A reluctant pretty boy, comfortable on the stage

Updated: 2013-01-22 09:16


The New York Times


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A reluctant pretty boy, comfortable on the stage

Chester Higgins JR. / The New York Times

Seeing Ethan Hawke in a grungy Midtown rehearsal space leading actors through a reading is a bit of a shock. Not that he is there: Mr. Hawke is a steady presence in the New York theater scene, and he is rehearsing "Clive," a play about a '90s-era New York rocker gone very, very bad, in which he stars and directs.

No, it's his hair. Vertical and shot through with silver, with notes of green (or is that blue?), his mane looks like a prop, which in a way, it is. Like much else taken on by Mr. Hawke, a former movie heartthrob who is now 42 and the father of four, it would seem pretentious if it weren't done in dead earnest.

A reluctant pretty boy, comfortable on the stage

Fired up by clay 

"Clive" is an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's "Baal" written by Mr. Hawke's longtime friend Jonathan Marc Sherman. For Mr. Hawke the play is part of a theater career that has included founding a company, directing new work and taking a gritty star turn in the revival of David Rabe's "Hurlyburly," which, like "Clive," was produced by the New Group. That's been mixed with high-minded work like Tom Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia" trilogy, for which Mr. Hawke earned a Tony nomination, and the melancholy title character in Chekhov's "Ivanov," which he recently performed at Classic Stage Company.

"He attacked the life of that character, and like everything he does it is very much of the moment," said Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred with Mr. Hawke in Sidney Lumet's movie "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

"Clive," which matches "Baal" scene for scene, began performances January 17 at the Acorn Theater, with a cast that includes Vincent D'Onofrio, Zoe Kazan and Mr. Sherman himself.

Mr. Hawke acts, directs and sings his way through a scabrous portrait of a talented rocker and ferocious addict who is on his way to hell and leaves claw marks in everything around him as he goes. "He hurts people he loves," Mr. Hawke explained. "But I think Brecht was thinking about something other than whether he's good or bad, and I'm trying to get at those other things with the performance."

A reluctant pretty boy, comfortable on the stage

Tailored for tots 

Bankable by Hollywood after "Reality Bites" in 1994, he seemed to have enough cachet to live a relatively privileged professional life. And it's not like he quit on mainstream film work. He received an Academy Award nomination in 2002 for his supporting role alongside Denzel Washington in "Training Day." Lately, with money on his mind, he lined up two horror movies, "Sinister," which did very well, and "The Purge," which will be out in May.

Before that he will come full circle when "Before Midnight" has its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival - the third film in Richard Linklater's series in which Mr. Hawke stars with Julie Delpy.

Given that he married and divorced Uma Thurman, going through the tabloid machine in the process (he has since remarried), it's not as if Mr. Hawke has completely lived the life of a monkish theater rat. As it turns out, Mr. Hawke, who in movies often played the reluctant pretty boy who was smarter than he was given credit for, has been playing to type all along.

"I had an allergy to being famous and have been neurotically chasing a larger dream, a substantive life in the arts, so that I didn't end up getting defined by it," he said.

A great-grandnephew of Tennessee Williams, Mr. Hawke is a New York University English program dropout who has written two novels and is working on a third. He wants to be taken seriously but not come off as a jerk.

"I feel like I'm stumbling on something that is original with this group of people," he said of his "Clive" collaborators. "You haven't seen a play like this before, and I don't know exactly how it is going to work, but I do know it's what I want to do with my life."

The New York Times

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