LOS ANGELES — Whatever happened to the 90-minute movie?
Ethan Hawke is mulling that over, slouched in a dining chair inside a small empty ballroom at the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, slightly rumpling his light brown three-piece suit. He’s not playing the slacker anymore; at 39, he’s a film veteran and he talks with a certain cinematic weariness.
“I don’t know what has happened to movies, but lately every movie is at least 20 minutes too long,” he said. “It used to be that if you were three hours long it was because it was epic — a movie about Gandhi; something with very important subject matters. Now, it doesn’t matter what you’re making a movie about; everyone thinks their movie is so brilliant that it has to be three hours long.
“Not to be critical but ... well, we all know which movies those are ...”
Hawke is careful not to point fingers. He’s mellow despite a day of being shuttled down hallways and in and out of rooms to promote his latest film, “Daybreakers.” Though he maintained focus — praising the vampire flick’s “originality” and its socio-political messages — he couldn’t help but digress to bemoan the current lofty — some might say pretentious — state of cinema.
As it happens, “Daybreakers,” at just more than 90 minutes, isn’t in that category.
In the thriller, which was written and directed by siblings Michael and Peter Spierig (“Undead”) and opens Friday, a virus has swept the world, transforming the majority of the Earth’s population into vampires. With humans on the verge of extinction, the survivors are hunted and farmed for their blood. In other words, if you’re expecting lovesick vampires who sparkle when exposed to sunlight, you’re probably in the wrong theater. “New Moon” this ain’t.
“It’s a post-adolescent vampire film,” he joked.
Hawke plays “schleppy” Edward Dalton, a vampire scientist in search of a blood substitute or cure to vampirism. His disheveled hair is often hidden underneath a brimmed hat — Hawke’s idea — and he roams the landscape in slacks and button-down shirts. Not exactly the cape and ruffled blouse get-up associated with the folkloric creature.
“I think it’s my job to risk looking foolish,” Hawke said. “One of the things I’ve learned from the actors I’ve worked with is you don’t get something for nothing. If you don’t risk looking foolish, you’ll never do anything special.”
It’s a role about as far as you can get from his Broadway gig performing a nine-hour stage trilogy of Tom Stoppard’s plays, “The Coast of Utopia,” about mid-19th century Russian radicals. And that’s what attracted him to the part.
“There’s some kind of actors that can radically change who they are from movie to movie,” Hawke said. “I’ve never really been that kind of actor. I enjoy changing the worlds that I’m in.”
His filmography reflects his cinematic globe-trotting tendencies. He traveled to outer space when he hit the big screen in his teens in Joe Dante’s “Explorers” and, four years later, went on to wander the halls of a conservative boys prep school in 1989’s “Dead Poets Society.” Films such as mid-‘90s fare “Reality Bites” and “Before Sunrise” made him the poster boy for scruffy drifters (and got him best kiss nominations at the MTV Movie Awards). And he was transported to New York to play a film student in a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” In “Training Day,” which earned him his first Oscar nomination, he cruised gang neighborhoods in South Los Angeles.
On this day, a polished Hawke poured a glass of water (he’d had enough Diet Coke) before reflecting on the different roles on his resume.
“I’ve been fortunate to be working in the film business for almost 25 years by doing a lot of different things,” he said. “You can’t only do cop pictures and you can’t only do little art-house movies. ... I kind of figured if I keep trying different things, eventually I would accumulate some kind of learning.”
The learning extends beyond the big screen. He’s tackled television, guest starring in an episode of ABC’s “Alias,” and is part of the small-screen adaptation of “Moby Dick,” an upcoming two-part miniseries in which he plays Starbuck. And he’s toiled on countless stages, appearing — and directing — numerous theater productions including “Henry IV” and “Hurlyburly.” “The theater, for me, has always been a place where I’m free to be more creative,” he said. “A place to sharpen my tools.”
Music video director? Yes, that too. He directed songstress Lisa Loeb’s music video for “Stay (I Missed You)” in 1994; the hit song was featured on the “Reality Bites” soundtrack. Oh, and he’s written two novels — “The Hottest State” and “Ash Wednesday”; both garnered mixed reviews.
There’s a method to all the madness.
“In grade school they say you have to pick a ‘profession and stick to it ... and people stop looking at their lives as a work in progress,’ he said. “If you don’t stay in touch with yourself, you kind of lose focus.
“If you’re going to spend a life in the arts, you need to be infused with a sense of gratitude and a sense of wonder. It’s a privilege to do this profession. But there is a payment you have to make for that privilege, which is to do your best all the time. To challenge yourself. That’s the luxury tax.”
It’s a philosophy he says he tries to instill in his children. Hawke has two — Maya Ray, 11, and Levon Roan, 7 — with Uma Thurman, whom he met on the set of 1997’s “Gattaca”; the couple split in 2004. He has since remarried and had another child.
Hawke certainly has a challenging schedule. In addition to this year’s “Moby Dick,” next on Hawke’s plate is directing the off-Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind,” which begins its run Jan. 29. And he continues filming Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” a film being shot over 12 years. “I hesitate to talk about it too much because we still got five or six years before we’re done,” he said. “But it’s a cool thing. I mean, we’re improvising a movie over 12 years. You won’t have seen anything like it before.”
But can we expect it to be three hours?