The sensitive guy is now the tough guy: Ethan Hawke picks up a gun and grit for Assault on Precinct 13, playing a Detroit police sergeant trapped on New Year’s Eve in a battle with crooked cops and prisoners. It’s a role that 10 years ago would have been unlikely for the goateed star known for long walks along the Seine (Before Sunrise) and rejecting the establishment (Reality Bites). But since doing 2001’s Training Day – for which he earned an Oscar nod – mainstream moviemaking has become acceptable in his book. “My taste has kind of expanded,” Hawke, 34, says. The father of two (with ex-wife Uma Thurman) recently chatted about going commercial, playing the action star and chalking it all up to good fortune.
There are about a dozen deadlock moments in this movie. How do you think you’d do in a real-life standoff?
Terrible, I’m sure. How many real Mexican standoffs do you think that there’ve been in the world? Usually someone pulls the trigger and the other people run.
You’ve taken some hits for being such a renaissance man. Does that fuel your creativity?
Real renaissance people are people who are into the sciences and also are an athlete and are also in the arts. Those are people like Benjamin Franklin and Da Vinci. These are truly great men. I operate in the small area of the arts.
Where you’ve been a writer, a stage actor, a director …
I think that anyone who has a notoriety or a certain celebrity at the age of eighteen, you’re going to watch that human being try different things. I mean, I couldn’t just do the same thing for my whole life. … I’ve had to mature as a human being while people were watching me.
Are you writing anything at the moment?
I’m trying to write a third book. … It’ll probably be years before I’m done with it.
Why do you think you’ve succeeded at making the transition from teen actor to serious contender?
Part of it is good fortune. … And, you know, I think that a lot of young actors get in trouble because they’re in a hurry and they end up burning themselves out. And maybe because I’ve saved my money well. I mean, something as little as that means something. A lot of young actors end up having to do a lot of jobs that they don’t like because they owe someone a lot of money or something. How do you see your work changing as you’ve matured?
You learn things in life and you apply them to everything. … I think that it’s probably true that when I was 25 I wouldn’t have been interested in making this movie. It was too important to me to try and figure out who I was. I didn’t want to be in anything that was kind of perceived as simply a commercial venture. And my taste has kind of expanded as I’ve grown up.
And with your personal life?
Well, if you’re in the arts, as corny as it sounds, your life is the stuff from which you work with. … Friends of mine say that after Training Day there was some kind of change in my work, and I chalk a lot of that up to simply developmental. It was my daughter and turning 30.
Any disappointment that Before Sunset wasn’t a blockbuster?
With that particular movie, I was so happy that we got to make it. I saw the whole thing as such a victory. We wanted to make that movie for nine years. So there was no disappointment about it not performing great. That’s not why you make that movie.
You’re returning to the New York theater this month in the biting play Hurlyburly. Why the stage?
Theater has always been my first love. It’s a great place to push your own learning process without a lot of financial risk, meaning that when you do a movie, they ask you to do the same thing that you’ve done before. In theater you’re given an opportunity to risk more as a performer.
And why Hurlyburly?
It’s very dark, and it’s sometimes interesting to play characters that aren’t likable because it removes one tool that you can use. It’s fun. It’s incredibly challenging and that’s why you do it.