The 1990s were a great decade for Ethan Hawke — after his breakthrough performance in 1989’s Dead Poets Society, Hawke appeared in several critically acclaimed and commercially successful roles, most notably Reality Bites (1994), Before Sunrise (1995), and Gattaca (1997), and soon afterwards received his first Oscar nomination for 2002’s Training Day. But after that, Hawke had a few lean years in which he discovered that it was harder for him to find roles.
Hawke turned 30 in 2000, but he says that he knew the very successful 1990s were truly over for him when it got harder for him to land roles. He explains, “I had to go audition a couple times. That was when I knew the ’90s were over.”
Hawke recalls of that time that a newer crop of actors that were around his age were replacing him because they were fresher faces on the scene. He says:
“I was in a unique position, which is that I was only 30 years old, and I was washed up.
“All my friends were going to audition for Saving Private Ryan. And I couldn’t even get an audition for it, because they knew me and didn’t want me. It’s like, ‘There’s no need for me to audition, because we know him. No, not him.’
“And people were reading scenes from A Midnight Clear, which was a movie I had done and apparently Spielberg loved, but he didn’t want me to audition.
“All these other guys were getting out of theater school, like the Ben Afflecks of the world, the Matt Damons of the world. All those guys were finding their voice and coming into their own. And you are on the lunch box from back then and have no place on the new lunch boxes, you know?”
At the same time that his professional fortunes were sinking, so was Hawke’s personal life — and he believes that the two were closely related because he feels he was unwittingly projecting his depression. He confesses, “In a lot of ways, it could have been the beginning of something. It was the best moment of my career. Like, maybe, maybe, you could be commercially viable. But I got divorced and my personal life fell apart. I don’t know if you feel this way, but when you’re depressed, it’s really easy to see everything that is fake about other people and life, and I just started seeing all that. How phony celebrity was, how phony everything is. You channel your inner Holden Caulﬁeld, you know?”
What changed for Hawke, who has since starred in dozens of movies of both indie and blockbuster variety? He credits his children for teaching him something about balance and humility. He says, “Work. Theatre. My kids. That’s the wonderful thing about children is they just need you every day. It gives your life balance. Meaning your whole life isn’t just about yourself.”