Life as a movie star is a far cry from his early jobs flipping burgers at Burger King and dishing cones at Thomas Sweet on Nassau Street. But Ethan Hawke was on the road to success from the age of 12 when he earned $30 from appearing as Dubois’ page in McCarter Theater’s 1983 production of “St. Joan.” He later played Romeo in a McCarter “Summer Shakespeare” student production of “Romeo and Juliet,” as well as a role in “Pericles.”
Now 36, Ethan Hawke, who grew up in Princeton Junction, is an Academy Award-nominated movie star, a director, the author of two novels, and he has appeared in several major stage productions.
The 2004 film, “Before Sunset” in which Hawke stars with Julie Delpy, will be shown as part of The Thomas Sweet Outdoor Cinema on Saturday, July 8, at 9 p.m. at Petteronello Gardens Amphitheater. The movie is rated R. Hawke co-wrote the script with Delpy and Richard Linklater, whose 1994 film, “Before Sunrise,” set the stage for the two stars to meet again several years later when both were older and in different life situations.
The earlier film takes place all on one night. It is an exploration of the connection between two people, with Hawke as an American ending a rail trip through Europe and Delpy as Celine, a Parisian student, heading home. He convinces her to join him in exploring Vienna — and their mutual attraction — before he has to leave in the morning.
In “Before Sunset” Hawke is now a successful American writer, unhappily married with a child, who runs into Celine in a Paris bookstore where he is doing a reading, and the old feelings return for them both. The film’s designers have given the French capital a romantic glow that becomes almost a character itself in the movie as the two wander through the City of Lights. (Note to readers: If you have time before the July 8 screening of “Before Sunset” you might want to rent “Before Sunrise,” but it isn’t necessary — the two films stand alone quite well.)
In researching Hawke’s upbringing, I discovered his mother has quite a compelling story as well. Hawke was born in Austin, Texas, where his parents had met in college. They divorced when Hawke was three. With his mother, Leslie Hawke, and her second husband, Patrick Powers, an internal management consultant at CBS (the couple divorced in the early 1990s), Ethan moved to Princeton Junction in 1981 when he was in fifth grade. “It was more affordable than Brooklyn Heights where we were living then, had good public schools, and our house was walking distance from the train to New York, where I was an editor for a publishing company,” Leslie Hawke writes via E-mail from Romania, where she now lives. She continued to live in the Princeton area until 1996 (Ethan’s career was booming by then), when she moved to Manhattan. She left corporate life in 2000 to join the Peace Corps and stayed on in Romania after her service ended in 2003.
With a Romanian colleague, she started a charity for impoverished children of Roma (gypsy) descent in Eastern Europe to help them get into school, stay in school, and succeed in school. “We currently work with about 400 children and their families,” she says, “and are partnering with the Ministry of Education to launch a nationwide campaign to get all the children in Romania into school. Currently about 80 percent of poor Roma children don’t go beyond the fourth grade, which means that in Romania, they can never hold a legal job. The prejudice and discrimination against people of Roma descent is unbelievable.”
Why did she decide to stay? “I loved the work I was doing. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that you actually are making a difference in someone’s life and that if you weren’t doing it, nobody would. That’s hard to come by in a place like Princeton or New York. It’s not so hard for a reasonably well-educated, experienced westerner to find in a former communist country. Life here was pretty low-budget for the first couple of years but now that I’m not in the Peace Corps and I live in Bucharest, it’s not so different than my life in New York — except I find my work much more gratifying, and it’s fun watching a country ‘grow up’ into a free-market democracy.”
“Patrick’s children, Patrick and Heather, spent all their vacations with us,” Leslie Hawke says,” and were very much a part of Ethan’s life. They were all very close in age.” Patrick Jr. is an officer in the Green Berets serving in Iran and Heather is a dance teacher in San Francisco. “Patrick was a wonderful father to all three kids; there was always a lot of repartee and laughter at the dinner table, lots of arguing about movies and God and politics. Life was always highly interactive with Patrick and Ethan in the same house.”
Ethan’s biological father, James Hawke, is an actuary in Indiana. Ethan’s two younger half-brothers — Matthew, who just graduated from college, and Samuel, who is a student — have become a part of Ethan’s life in recent years, according to Leslie Hawke.
“Ethan was a very easy-going, agreeable and observant little kid,” she says. “The main thing we did together was go to movies, and usually movies that I wanted to see, movies that, as I look back, were probably not all that appropriate for a child. But he always wanted to go and he never seemed bored — or traumatized.
“The first time I took him to a movie was when he was five days old. I nursed him through ‘Five Easy Pieces’ the week it was released in Austin, Texas. He handled it so well. I continued taking him from then on. I liked foreign films, and Woody Allen, Robert Altman, pretty much anything that had more words than action, so that’s what he grew up on.”
She says that during Ethan’s childhood in Princeton Junction most of the family’s social life centered around Trinity Episcopal Church. She and her husband, Patrick, ran the youth group when Ethan was in high school, and he was a member and was confirmed at Trinity. “I think the Rev. Jean Smith, who was there at the time, had a strong influence on his spiritual side,” she says.
Continuing answering our questions via E-mail about her son’s childhood years, she says: “Ethan was always socially adept and made friends easily.” Dating? “He never talked to me about that but he got a lot of phone calls.” Athletic? “He played Pop Warner football in junior high and soccer on and off but I don’t recall that he did a sport in high school because they usually interfered with rehearsals for school plays.” Hawke started high school at West Windsor-Plainsboro and then transferred to the Hun School, from which he graduated in 1988.
I asked Leslie if she ever thought she was raising a movie star. “When he was in third grade, I took him to see ‘Annie’ on tour in Atlanta, and at intermission he said to me matter-of-factly, ‘I could do that.’ When he was about 12, on his first day of acting class at McCarter, the director, Nagle Jackson, chose him to play the page in ‘St. Joan,’ and I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe he can.’
“Ethan liked anything that had an element of performance in it. He excelled at drama and English but was a pretty average student in everything else. Once, when he got an ‘A’ in Chemistry, I said, ‘See you can do it! Now how does that make you feel?’ And he replied, ‘Like I studied too hard.’”
In addition to his roles at McCarter, he played Tom in “The Glass Menagerie” while in high school and was in the cast of “Great Expectations.”
Hawke was discovered while appearing at McCarter, and his feature film debut was at the age of 14 in the science-fiction movie “Explorers,” which starred River Phoenix. This family movie involves three young boys who use a contraption from their makeshift laboratory to travel to outer space.
Nagle Jackson, artistic director of McCarter from 1979 to 1990, recalls working with Ethan. “We discovered Ethan as a member of our Shakespeare Summers, a McCarter program for teens which allowed them to put on an entire production of a Shakespearean play each summer. Ethan was very good. He was a delightful youngster, completely unpretentious and very concentrated on the work at hand. I have not seen nor talked with him since those days, but have been impressed with his independent spirit and willingness to take chances, rather than following a predictable, agent-dictated career path,” Jackson writes via E-mail from Utah, where he is directing at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
A few years after “Explorers” Hawke landed his first big role as Todd Anderson in the Academy Award-winning “Dead Poets Society.” He went on to star opposite Jack Lemmon and Ted Danson in “Dad” and in the screen adaptation of Jack London’s classic “White Fang.”
Hawke, who studied theater in England with the British Theater Association and at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has been in more than a dozen other movies, including “Hamlet,” in which he played opposite Bill Murray and Julia Stiles, and “Great Expectations.” In the animated hit “Waking Life” he was the voice of Jesse.
He was nominated for Academy Awards for acting (“Training Day”), writing (“Before Sunset”), and for a Lucille Lortel Award and Drama League Award for his stage work in “Hurlyburly.” He performed in “The Seagull” at the National Actors Theater and in Chicago he starred in the Steppenwolf production of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.”
‘Chelsea Walls” marked Hawke’s directorial debut. Five stories set in a single day at the Chelsea Hotel comprise the film, which stars Uma Thurman, at the time his wife (they were divorced after five years of marriage in 2004), and Kris Kristofferson. He and Thurman are the parents of two children, Maya, 7, and Levon, 4.
Hawke’s two novels, The Hottest State” (1996), and “Ash Wednesday” (2002), are said to be favorites among the Generation X crowd. He is currently directing the screen adaptation of “The Hottest State,” which is in its 19th printing.
The book is autobiographical, according to Leslie Hawke, who says in an E-mail that the book is “about the confusion a boy often experiences when his father leaves and starts over with a new family. The theme is autobiographical,” she writes, “but the details are not. As a boy, Ethan’s relationship with his father was somewhat strained, given the distance — he lived in Texas — but they have a very good relationship now, which I think the movie also implies.”
Hawke’s most recently released film is “Lord of War” in which he plays opposite Nicolas Cage and Jared Leto. This is the story of an amoral arms dealer, a morality tale with a political point of view. Cage plays a Ukranian emigre in Brooklyn, who supplies arms to anyone who wants them, with no thought of consequences. Hawke is an Interpol agent in pursuit.
There is theater somewhere in the blood; Hawke’s paternal great-grandfather was the brother of Cornelius Williams, who was the father of playwright Tennessee Williams. Leslie Hawke provides a bit of trivia, noting that these Hawkes have been traced back to being one of the nine families who bought Nantucket Island from the Indians.
Leslie Hawke clearly holds a soft spot in her heart for Princeton. “I come back to the states two or three times a year for a couple of weeks each time. When I go to Princeton it always makes me feel like a character out of ‘Our Town.’ I am always shocked at how extraordinarily beautiful and pristine it is. I was too busy and preoccupied with my life to really take notice of that when I lived there. At my age and station in life now, I’d rather live in Bucharest, which is a more multi-faceted, exciting place but Princeton was a wonderful place to rear children, and I think it gave Ethan a very solid foundation.”
“Before Sunset,” Saturday, July 8, 9 p.m., Thomas Sweet Outdoor Cinema, Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater. Free. 609-924-7222 or www.thomassweet.com.