"This year has been kind of difficult for me, not only personally but professionally," confesses actor Ethan Hawke, visibly skittish as he discusses his unorthodox turn in the plot-twisting thriller Taking Lives, costarring Angelina Jolie, Kiefer Sutherland, Olivier Martinez and screen veteran Gena Rowlands.
Hawke, 33, who has tried his hand as a novelist (Ash Wednesday) and director (Chelsea Walls), is referring to his recent split from actress Uma Thurman whom he married in 1998 (they have two children, Maya, five, and Levon, two) as well as to the stress of the working actor.
Amid reports that the marriage meltdown resulted from Hawke's alleged infidelity, he and Thurman had to cope with the challenges of raising their children in New York and working frequently elsewhere, notably Hollywood, for which Hawke has a well-known disdain.
Gen X Poster Boy
Despite Hollywood's embrace of the 19-year-old Hawke in 1989 for his performance in the box office hit and critical darling Dead Poets Society not to mention the 2001 Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in Training Day Hawke holds true to the bohemian nature and independent spirit that defined him as a poster boy for the so-called Generation X in the mid-'90s.
The actor's resume is dominated by offbeat films that explore the Gen X zeitgeist, such as the Ben Stiller-directed Reality Bites and Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. (Hawke and costar Julie Delpy reprise their roles in Linklater's sequel to the edgy romance, Before Sunset, which hits theaters in June 2004.)
"Those kinds of labels are just pop-culture things," Hawke says now. "It still follows me around. I did Hamlet, and it was the Gen X Hamlet. When I did Training Day it was, 'He sheds his Gen X skin.' I don't think anybody knows exactly what it means."
"I did Taking Lives, then I went straight into Before Sunset, then straight into doing Shakespeare at Lincoln Center. I just finally had a month off," says the native Texan (he grew up in New Jersey), who for this interview sported a scrappy look replete with spiky hair, stubble and a thrift-shop Western-style shirt.
Hawke will surprise audiences with his role in Taking Lives, which is precisely why he was attracted to the script.
"In so many of the parts I've played particularly in movies like Dead Poets Society and Training Day I've been kind of the moral center of the movie," the actor explains. "So I've been looking to try to find a part that wasn't like that, that would give me an opportunity to do something that I hadn't done before."
In the film, Hawke plays James Costa, a small-time art dealer who becomes first a Good Samaritan, then a suspect, then a witness and finally the bait for a serial killer on the loose in Montreal. Jolie plays Illeana Scott, an American FBI profiler summoned to Canada to get inside the head of the murderous sociopath. As the pressure mounts to solve the case, Illeana's attraction to Costa sparks a complicated romantic entanglement.
Says producer Mark Canton: "Ethan's a phenomenal talent -- a very serious, intelligent actor who chooses his material carefully. I always thought he was good, but in Training Day I watched him raise the bar even higher."
"Training Day was my first real positive experience with a Hollywood movie in a long time," says Hawke. "It was a big-budget mainstream movie where I had a great time and felt really proud of the work. For a long time I've been feeling like whenever I work over there it doesn't turn out as good. So in that way it affected me; it made me more open to the idea."
No spoilers here, but expect some chilling plot twists and more than a few extremely unsettling images in Taking Lives. Director D.J. Caruso (a huge fan of mercurial crime writer James Ellroy), who has directed various episodes of TV's The Shield, obviously has an attraction to the darker side of things.
Not so Hawke. "To be honest, I'm actually really sensitive to this kind of stuff," says the actor. "I don't like scary movies. I don't like that feeling of being scared. I just have to have a real good sense of play about it all, just kind of laugh about it all."
For those less squeamish, the first nine minutes of the film -- featuring an open grave will be screened exclusively on Yahoo! for a limited time, beginning March 12.
Hawke is about to start production on Assault on Precinct 13, a retelling of John Carpenter's classic '70s B-movie about a mobster (to be played by Laurence Fishburne) being held in the soon-to-be-shut-down Precinct 13 on New Year's Eve. Hawke will play a captain who cobbles together a force of cops and criminals to protect the station. Also on tap for the actor is the lead role in Billy Dead, a film based on a 1988 novel and described by Daily Variety as a "murder mystery that portrays a troubled, working-class Michigan family and the long pent-up secrets of violence and incest that emerge in the aftermath of a brother's death."