movie about a guy who’s selling arms to kids and anybody, who’s an obvious bad guy. But this one is just more subtle than that. It’s somebody who’s making money on a society that’s corrupt in a way, which is so dangerous about the character because it’s all of us could be that person. Yeah, he’s attentive, but he also wants his kids to do what he wants to do. He’s not meeting them at their level. I think that’s why he’s not overtly good or bad. He’s not ignoring them. He’s loving them. I think that’s one of the more challenging aspects of the movie, it doesn’t tell you how to think about any of it. She seems to be against The Purge, but she’s anesthetizing herself at the beginning of the movie, always drinking wine. She seems to clearly not like it, but does not do anything to stop it. He’s convinced himself it’s a good thing because it’s making him money.
This is coming out around the same time as Before Midnight, an understated relationship drama. Does it blow your mind a little bit that this and that are both rated R?
It’s almost like something about of The Purge — that Before Midnight would be rated R is fascinating to me because of a breast. I go see PG-13 movies with my son that have a death count in the thousands. I never know how they come up with it. Our country’s relationship with sex and violence is a fascinating conundrum to me – both puritanical on one level and libertarian on the next. It’s funny as we did interviews [for Before Midnight] it was only the American press that was so concerned with Julie’s breasts — we’re like little abused children who never saw a titty. But yet, this movie is absolutely terrifying. It’s the truth about what we prioritize. I don’t even know what to say about it. Sex is a lot scarier to us than violence. We could write essays about it.
On Sinister, Scott Derrickson worked so hard not to get an R – any time I did improv and I got an “F” word in it, we had to go again. He wanted no cursing, there’s no blood in the movie. But, it was so damn scary, they gave it an R. I don’t know how we decide what children should and shouldn’t see. My mother would let me see anything.
What is it about smaller projects that seems to more frequently attract you as an actor?
I’ve always done small projects. I’ve always been interested in creative freedom and the truth is the more you get paid, the less freedom you have. They don’t pay you for nothing. It’s just always the way it is. I’ve managed to do this for more than 20 years and keep dodging and weaving and not being one thing. I didn’t want to do Long Days Journey into the Night and have people say, “Oh, there’s Batman!” There’s nothing wrong with it. In many ways, I wish I had made other decisions. I tried to do things that interest me. They don’t always turn out good, and I haven’t made all perfect decisions. But, I’ve tried to stay interested in my job and I’ve succeeded at that. Doing smaller projects help that. I don’t feel like I work for anybody.
Do you think this concept in The Purge would work? Do you think humans are inherently violent?
At moments like this, I wish I was an anthropologist. If you study the history of mankind, it seems to be a history of violence. It’s kind of terrifying. Certainly, if you look at paintings, movies or plays, or whatever, it is a litany of murder and death. But, somehow I’m always optimistic that we’re fascinated by things that scare us — and one of the things that scares us is violence. If you think about it, a great number of us never commit any acts of violence. For every crazed kid in Boston who wants to blow something up, there’s a 100 people running to stop it — thousands of people crying tears that it did happen — violence doesn’t define us.