In breakthrough year, Hawke seeks life without labels

January 27, 1995|By Matthew Gilbert | Matthew Gilbert,Boston Globe

Wild things happen when you shake booty with Julia Roberts. Not only do you turn into the "scorned" Lyle Lovett's nemesis, but you gain at least three notches on the American fame-o-meter. Last May, Ethan Hawke's name became checkout-line wallpaper after the "grunge hunk" was seen sipping champagne with the "pretty woman" at Lola's in Manhattan. The friendly business meal became Mr. Hawke's wake-up call to the world of tabloid caricature.

Thanks to that overblown night with Ms. Roberts and a much-hyped Generation X movie called "Reality Bites," the spring of 1994 was a breakthrough season for the actor, 24. Now, like it or not, Mr. Hawke has been fingered as a generational icon, a latter-day Johnny Depp who has successfully segued from Teen Beatdom to Rolling Stone cool.

"Before Sunrise," which opens today, is likely to solidify further Mr. Hawke's slacker mystique. The film, a conversation-based romance set in Vienna, is directed by Richard Linklater, the talented man whose debut, "Slacker," ushered the word into our vocabulary.

Mr. Hawke, shorn of the light goatee he sports in "Before $H Sunrise" and "Reality Bites," is wearing his new fame with the irony and discomfort of rock stars like Eddie Vedder. His brown hair is fashionably greasy, his brown leather jacket fashionably disreputable, and he looks warily out from intense blue eyes. Meeting the press en masse for breakfast, Mr. Hawke is all dodge and dart, relying heavily on halting, one-sentence answers. "Reality Bites"? "I was happy with my work in it." "What are you doing next?" "I have no idea." "Is your character a slacker?" "What's the definition of a slacker?"

Later, during a private interview, Mr. Hawke relaxes. "I felt like I was on trial," he says about the morning conference. "You're there with a group of people, and nobody's really talking to anybody. It's hard to get engaged in anything real." And indeed, as his career takes off, this is Mr. Hawke's struggle: to stay real. It may sound hokey, but with offers for "Reality Bites" knock-offs pouring in, tabloid stories coming out of the blue and Generation X labels pinning him to the wall, it is no easy task.

One way Mr. Hawke stays real is by chasing down low-budget projects such as "Before Sunrise," "A Midnight Clear" and "Waterland." Like older colleagues Johnny Depp and Matt Dillon, Mr. Hawke is hoping to build a reputation on smaller movies uncompromised by financial pressures.

"The real pleasure about doing independent movies like 'Before Sunrise' and 'A Midnight Clear' is that nobody's getting paid a lot of money. Rick [Linklater] is not doing this movie to be a big star. He's unseduceable. And he could do a big movie and get paid a lot. It's so nice to know people's intentions, that everyone is here to make this movie. Many times you feel like people are trying to move up the ladder. You go, what ladder? Why is this ladder interesting to any of us? It blows my mind."

He found Mr. Linklater, who also directed a witty teen movie set in the 1970s called "Dazed and Confused," to be a model of artistic integrity: "What's important for Rick is that he has final cut and can make whatever movie he wants. He's vying to get the Woody Allen spot -- ask no questions, I make low-budget movies and hope that one of them will hit every blue moon."

Mr. Hawke tasted big-business pressures last year, while directing a hit music video by Lisa Loeb called "Stay (I Missed You)." When the makers of "Reality Bites" were compiling the movie's soundtrack, Mr. Hawke had introduced them to Ms. Loeb, a New York singer-songwriter with whom he'd been friends for five years. Ms. Loeb and Mr. Hawke had always fantasized that he'd direct her first video. "And then these record people get involved," Mr. Hawke says, "and then you realize this is an ad. I'm doing an ad. And these people are all over everything."

Another subject that sets Mr. Hawke on fire is Generation X and his sudden anointment as the prince of the Slack Pack. For him, Generation X is simply a convenient -- and meaningless -- marketing device.

"And you realize that whenever someone is labeled, it is actually mildly insulting," he says.

In 1983, at 13, Mr. Hawke went to an audition for a Joe Dante space-fantasy movie called "Explorers" "on a complete lark," he says. He was living in New Jersey with his mother, who'd split from his father and Austin, Texas, about 10 years earlier. Mr. Hawke got the part, but instead of setting his career in motion, as he'd hoped, he found himself back in high school stage productions.

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