Read our roundtable interview with “Daybreakers” actor Ethan Hawke (Portrays Edward Dalton) at the ACE Hotel, New York City, Wednesday, 1/6/10. “Daybreakers” stars Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, Michael Dorman, Vince Colosimo, Isabel Lucas and Sam Neill.
Question: (Q) Are you directing an off-Broadway show right now?
Answer: (A) I am. I’m directing Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Minds at the New Group. We start previews on January 29th, and I wanted to do this play for a really long time. I think it’s going to be really great. It stars Keith Carradine, Laurie Metcalf and Josh Hamilton.
Q: You’re not in it?
A: I’m not in it, I’m directing it.
Q: After talking to the (Spierig) brothers, Michael and Peter, that you made the whole difference, that you loved the script and you wanted to do this movie. Can you talk about your first reaction to this?
A: A lot of actors should be blamed, how many movies, when they agree to do them, they get green-lit. But for whatever reason, I just finished The Coast of Utopia, it was nine hours of mid-nineteenth century Russian radicalism, and meeting them and reading their script, I was so excited to see something that wasn’t based on something else. I’ve been interested in other genre movies, and been offered other genre movies, graphic novels, superheroes, stuff like that. It never interested me. I thought it was funny how this embraced being a B movie, and it’s a throwback to a kind of genre filmmaking. When I was a kid, when I did Explorers, my first director was Joe Dante, he directed The Howling and Gremlins movies, and he loved, loved, loved, loved genre movies, and what was possible to do with them. There’s something subversive you can do with them, send them out to the marketplace. There’s a huge message, tucked away in the hidden bowels of a genre movie. Reading this thing, it’s such a fun allegory to how, as a culture, we are vampires, sucking dry our natural resources. I thought it was really smart and funny and clever. They were really passionate. I wanted to do something I had never done before, so I said yes.
Q: You have another movie coming out now, Brooklyn’s Finest, is that an original as well?
A: Brooklyn’s Finest is kind of like a sequel to Training Day, in a weird way. It’s a spiritual sequel. Antoine Fuqua directed it. It’s kind of the east coast version of Training Day. It’s not a literal sequel, I just mean it’s the same director, me. It’s similar in its tone and energy.
Q: You said about this film, I hope this movie’s good. If it’s bad, not only is it embarrassing, it’s disgusting. In this film, it’s really how the visuals connect with the actors. Were you nervous until you first saw it?
A: When you work on a genre movie, I can do my best to humanize the people. I think a good genre movie has characters in it you can relate to, and a bad genre movie doesn’t. I think that’s the definition. Where John Carpenter always succeeded always in doing, he came along doing tiny little moments that make the characters seem worth following and worth rooting for. But whether the movie’s good or bad or not is not in the actors’ hands in a genre movie. How original are the ideas, how fun are the ideas, how well executed are the ideas, how cool is it when the guy’s head pops off. My favorite scene in Daybreakers is when they take all the subsiders out into the sun and watch them burn, it’s so sad. It’s weird to watch these monsters get killed, and realize they were people. That’s the kind of beauty of the vampire myth, not just the conceptuality of it, but that the monsters are us. When the subsider gets killed, and you realize he was the gardener, and he had his wedding ring on, it’s kind of sweet. It’s such an interesting element to it. The point is that it’s a director-driven media, the genre film, even more so than cinema, which is already a director-driven media.
Q: When you took on this role, you were kind of taking on an iconic character role with the self-loathing vampires. How did you prepare for that, and did you go and watch any other self-loathing vampires, like Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire?
A: I watched that movie. It’s a very hard character to do right. As soon as you start playing a self-loathing undead character, the fun of being undead is that you get to do whatever you want. So you want to be liberated from anxiety. It’s weird. I felt like a lot of the times most of the actors who have done it, myself included in this, it’s a struggle not to be boring. All the other characters in the movie are more interesting than you, because there’s nothing worse than watching an introspective, alienated undead person. So I struggled with that. You just have to embrace it. The fun thing for me is that he came alive. I love the notion that when faced with immortality, you actually get depressed. When given back mortality, the fact that you’re going to die, your life becomes filled with hope. There’s something weird to that, but it gets to the core of why our lives are wonderful that we’re not going to last forever.
Q: Do you think that people who watch these films think about these things?
A: The point of a good genre movie is like the point of a good punk-rock song. The message comes at you in the subconscious of it. Nobody ever thinks about it, it just kind of works on you in a weird way.
Q: What do you think about the whole phenomenon with vampires?
A: I have no idea more than anyone else why these things happen. It’s like, there hasn’t been a vampire film in a while, and all of a sudden people start realizing that. In a little while, they’re going to be ready for space films again. For a while, all it was was Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. Now that it’s Avator, it’s going to be aliens again, because we can do aliens really well now. It’s going to be aliens for a while, and it will be fun. Then the western will make a comeback. Then before you know it, the gladiator movie will comeback. It’s just an endless cycle of what we get bored of. I think the fun thing about Daybreakers is that it’s the first horror vampire movie in a while. They made the prepubescent vampire movies. Am I so pretentious that I think people think about the themes? Not really.
Q: Would you want to direct a genre movie?
A: No interest.
Q: Just on-stage?
A: Genre theater? Come to horror night! I’ve been acting since I was 13, and I want to make different kinds of movies. One of the things that’s fun about looking back at my career is looking at the different kinds of movies I’ve made. The one that I haven’t made is the midnight horror movie. I thought it would be fun to try to do one. This is a smart one, I liked it. These guys are cool. I’ve always wanted to do something simple. I’ve met a lot of the filmmakerss I’ve met over my life who are really smart, who have a real love of genre. I’ve learned about it from them.
Q: Would you ever do a Book of Eli-type movie?
A: Yeah! I think if I were to imagine that Daybreakers could be Mad Max and the sequel to it, Mad Max 2, could be completely different to it. It’s like, out in Nebraska with the subsiders, and everything is really wild.
Q: If they make Daybreakers 2, would you do it?
A: If Peter and Michael (The Spierig Brothers) wrote it.
Q: Do you like being called a Hollywood heartthrob?
A: When I was younger, I hated things like “Hollywood heartthrob,” and now, I literally say, am I still? Does anyone think that? I couldn’t really care less. They’re just trying to sell a newspaper.
Q: You’ve done a lot of great crime films over the last decade. What’s been the draw to that genre?
A: What I like about cops and criminals is that it’s the one movie that can green-lit you’re playing real people. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is not a crime film as much as it is a character Greek tragedy. It’s so fun to get to play real people. So much of the movies getting made now are people that are in such extreme situations. Like Daybreakers, for example, that’s the first movie that I’ve done that’s come out in 2,000 screens in a long time. The stuff that I’m interested in doesn’t normally get a wide opening. Training Day is one of the few times that I’ve been really interested in, and loved, the movie and is interesting to the public. I did a movie last year with Mark Ruffalo. It’s terrific, and I think the movie’s got a lot of soul to it. In another era, the idea that the guy who just got out of prison wrote his life story, and was made into a movie. It’s a beautiful story. Whether the movie’s the greatest film of all time or not is not what I’m talking about. What I’m saying is that a guy got out of prison, and he actually had to drive and hustle to make the movie. He did a really nice job of it. That’s amazing to me, I’m so proud of that movie.
Q: You’re one of the more articulate, intelligent Hollywood actors in cinema, up there with the Willem Dafoes. Does intelligence help a performance? Have you acted against dumb actors?
A: Have I acted against dumb actors? The answer is yes. Is it deeply disappointing to me? Yes. It takes all kinds in this world. When I’m directing the play that I’m doing, all I care about is that the actors are smart. They fix everything. It’s so easy to direct the smart actors. When you do a scene with Willem Dafoe, even with a film like this, it’s so easy why he’s Willem Dafoe. He rescues people from bad ideas, left, right and center, in a gentle, kind, story-driven way. If you want to look at his body of work, there are a lot of good scenes there. It’s him that’s doing it. It’s terrific. He’s really a great guy. I was so happy the day he said yes to this movie, because I felt like I was really jumping into really foreign waters to me.
Q: How do you feel when you make a movie that you love that doesn’t get released, or the public doesn’t respond well to?
A: I try not to place my self-worth into the hands of what the public likes. You have to be a fool not to care. I wish I can be in a movie that does make tons of money. There are great scripts that can’t get green-lit with a guy like me. It’s always a balance. If you try to please everyone and make popcorn movies without trying to make things you’re proud of, then you’re going to end up really famous, drunk in a hotel room. I’ve paid the price for a lot of the decisions that I’ve made.
Q: Do you try to be true to yourself?
A: Yeah, and I still get to be here, being in a cool movie I like, directing a play. I’m still in the game. It’s a funny thing, I’m actually old enough now to realize that if you let that big-budget culture pass you by, that it doesn’t stop, it goes elsewhere. There’s a price to pay for that. There’s a review that I saw of Daybreakers that said, who’s having more fun than Willem Dafoe, and I agree. Look at his career, he’s always done good work. If you keep doing good work, you get to do other projects. I have other projects that I’m working, I’m actively filming Boyhood right now. We have several other scripts we’re trying to get the financing for. Thank you.
Written by: Karen Benardello