In an interview published in 1997, Ethan Hawke said: "It's funny what movies make it at the time and which ones don't and which ones pass the test of time." He was speaking of his sci-fi film "Gattaca," which was not fully appreciated at the moment of its release but is now cherished as a near-classic. Something similar applies to Hawke himself. Still a teenager when his first big film, "Dead Poets Society," came out, the actor zoomed to It Boy status, which meant that, before long, when he and a few of his friends established an ambitious theater company, Malaparte, the media started to bring him down a peg. By the time Hawke's first novel, "The Hottest State," was published in 1996, the nattering negativists were in high crank. The actor himself, who years later directed a movie version of the book, understood all too well what was going on: "Actors write movies all the time - but you try fiction and you're an a**hole."
Hawke, who is finishing a run this week as the title character in Macbeth, has not shed his love of literature: he has kept his career anchored in quality, with Chekhov (Ivanov, The Cherry Orchard) and Shakespeare (Henry IV at LCT, and movie versions of "Hamlet" and the upcoming "Cymbeline") as the classic dual touchstones.
Hawke has, however, for quite some time now, discarded his media-manufactured image as a foolhardy and poetic young artist willing to risk anything in the name of creativity - the James Franco of his day. Somewhere along the way, Hawke grew up. He will tell you that having children - he has four, and one of his favorite performances of Macbeth occurred when his teenage daughter, Maya, and several classmates were in the house - had a lot to do with it.
Professionally, however, and this is only speculation on my part, I suspect that doing so much theater also helped mold Hawke into a mensch. A movie project often takes place in isolation, with actors shooting scenes removed from colleagues: it's easy to isolate. With a play, you have to enter the fray every night with the other actors. If you are not willing to be a team player, you can quickly develop a reputation as a diva, which is another name for someone who hasn't grown up: hasn't learned what it's like to be generous - to share the spotlight.
Even with the democracy of spirit required for projects at a place like Lincoln Center Theater, where no stars' names preside above the title, there is still a need for leadership. Young actors need to know that veterans are willing to work as hard as their greener selves, and veterans need to be reminded that better-known colleagues aren't just coasting on celebrity or reputation. So people like Hawke need to set a tone and maintain it throughout a run. And that tone must be maintained whether or not the production is a hit, and whether or not the production encounters bumps along the way (injuries, unforeseen personal traumas), which it usually does.
At the wrap party for the 2006-07 LCT production of the trilogy The Coast of Utopia, in which Hawke appeared as the Russian anarchist Bakunin, one of his colleagues, Martha Plimpton, toasted Hawke as "the Mayor of Backstage." This tribute was offered not because he lorded it over the cast but because his ethic of hard work and dedication were steadily inspiring. I find it entirely appropriate that in this final week of Macbeth performances, another Hawke-associated trilogy - the movies "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset," and "Before Midnight" - has been running adjacent to LCT, at the venues of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Those movies - Hawke has been winning critics' prizes for co-writing "Before Midnight" and don't be surprised if, next week, he gets an Oscar nomination - mirror the steady development of Hawke in all his roles: writer, actor, grown-up artist. Hail, Thane!
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com