Ethan Hawke has remained a staple of the indie scene since his early days as an actor. Breakout roles in the likes of Reality Bites and Dead Poets Society led to starring roles in Gattaca, Training Day and the Before Sunrise series, among others. Lately he’s been dabbling with genre films, first with 2009’s Daybreakers, then with last year’s Sinister, and now with The Purge: a speculative piece about a legally sanctioned night in which all crime in America is legal. He sat down to talk about the project at the recent press day for the film.
Question: This is the second film in a row you’ve made about families in peril. Why do you think that notion makes for such a good suspense/horror film?
Ethan Hawke: It’s everybody’s biggest fear. There’s a moment in the film where you see the husband and wife loading guns, and him teaching her how to fire it. It’s kind of every parent’s worst nightmare. And nightmares can be strange things because your worst fears are sometimes incredibly fascinating. What would you do in this situation? How would you react? Would you do anything to protect your children? Would it look something like this? There’s a real power there.
Q: There’s a lot of implied back story here that they let the audience fill in the blanks on. How much of that was developed in the original script or in rehearsals? How much did you know about when shaping your character?
EH: In longer versions of the script, there was lots of it. Then the filmmaking went on and edits came in, and it became clear that people could do a much better job of filling in those blanks themselves than we could. You had to answer a lot more questions for starters. “What depression?” “Why did China leverage our debts?” “Why weren’t they running the government?” I enjoyed the back story – I actually wanted to see things open with a kid’s oral report talking about what happened – but it started to get away from the central point of the film. And in the end, I don’t think it was necessary. People are pretty smart; they can pick up those cues on their own.
Q: What was it that you liked about doing Sinister that made you want to return to this kind of genre?
EH: When I was younger, I loved genre movies, and one of my first directors was Joe Dante, on a movie called Explorers. He taught me a real love of what was possible with a genre movie, both as an actor, but mainly as a fan. I’d loved his stuff growing up: Gremlins and The Howling and Piranha. He showed me that genre movies let you deliver some kind of subterranean political message if you wanted. Yes, they’re a blast, they’re a fun time on a Friday night, but you could talk about serious, serious ideas without turning people off. It’s wonderful; it gives you all kinds of creative freedom. Seriously, who wants to see a movie about gun violence and class divisions? But if you set it in this roller coaster, this straight-up science fiction thriller, then you not only get people to enjoy it if that’s what they want, but you get them talking about it in ways that a heavy-handed message movie couldn’t. From the 50s on, it’s been that way with genre films.
Q: We’ve seen in real life what can happen when there’s no law enforcement, what kind of anarchy this can create. How plausible is this scenario? Do you think it could happen?
EH: I think it plays into this age-old fear of lawlessness. We see it on the news whenever there’s a riot or a revolution. We see it in the schoolyard with kids. Kids are like packs of wolves when left on their own. This is an extremely violent film with an anti-violence message. It’s almost an oxymoron. But it does touch on the reality we live in: seeing an African-American running through a gated community, begging for help and not getting it. We’re obsessed with violence and the tools of violence. The film just exaggerates it a little bit. Or tries to at least. These are old ideas. When I first read this, I thought it could be a Philip K. Dick story.
Q: You have a couple of big fight scenes here, which you haven’t done a lot of in your career. How was that experience?
EH: It’s fun doing fight scenes like that in a domestic environment. I secretly would love to do one of those fight movies where you have to get a lot of training. I’ve done just enough in my career to know a little bit about it. A little scene here, a little scene there. But part of me wishes I could be Jackie Chan, and get really crazy.
Q: Is there a reason why you prefer small projects like this one to bigger budget movies where you might get to do something like that?
EH: I’ve always done smaller projects throughout my career. I like creative freedom, and the reality of the world is that the more you get paid, the less freedom you have. That’s just the way it is. I’ve managed to do this for more than 20 years, and keep dodging and weaving without being one thing. I think I’ve strived for that. I never wanted to do, say, Long Day’s Journey into Night and have people say “look, there’s Batman!” And that’s not to disparage other people’s work. There’s nothing wrong with it. In many ways, as I get older, I wish I had made other decisions sometimes. I watch how people have parleyed their careers one way or the other, and made it all work. I just tried to do things that interested me, and this is how it’s worked out. I haven’t made perfect decisions, but I’ve always stayed interested in my job. I’ve succeeded at that. So I can’t say I regret those decisions.