Ethan Hawke talks about his surprise No. 1 movie, 'The Purge'

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Image Credit: Daniel Mcfadden; Despina Spyrou

Ethan Hawke is better known for his eclectic artistic tastes than his mainstream box-office successes. But the indie stalwart and Broadway veteran recently added a new dimension to his resume with his starring role in The Purge, a violent high-concept thriller that connected with moviegoers to become the weekend’s No. 1 movie. (What would Troy Dyer from Reality Bites think?)

In the latest twisted tale from producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity), Hawke plays a successful home-security-system salesman whose gated community wares are especially in-demand in the near future, when the government sanctions an annual cathartic “holiday” where citizens can murder and pillage with impunity. When a hunted man seeks refuge in his locked-down house, and a masked mob demands he turn the uninvited guest over, Hawke’s character has to decide what kind of man he really is.

Audiences flocked to theaters to experience this deliciously nasty puzzle, to the tune of $34.1 million, giving Hawke two of the most interesting movies currently in theaters. In addition to The Purge, Hawke stars in Before Midnight, the third chapter of his ongoing romantic conversation with Julie Delpy for director Richard Linklater. Since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, critics have swooned and audiences are packing theaters in its limited release, to the tune of more than $10,000 per theater last weekend. When it expands to more theaters on Friday, he’ll likely have two movies in the box office top-10.

But Ethan Hawke hasn’t changed his stripes. He’s planning to play Macbeth on the stage at Lincoln Center this fall, and he and Richard Linklater are also on the verge of completing a unique 12-year project tentatively titled Boyhood. The pair have been filming a story about the year-by-year maturation of a boy (Ellar Coltrane) for more than a decade, with Hawke playing the boy’s father. “When I did my first scene with Ellar, he was 7,” says Hawke. “Now he’s 18. This is just part of his life. It’s like his own little private acting club.”

EW checked in with the actor in the midst of his triumphant weekend to discuss his place in Hollywood, and how it feels to be No. 1.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on The Purge being the No. 1 movie of the weekend. By pure math, it is your biggest opening of all time, dwarfing the opening-frame take for Training Day. Was this a big surprise?
ETHAN HAWKE: Thanks. To see it work, when you’re up against all these movies that they spent $100 million making, it’s a lot of fun. I mean, I slept on the producers’ couch the whole time we shot the movie, and we were just the biggest movie of the weekend. It feels a little bit like some Robin Hood sh-t.

Tell me about your weekend experience when you have a movie premiering. And I ask because I was listening to Will Smith telling Jimmy Kimmel about how he monitored the poor showing of After Earth, minute to minute, almost in real time. Can you relate to that experience?
I’ve never really prioritized making money that way. I decided months ago that I loved The Purge and I felt it was a cool movie. I would love it [even] if it bombed. I’ve had so few movies ever make money in my 20-year career. I’ve learned not to care about it.

In addition to great business, the film is getting attention for its political thematic elements. Clearly the moral of The Purge is the only thing that can stop a bad man with a gun is a good guy with a gun, just like the NRA told me.
It’s a very strange oxymoron — the movie is an extremely violent film with an extremely anti-violent message. I mean, if you watch the actor Edwin Hodge run through a gated community [while] being shot at and not think of Trayvon Martin, then you’re missing the point of the movie. But I think what’s clear is that the movie is also a lot of fun. I think any good genre film does that. Even Sinister, which was a genre movie that I made [last year] — that’s really a genre movie disguised as a cautionary tale about how a father puts ambition at the forefront of his life and it lets the demon in the door. And in Sinister, it’s an actual literal demon. So my point is that I think what’s funny about The Purge is that if you are an NRA guy, I don’t know what you make out of it. People usually generally see what they want to see anyway. And whether you like The Purge or don’t like The Purge, it’s undeniable that it works as an allegory. I mean, that’s what’s cool about it.

Between Sinister and The Purge, it seems like you’ve found the perfect genre to have fun and sort of pay the bills too.
I’d been searching for a way to balance my life in the theater and my life doing independent cinema — movies that are super-close to my heart like Before Midnight. But at the same time, if you don’t make some people some money and if you don’t make movies that people see, your opportunities get less and less. And when a movie like Sinister happens, a movie like this happens, it just gives me more opportunities. It helps get Before Midnight financed, you know. So for me, it’s always been a trick of finding a way to do that with movies that I love because I’ve found that in my life, whenever I’ve tried to work for money, the movies turn out bad. If my heart’s not in it, they never seem to go well.

I was re-reading Peter Biskind’s book about the 1990s indie renaissance, Down and Dirty Pictures, and I remember you talking about the internal struggle you felt between arthouse and Hollywood movies, and how you even felt a certain amount of ambivalence working on Training Day — a huge critical and popular success that earned you on Oscar nomination — because it was a studio film. Has your thinking evolved since then?
I’ve always gravitated away from big, giant studio productions, movies that rely on money and effects to entertain an audience. I found kind of a home with Jason [Blum], which is out of the studio house and into the grindhouse. At least you have creative freedom. You don’t feel like you’re working for the man. When you’re working with Denzel Washington, what happens is he’s the big dog and he has creative power over the studio. So the set is a very creative and exciting place to be. But in my experience of making other studio movies, without a real powerhouse artistic presence, you get pushed around. You start to feel like you work for an ad company, so I’ve always struggled with that.

Biskin’s book is so interesting because the world is changing so fast. Before Sunrise is a perfect example. In 1994, Before Sunrise was made with a studio. In 2002, [Sunset] was made with a studio ancillary, Warner Independent. And by 2013, we’re doing it entirely on our own. [Midnight] is entirely independently jury-rigged. There was no home for it. Movies like Before the Devil Knows Your Dead or Gattaca — my bread and butter — it’s been dizzying to keep trying to figure out how to have a relevant acting career. It is strange to have like one of the gentlest movies of all time out with one of the most terrifying movies.

That is a very interesting parallel experience you must be going through right now. When Before Midnight opens wider next weekend, I suspect it will dwarf the box-office of the first two films in the series. I saw it with my wife on our 10-year wedding anniversary, and it caused some uncomfortable shifting in our seats and we’re still talking about some of the scenes that were a little too close to home.
I hope it does well. I just think there’s so few movies made for grownups. You know, Midnight is just full of adult scenes that really want to talk about relationships.

With The Purge, though, journalists are going to say you’ve entered a new phase of your career…
Hey, it beats being the old phase. You always want to be in the new phase! It’s true Before Midnight is probably the best-reviewed movie of my career and The Purge is definitely the biggest opening of my career. So I’ll be curious. The only deal is I’m not 20 years old. I used to make fun of British actors all the time, teasing the pedigree of what they seemed to be about. I think back now about how they’re the only ones who seem to survive. Because they don’t seem to be players, you know, whether you think about Albert Finney and Jeremy Irons, or guys my age like Ewan McGregor and Ralph Fiennes. They have a culture there of respecting acting as a craft and not as a popularity contest. I’ve been trying to find my own road through all this, so that when people recognize you on the street and you have to deal with all the nonsense that surrounds celebrity that you feel good about what you’ve done. Nobody else can make that up for you.

Read more:
The wildly different paths of Ethan Hawke and Owen Wilson
The 4 emotional stages of watching ‘The Purge’
EW Pop-Culture Personality Test: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy

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