Arts & Culture News

Don't Call Ethan Hawke a Sellout

A sellout? Nah. Ethan Hawke, endless portrayer of intellectual hipsters, has a new role as a comic book villain.
A sellout? Nah. Ethan Hawke, endless portrayer of intellectual hipsters, has a new role as a comic book villain. Jerod Harris/Getty
Perhaps it was inevitable that Ethan Hawke would have to eat his words.

“I went to see Logan cause everyone was like, 'This is a great movie,'” he told The Film Stage back in 2018. “I was like, 'Really? No, this is a fine superhero movie.' There's a difference, but big business doesn't think there's a difference. Big business wants you to think that this is a great film because they wanna make money off of it.”

Hawke later told Collider that he enjoyed Logan, and other comic book films such as The Dark Knight and Doctor Strange, but that he was “trying to say we need a community that’s making all kinds of movies.”

Like everyone else in the industry, Hawke has been roped into the comic book world, as it was recently announced that he would be playing the primary antagonist in the Marvel Disney+ series Moon Knight. Now that he's playing a spandex character himself, does that make Hawke a hypocrite? Far from it. As his comments on “big business” indicate, Hawke is one of the few mainstream actors who’s been honest about the struggles of being a creative person in a commercial industry.

The Austin native has been appearing in movies since he was the child star of Explorers and Dead Poets Society. For over 35 years, Hawke has picked out projects from prestige directors, working with industry legends like Paul Schrader and Sidney Lumet as well as then up-and-coming talents like Richard Linklater and Andrew Niccol.

He has been nominated four times for Academy Awards, twice for writing and twice for acting. He has directed three independent films, including the Texas-set music biopic Blaze. He has produced and starred in numerous off-Broadway productions. He’s never been a snob about television, having recently starred in one of the most acclaimed series of 2020, The Good Lord Bird. He’s also an acclaimed author, with his latest work A Bright Ray of Darkness hitting bookshelves this week.

Hawke's career is so eclectic and his choices so unpredictable that it’s been impossible to ever pin him down as just one thing.

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But Hawke also has to pay his bills. He stars in a fair number of direct-to-VOD action movies, with titles as unsubtle as Getaway or 24 Hours to Live. He’ll randomly appear in major action films for brief cameos, appearing in over-the-top side roles in films such as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Cut Throat City. He’s also appeared in a fair number of bombs — a film like the doomed Angelina Jolie horror-romance Taking Lives is bound to be a stain on any actor’s record.

Is Moon Knight a passion project for Hawke, or a supplement to his more interesting independent work? It’s hard to tell. It’s not like Hawke has never been mainstream, because he’s been a recognizable face since Explorers launched his career in 1985. Rather, his career is so eclectic and his choices so unpredictable that it’s been impossible to ever pin him down as just one thing.

Hawke is the type of actor who can play anyone from Nikola Tesla to Chet Baker, and he’s one of the rare Hollywood leading men who's been able to age gracefully and allow his co-stars to shine. One of the things that make his filmography so exciting is the fact that he’s not only working with the industry’s established names, but that he’s made a habit of spotlighting talent, particularly women and people of color, and won their projects more attention thanks to his collaboration.

There’s a loyalty within Hawke — and in some cases extreme loyalty with his most frequent collaborators — that makes him stand out. The most impressive has been his work with Linklater, who cast Hawke as the romantic lead in the Before trilogy (with a nine-year gap between each installment) as well as the father in coming-of-age drama Boyhood, which was shot across 12 summers in Austin. While many actors drop out of projects midway through shooting, what does it say about someone’s work ethic when they can commit to a film for over a decade?

The ability to earmark talent has always signified Hawke’s relevance, particularly when he chooses not to give up on fellow creatives. One of his bigger financial failures was the 2009 science fiction thriller Daybreakers, but he later reteamed with the film’s directors Peter and Michael Spierig for the acclaimed time travel mindbender Predestination. One of Hawke’s very best roles to date was in Lumet’s morally disturbing heist thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a film made when many considered the aging filmmaker to be past his prime.

Even Hawke’s most mainstream work has never felt disingenuous, and he’s often made projects more exciting than they ought to have been. Take The Magnificent Seven, for example; the 2016 remake is essentially a beat-for-beat retread of the 1960 film, but Hawke’s surprisingly nuanced portrayal of a former Confederate sharpshooter overtaken by guilt is one of the standout parts. Within a film that wasn’t asking much of the filmmakers or audience, Hawke managed to make things more interesting.

Hawke’s never been adverse to appearing in things for favors, either, having shown up in the directorial efforts of friends Logan Marshall-Green and Vincent D’Onofrio. Given his clout, it’s amazing that Hawke’s own directorial efforts have mostly cast indie stars, and that he’s avoided cluttering his films with Hollywood stars in favor of the authenticity of unknown performers.

Buried beneath the news of the Moon Knight casting were recent reports that Hawke would be reteaming with his longtime collaborator Scott Derrickson for the low-budget horror thriller The Black Phone; his upcoming appearance at Austin’s Book People indie bookstore; and his excitement about playing an Icelandic King in the upcoming Viking epic The Northman. Hawke’s always been prolific and he’s always been frank. The only thing he’s never been is uninteresting.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.