IAR INTERVIEW: Ethan Hawke Talks 'The Purge' and his Distinguished Career

Thursday, 06 June 2013 15:58 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR INTERVIEW: Ethan Hawke Talks 'The Purge' and his Distinguished Career

42-year old actor Ethan Hawke has been performing in front of a camera for more than half his life. 

Hawke first gained attention for his work as Robin William’s student in Peter Weir’s now classic film Dead Poets Society, but his breakthrough role came when he starred in Ben Stiller’s directorial debut Reality Bites. He went on to appear in such popular films as Gattaca, Great Expectations, and Snow Falling on Cedars before receiving an Academy Award-nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Training Day opposite Denzel Washington. In 2004 Hawke was once again nominated for an Academy Award, this time for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), for his work on Before Sunset, which was a sequel to Before Sunrise that he co-wrote with actress July Delpy, director Richard Linklater, and Kim Krizan

Recently the actor has appeared in a string of action films including Assault on Precinct 13, Lord of War, Daybreakers, Brooklyn’s Finest, and Total Recall, as well as the horror film Sinister. Hawke now has new two movies opening in the next few weeks including the third film in director Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, Before Midnight, which is currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin, and opens in theaters nationwide on June 14th. But first, the Oscar-nominated actor can be seen in the new horror-thriller The Purge, which opens in theaters on June 7th. 

In the film, the United States has legalized all crimes for a 12-hour period once a year, which is referred to as the Purge. In theory, this has lowered the overall crime rate and allows citizens to release their inner “beast” every year on this one specific day. Hawke plays James Sandin, a home security salesmen living in a gated community with his wife (Lena Headey) and two teenage kids, who has become quite wealthy from selling security systems to his neighbors to protect themselves during the annual event. But after his youngest son harbors a homeless man who is the target of a murderous syndicate during the Purge, the family is held hostage in their own home with no choice but to fight for their lives against their own community. 

I recently had a chance to attend a private press conference, along with a few other members of the press, and speak with Ethan Hawke about The Purge, as well as his long and distinguished career. 

While Hawke is not predominately known for appearing in horror films, he did star in last year’s Sinister, which was produced by Jason Blum who also worked on The Purge. I began the press conference by asking the actor, after appearing in Sinister, what he liked about the script for The Purge that made him want to return to the genre so quickly. “We just finished Sinister and Jason Blum gave me this script because the world is not as complex as one might think,” he explained. “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 James DeMonaco.’ I said, let me read it because I had so much fun on Sinister.”

“When I was younger I had loved genre movies and one of my first directors was Joe Dante who had directed The Howling, Piranha, and Gremlins,” Hawke continued. “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 a Friday night, but also has some subterranean political message. The Purge is perfect in that way and Sinister is too. I’ve always flirted with genre movies because I also did Daybreakers. In a lot of ways Training Day is a genre movie too. I could do a whole series of them because it’s just a cop genre. Good genre movies are a little bit like trying to write a haiku. There are certain things you have to do to fulfill the audience’s expectations, but inside that you have complete freedom to talk about whatever you want. In a way it’s wonderful because you get to make a movie that deals with all these socio-political ideas. 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. That’s always been from the ‘1950s on and that’s been the game that genre movies play when they do it well.”

Next, Hawke was asked about The Purge’s thought provoking premise and what he thinks it says about the society we live in. “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, it’s like watching kids behave. You know when you’re younger kids act like a pack of wolves or something. It can be really terrifying. But the movie is trying to put its finger on something,” he explained. “It’s an extremely violent film with an anti-violent message, it’s almost an oxymoron, and it doesn’t make any sense at all. I feel that there is something powerful about this movie. There is a scene in the movie where people with guns are sharpening their knives, and our country is obsessed with violence, and our right to protect our violence. They’ll call you unpatriotic if you’re not violent! The film heightens it. It’s just taking a certain thing and exaggerating it. That’s what the best Philip K. Dick stuff does that and that’s what this is trying to do.”

As an Oscar-nominated writer himself, the actor was asked if he had any input into the writing of the script. “I have a lot of respect for James DeMonaco. It’s very difficult to make a movie like this with this kind of budget and he had his work cut out for him. I couldn’t begin to write a movie like this. I could try to help him or help myself create a full, three-dimensional character. This character was very hard to play in a lot of ways because he’s not overtly a bad guy, and he actually thinks he’s a good guy,” Hawke explained. “It’s easy to play a villain and it’s easy to play a hero, but this guy’s in this weird grey zone of a person who is culpable for a lot of negative things in his life, but isn’t aware of them. He slowly wakes up. So I didn’t assist in the writing, I could just work on my own character.”

Given the subject of the film, Hawke was then asked if he would want a to have a gun to protect his family if they were being attacked. “I would really rather that nobody had a gun and I wouldn’t have to worry about it,” he said. “That would be more of my theory. In America there’s some kind of knee jerk response that more walls and more guns make people safer. I’m entirely suspect to that way of thinking.”

Fans of Star Trek will recognize that a plot similar to the one in The Purge was once used on the original series when the crew visited a puritanical planet that would have a “killing festival” once a year. One astute reporter, who also happened to be a Trekkie, asked Hawke if he was aware of that Star Trek episode and if it was discussed at all while making the film. “I’ve seen all those old Star Trek episodes, but I forgot about that one while we were shooting,” he confessed. “But I actually saw that one recently because I got my son all the original episodes. He liked the last movie (J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek) and so we watched the original series together. You know, these are old ideas. When I first read this, I thought it could be a Phillip K. Dick short story. But it didn’t surprise me. Those old Star Trek episodes are really good.”

Hawke’s other new film, Before Midnight, is a much different type of movie than The Purge, yet oddly they both have the same R-rating. Admittingly The Purge is an extremely violent film, while Before Midnight is a mature romantic drama that mostly features Hawke and co-star Julie Delpy talking. However, due to one lengthy argument scene between the couple where Delply is topless, the film was given the same rating as its ultra-violent counterpart. Hawke was asked how he felt about this and what it says about the MPAA rating system. 

“It’s amazing,” Hawke replied. “It’s almost like something out of The Purge that Before Midnight would be rated R because of a breast. It’s fascinating to me. I go see PG-13 movies with my son that have a death count in the thousands but you can’t show a breast? I never know how they come up with the ratings. 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 because when 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, director Scott Derrickson worked so hard not to get an R-rating. Anytime I would improvise and I used the F-word, we had to do it again,” Hawke continued. “He wanted no cursing, and there’s no blood in the movie. But because it was so damn scary, they gave it an R-rating anyways. I don’t know how we decide what children should and shouldn’t see. My mother would let me see anything when I was a kid.” 

While the actor has always appeared in studio films, he has also made quite a few independent movies throughout his career, and he talked about what attracts him to smaller projects. “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,” Hawke joked. “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, weaving and not being one thing. I didn’t want to do Long Days Journey into Night and have people say, ‘Oh, there’s Batman!’ There’s nothing wrong with that. 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.”

Finally, Hawke was asked if there is one film in his 20-year long distinguished resume of work that he would like his kids to see. “No. They don’t want see me in a movie, I’m there dad. They want me to just be their dad. They don’t care. I would much rather them see To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The Purge opens in theaters on June 7th.

And be sure to keep an eye out for IAR's exclusive video interview with Ethan Hawke and July Delpy about Before Midnight closer to the film's nationwide July 14th release. 

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