August 12, 2013 12:00 PM

Ethan Hawke has been eating at Le Grainne Cafe in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood since he was 19. Back then, he’d prepare for auditions, study his lines and worry about whether he could turn teenage acting gigs into a lifetime of doing what he loved. “My career began right here,” he says, ordering coffee and an omelet. Now, 23 years and more than 40 movies later, the place is a family tradition – “my kids love the lemon sugar crepes” – and his everyday anxieties revolve more around his role as a father of four. His oldest daughter, Maya, 15, “went to the prom with an upperclassman,” he says. “He was as tall as me and even shaves! As a dad, it’s kind of terrifying. She’s my little girl.”

Time marches on – but at 42, Hawke is as hot as he was during his Gen X pinup days. In June his horror movie The Purge was a surprise smash, and Before Midnight – the follow-up to 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, tracing soulmates played by Hawke and Julie Delpy – opened to raves (it expands to more theaters in August). Next up: an action thriller, Getaway, out Aug. 30, and the lead in Macbeth at New York’s Lincoln Center this fall. “It’s strange, and a relief,” he says of his streak. “I’ve been doing this long enough that every time I have a success, I get a little bit more freedom. But it’s been one of the best summers of my life, for sure.”

And that has as much to do with family as career. A longtime Manhattanite, Hawke recently moved with his wife, Ryan, 33, and daughters Clementine, 5, and Indiana, 2, to Brooklyn, where, he says, “it’s like 25 degrees less chaos.” Maya and son Levon, 11, from his first marriage to Uma Thurman, are around plenty too: He and Thurman “coordinate schedules so the kids have equal time with each of us,” Hawke says. Theater work helps. “Rehearsals start the same day that school starts,” he says. “It lets me have some routine in my life, and it’s good for my kids. I don’t want them growing up without me.”

Born in Texas but raised in Brooklyn and New Jersey, Hawke became a working actor at 14. His first film, 1985’s sci-fi fantasy Explorers with River Phoenix, was a flop. “It taught me about failure. I had dreams for years they remade it with a different actor.” At 18 he appeared in Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams; at 23 he became a slacker heartthrob in Reality Bites. He was 31 when he got an Oscar nod for Training Day. “I always got fame in doses, and because of that, I could handle it,” he says. “What’s hard is when people go from zero to 60. River wasn’t the only beautiful and talented young person to be [lost]. It’s not a great environment for a young person.”

Nor is it great for relationships. Hawke met Thurman making 1997’s Gattaca, morphing into an entity he’d never planned to be: a hot celebrity couple. “In my 20s I was insecure about proving myself,” he says. By his early 30s, “I didn’t know who I was anymore because I couldn’t find the joy in my work.” In 2003 he and Thurman split, and Hawke became hot copy for tabloids for seeing Ryan, who once worked for the family as a nanny (the pair wed in ’08). He found a refuge in theater work and also reconnected with Delpy and director Richard Linklater, with whom he wrote the script for Before Sunset (the trio received Oscar nominations). It was then that he rediscovered his passion. “He’s still pushing himself,” says Linklater. “There’s really no one else like him at his level.”

Along the way, he also learned what matters most. Now Hawke runs lines for Macbeth with Maya while changing toddler Indiana’s diapers – “I’m a full-service dad,” he jokes – and talks over scripts with Ryan, a full-time mom who “gives my life balance,” he says. “More than my job, I want to dedicate my life to the people I love, my family. That’s what makes me happy.”

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