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Ethan Hawke met river River Phoenix when he was 14 and stayed close friends with the actor until he died of an overdose at 23

By Ale Russian
November 17, 2020 11:19 AM
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Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix
Credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty; Ron Galella, Ltd/Ron Galella Collection via Getty

Ethan Hawke received a stark lesson on staying grounded after his good friend River Phoenix tragically died.

Hawke and Phoenix first met when they starred together in the 1985 film Explorers, when Hawke was 14 and Phoenix was 15. Though they were often up for the same part, with Phoenix nabbing most of the roles, the two stayed close friends up until Phoenix's sudden death. The young actor overdosed in 1993 on a night out in Los Angeles when he was 23 years old.

"You know what you asked me about earlier, why I don’t make easier movies?" Hawke, 50, said in a new interview with The Guardian. "Well, my first screen partner overdosed on Sunset Boulevard, you know? He was the brightest light and this industry chewed him up, and that was a big lesson to me. If I had to put a single reason on why I never moved to LA, it would be I think it’s too dangerous for an actor like me to be in that kind of climate."

Hawke also reflected on the death of several friends to a mixture of depression and substance abuse, including Dead Poets Society costar Robin Williams, Before the Devil Knows Your Name costar Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Phoenix.

“Drugs and alcohol and depression are formidable opponents all over the world. People think getting what you want will make you happy, but a sense of self, purpose and love don’t come from the outside. You can’t get distracted by this culture that celebrates things that sometimes aren’t what they seem,” he said.

Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix
Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix
| Credit: Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

Hawke has previously been open about his own battles with depression, including the low moments in which his marriage to Uma Thurman fell apart. The two married in 1998 and had two kids — daughter Maya, 22, and son Levon, 18 — before splitting in 2005.

In a 2018 interview with GQ, Hawke revealed his marriage to the actress began to fall apart after he earned an Oscar nomination for the 2001 film Training Day.

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Ethan and daughter Maya Hawke

“In a lot of ways, it could have been the beginning of something. It was the best moment of my career,” he told GQ of his nomination. “Like, ‘Maybe, maybe you could be commercially viable.’ But I got divorced and my personal life fell apart.”

While it wasn’t easy getting past his depression, Hawke said he was lucky to have a support system to help him through it, including his two children with Thurman: Maya Hawke, 22, and Levon Roan Thurman-Hawke, 18.

“Work. Theater. My kids,” he said. “That’s the wonderful thing about children is they just need you every day. It gives your life balance. Meaning your whole life isn’t just about yourself.”

The father of four is now married to actress Ryan Hawke, and the couple share 12-year-old daughter Clementine and 9-year-old daughter Indiana.