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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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