Feature Story by Brad Balfour
From vampire hematologist in the recently released Daybreakers to inspired director grappling with the first revival of a Sam Shepard play, the 39-year-old Ethan Hawke has a life full of artistic endeavors that would make several careers. An Oscar-nominated actor, a film and theater director, a successful fiction writer, and a family man (with ex-wife Uma Thurman), he's a well-respected personality who is relatively unassuming and gracious in person.
In Daybreakers, Hawke plays scientist Edward Dalton, who directs the effort to find a substitute for the blood that vampires must consume, since most of the planetary population has become infected with a vampirism and is consuming humans at a rate faster than humans can be reproduced or the blood supply be replenished.
Now in previews, the Texan-born, East Coast-raised Hawke directs a revival of A Lie of the Mind, Shepard's Drama Desk Award-winning 1985 play about emotionally scarred young men and the damaged women in their lives set in the West. Opening February 18th, 2010, at the Acorn Theater [410 West 42nd Street; 212-279-4200; www.thenewgroup.org], this production by The New Group stars Marin Ireland, Keith Carradine, Frank Whaley, Laurie Metcalf and Josh Hamilton. In a recent roundtable interview, Hawke talks about both his science-fiction/horror film and this new Off-Broadway work.
Q: What are your favorite horror films?
EH: For me, probably the biggest reason I ended up doing this movie was that [Aussie twin brothers-directors/writers] Peter and Michael Spierig have the same passion and love for movies. When I made my first movie with Joe Dante [1985's The Explorers], he was coming out of working for [director/producer] Roger Corman, and he had directed The Howling, and Piranha, and Gremlins.
I was 13, or 14 years old being taught about movies by this guy who is a huge film fanatic and film historian. He’s got a Scorsese/Tarantino like brain for movies. He’s a terrific, amazing, passionate person, and very interested in the power of movies — you can make a movie like The Howling, where it's about werewolves, but there’s an allegory underneath it. He taught me about why [director] John Carpenter was brilliant. And these guys have the same passion and the same love for those kinds of movies, and they wrote a script that was incredibly original.
I’ve done one other movie that I would really call a genre movie, which was [2005's] Assault on Precinct 13, a remake of a  Carpenter movie, and I love John Carpenter. They understand what the old school B-movie is supposed to be, and I thought that it would be really fun to be in one and to try to get into that mode.
Q: As a fan of horror films, were there any specific vampire characters that you drew on?
EH: The biggest one was actually things that I’d seen not work. In a lot of vampire movies — I can’t believe I’m talking about this — but a lot of vampires people start playing that they’re dead and they go dead behind the eyes or something. They become kind of boring.
If you're not the diabolical evil vampire that Willem [Dafoe] played so well in Shadow of the Vampire, it's difficult to give them any spark. That was more my big fear: how to have that haze of depression that you would imagine would come with one day being exactly like the next forever and ever, and not have the movie be boring.
Q: Did your theater chops help you with performing in this?
EH: I'd like to think so. I like to like that guys like Peter and Michael hire Willem and me because we have a lot of experience with storytelling and first-time directors don't really want to teach anybody about acting. It's one of the small benefits of getting older.
Q: So what's up with A Lie of the Mind?
EH: I just left rehearsal. It's going [really well]; I'm doing Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind with a great company of people, The New Group. It's awesome. It hasn't been done in New York in a long time and I’ve always wanted to do it, so I'm getting a chance to now.
Q: What attracted you to directing that particular piece?
EH: It's a long story, but I got to do [the Shepard play] Buried Child with Gary Sinise [in a production by Chicago's acclaimed] Steppenwolf [Theatre Company], and I got to do [Shepard's] The Late Henry Moss, directed by Joe Chaikin [the founder of The Open Theatre, who died in 2003] here in New York.
The combination of Chaikin and Steppenwolf are two very different schools of thought on Sam Shepard and what his work is about. I was deeply affected by both of them and it made me want to try my own theories about it.
Q: Is your style of directing theater different from doing a film?
EH: Not for me. I come at all this as an actor, whether it's writing or directing, [film or theater]. I'm interested in acting and other types of directors are interested in other things; they’re interested in style or noir or horror or whatever. None of that really is, as a director, something I know enough about.
Q: Getting back to this movie, what was the best and worst thing about wearing the vamp contacts and fangs?
EH: This is going to be a serious answer. When I was younger I hated things like any kind of makeup or accents or any kind of artifice in performance. The best thing was that, as I've been getting older… The older I get, the more I’ve been enjoying it and realize there’s this whole other door[way] to performance. It’s fun; I don’t know how to explain it more than that.
The worst thing was that I loved my fangs because they were fitted to my real teeth, and I could put them on and they were really cool for parties and things like that, but my daughter borrowed them for Halloween and she took them off and she accidentally dropped them down the sink and they're gone forever. And they were pearl and they were so cool. Kids today.
Q: Did you see any parallels between Daybreakers and your 1997 science-fiction movie Gattaca?
EH: Yes, certainly. I think [the Spierigs] really liked Gattaca.The parallels really exist in the look of the film; I noticed it as we were doing it. What Gattaca did that was so smart was that there was something retro about it; it was a futuristic movie that was retro. The cars looked older, the costumes looked like they were form the past, and that seemed more realistic than spacesuits and stuff like that.
This movie has the same quality; in the beginning I imagine my character like Humphrey Bogart or something in a film noir. The combination of film noir with vampire is cool.
The [Spierigs] get the throwback of it. They didn't do the vampires with a computer; they did it with a makeup guy. I mean, they did other things with a computer but it's a little bit of a throwback. We couldn't begin to have the budget to be competitive with what people can do with visual effects today so we had to kind of embrace being a B-movie and be the best version of that.
Q: I can't imagine you had to do that scene more than once where the human explodes...
EH: It’s disgusting. I remember saying to Peter and Michael when I’m dripping in blood, "This movie better be good." When you understand the sense of humor of those old school genre movies, to be honest that’s what makes you love Peter and Michael. And I think what makes the movie really special is they have that old-school sense of humor.
Q: What would you do differently if you could live your life without fear of death?
EH: I would smoke all the time and I would ride a motorcycle everywhere. Other than that, I don't know what I'd do.
Q: You don't smoke in real life?
EH: No. But that was a part of me that I thought it would be funny if the character was always smoking until he turns into a human being. Then you want to live longer.
Q: Do you think you'd make a good vampire?
EH: Is that a come on?
Q: Your character is a scientist; did you do any research into hematology?
EH: I am a hematology expert. I went to med school for a year to play a vampire in this movie [laughs]. No. There’s something hysterical to me about playing a vampire hematologist. The character description is hysterical. But I didn't stay up for weeks and learn about all the blood.
Q: You weren't concerned about the coming vampire plague?
EH: No, no I wasn't. I could imagine that fear.
Q: You were one of the soft vampires who didn't really want to be a vampire.
EH: A peacenik vampire. It's a certain challenge in a movie, which I kind of like, which is to be in the middle of an action movie as a person who doesn't really want to fight. I thought there was something unique to that, that I enjoyed.
I always loved seeing Indiana Jones as the professor; I always loved that element of Raiders [of the Lost Ark] where you really felt like he didn't really want to be doing all these things. That was something I could play because I get bored of all this superhero stuff; it's more fun to watch a person struggle with violence than somebody who knows what the right thing to do is all the time.
Q: Did you think of your character as a vegetarian?
EH: I did. I thought of him as a person who worked for PETA who got forced into trying to help the slaughterhouse. He has a lot of really valid points; that whole part of the movie I love.
Q: What other things hit home for you personally with the metaphor the film presents?
EH: The movie operates as an allegory but if I talked too much about it it would be ridiculous. It’s not Schindler's List. it’s a vampire movie.
It just happens to also have a great undercurrent of destroying your natural resources. Everything they're saying about the humans could go for the polar ice caps or the oil industry or the meat industry; you can insert whatever you want.
How would you feel about it if it were your own daughter? That's very relevant all the time. Nobody cares about the illegal immigrants but if it's their own child. Nobody cares about the jail system until somebody [they know] is incarcerated. That's the kind of stuff I love.
Q: The dynamic between you and your brother character offered an interesting side note. Did it intrigue you or make you think about would you turn someone vampiric if you had that power?
EH: That's the most interesting element of the movie. That scene itself… It's like in the original Blade movie, what really makes that movie work is there’s this one little scene that makes you care about the relationship between Wesley Snipes and Kris Kristofferson. And because of that one scene you actually care about the characters and follow the story.
In the bad genre movies you don't care about anybody and they just try to wow you with blood or heads popping off. The heads popping off isn't cool if you don't care. So I agree with you completely in the idea that one brother would feel really guilty about turning his brother, but also know that he was going to die if he didn't get turned; that’s kind of fascinating to daydream about.
Q: Have you theorized about vampires?
EH: I know why I like vampires, and it's the same reason why all the 11-year olds like vampires. I remember the first time I spent the night over at a friend’s house, being about 11 years old, and staying up late — this is, sadly, pre-VCRs and everything like that — and on late-night TV there came on Nosferatu with Isabelle Adjani, and she was so beautiful.
What the Twilight thing has captured so completely, and Interview with the Vampire tried to do, too, is [to showcase] the sensuality [of vampires], and that there's something weirdly sexual about vampires. But what's cool about this movie is that it's not that; it's bringing it back to an old-school horror film that has somehow turned new.
Q: You loved Nosferatu because you thought Isabelle Adjani was hot?
EH: When you repeat it back to me it sounds so stupid [laughs]. I sound like such an idiot. I was hypnotized by Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani; there was something so weird about watching him bite her neck that attacks her dreams, and has been for generations.
Q: Have you seen the other vampire stuff that’s out now like True Blood or Twilight?
EH: I’ve seen Twilight. My daughter is a huge fan so I've watched that several times. I like it.
Q: Did you watch it before doing this movie?
EH: No, that came out after we did our thing. What I was most impressed by were things like… I like the first two Blade films, actually, a lot; I think they're really cool. It's difficult to do a genre film well; it doesn't matter if it's vampires or Dawn of the Dead or The Thing. One of my favorites is John Carpenter’s The Thing with Kurt Russell, or Escape from New York. Kurt Russell’s a good model; he was always really good in these ridiculous movies.
Q: Have you met Carpenter? He’s a great, cranky interview. I loved talking to him.
EH: Oh, no, I never have. How so?
Q: He’s unrepentant in certain things he’ll say about the state of the business. What do you think about the remakes that have come out lately?
EH: It seems like my whole career there's a whole parallel universe where everybody's just remaking things. But I think that's just throughout history. If you do it well, if you reinvent something and make it new, it's exciting, and if you don't, then it's tedious.
Q: Does making this movie influence your next book?
EH: No. But it does interest me, I would like to write a graphic novel. I love that stuff; I have a whole other part of my brain that does that so I would love to if I could work with a graphic artist.
Q: What would that premise be?
EH: I have it in my noodle and I'm not sharing.
Q: As a former Oscar nominee, do you have Oscar picks?
EH: I haven’t even seen enough movies. I don't think I've ever voted for anything that’s been nominated.