November 21, 2007
"I've never played a character that was so dumb," Ethan Hawke laughed.
"That's assuming that I'm smart. I'm not, but it's hard to play someone that hates himself that much. It's like a classic Greek tragedy where the protagonists always do these horrible things, unforgivable actions, but it's interesting."
Hawke was referring to Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, co-starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is currently featured in East End theaters. As financially strapped brothers, the two plot to rob their parents' Queens, N.Y. jewelry store.
What's the harm? Hoffman's overbearing character Andy can replace the embezzled funds from his employer before a scheduled audit. Hawke's weak-willed Hank can play catch-up on those late child-support payments, while mom and dad get reimbursed for their losses from the insurance company. Exacerbating the siblings' love-hate relationship is Hank's clandestine affair with Andy's trophy wife (Marisa Tomei).
The perfect crime quickly turns into a colossal screw-up. The body count mounts as the vengeful family patriarch (Albert Finney) pursues justice. He's unaware the real culprits are his own sons.
Aside from a stellar cast, the presence of veteran filmmaker Sidney Lumet, an East End fixture, transforms screenwriter Kelly Masterson's classic heist-gone-wrong storyline into a compelling psychological thriller. At age 83, the "actor's director," who numbers Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Serpico among his credits, proves he's still at the top of his game.
Hawke cited Lumet as a key reason for his involvement. "Quite frankly, I had no desire to play Hank. This guy is really horrible, hard, challenging, and weird. In a way, he's worse than his brother because he has morals and his conscience haunts him. After 90 million people get killed he finally puts his foot down, which is more than anyone else does, but it's not enough.
"When I got this script, it wasn't long after Phil (Hoffman) had won the Oscar. I thought in this moment of time anyone else would have tried to cash in with some superhero movie. Instead he was using his cache to greenlight a Sidney Lumet film, to reinvigorate the career of someone who had made us both want to be actors. I thought there was something incredibly classy about that," said Hawke, who made his screen debut in 1985's Explorers, followed by a breakthrough role in Todd Anderson's Academy Award-winning Dead Poets Society.
The Academy Award-nominated actor for Training Day, and Oscar-nominated writer of Before Sunset, wasn't disappointed. "I join a long list of actors, probably over the past 50 years, that have sat during press days and sang his praises. It's weird working with a guy that directed Marlon Brando. Sidney is a very decisive guy. He's set in his ways. He knows what he wants and you're basically expected to deliver that."
He added, "If young filmmakers could work this way, they could get so much bang for their buck." Hawke hopes to apply some of those lessons learned to his current stint as director of The New Group at Theatre Row's latest production – the world premiere of Jonathan Mark Sherman's "Things We Want."
It's a "dark comedy" about another set of brothers – Paul Dano, Peter Dinklage, and Josh Hamilton, who struggle to cope with their parents' deaths. Only this time the shift in emotional dynamics is prompted by the arrival of a sexy new neighbor (Zoe Kazan).
It's a homecoming of sorts. The New Group at Theatre Row was where Hawke got his first taste of live theater when he was 21. "We were like an indy rock band, underground. We weren't legitimate," he said.
That's certainly no longer the case. After starring opposite Kevin Kline in Lincoln Center Theatre's "Henry IV," Hawke stepped into the role of Eddie, a not terribly functional casting director, in The New Group's revival of David Rabe's "HurlyBurly." The latter chalked up nominations in both the 2005 Lucille Lortel and the Drama League awards' fields.
As a follow-up, the 36 year-old most recently co-starred in Tom Stoppard's three-part epic "The Coast of Utopia" at Lincoln Center, which ran nine hours in length. Hawke was rewarded with a Tony Award nomination and a Drama League Award for best performer. He interjected, "I've worked hard in the last four years at my life in the theater. I've let myself enjoy that."
By October of each year, names begin to get tossed in the ring as possible Oscar contenders. The buzz has already cited Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. How does Hawke feel about this flattering development? "I now have lived long enough to know that's good for business. It also helps. If I hadn't gotten nominated for Training Day, I don't know if we'd have been able to make Before Sunset.
"I know enough not to take it seriously, because there are a handful of really special performances each year. And if you get lucky enough to be involved with a production that really works, it's a real blessing. But ultimately, in the long run, nobody remembers, yet it's good for business in the meantime," he concluded.