Ethan Hawke has been a professional actor for 25 of his 39 years.
He has an Oscar nomination under his belt (“Training Day,” 2001).
But, he said, that’s no guarantee of steady employment in the world of acting.
“I was lucky at the beginning,” Hawke said this week from New York City, his home and the location of his newest film, the cop drama “Brooklyn’s Finest,” which opens Friday.
“When I was just 13 I made a film with Joe Dante” — 1985’s “Explorers” — “and then disappeared for a couple of years into the warm cocoon of high school. My next job was working with Peter Weir on ‘Dead Poets Society’” four years later.
“Working on that film was amazing. But I was old enough then to know that an experience like that was really unique. That working with a first-class director and first-class script and first-class co-stars is not the norm.
“Still, to come out of the gate like that was a real blessing. I knew early just how great an actor’s job could be.”
Hawke said he thinks of himself as a working actor, not as a movie star.
“I try to be a craftsman about it all. I’ve had lots of rough years when the movies either weren’t coming or weren’t very good, so I write, direct, do plays, work with a theater company.”
He directed a revival of Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind” that just opened to strong reviews off-Broadway.
“I’ve tried to learn the actor’s job from the ground up, even though with ‘Dead Poets’ on my resume I didn’t exactly come in on the ground floor. I just knew I didn’t want my career to peak as a teenager. I had to follow up with the rest of my life.”
There have been triumphs along the way, like Hawke’s modern-dress “Hamlet” or “Before Sunset.” The latter was a sequel to “Before Sunrise,” in which Hawke played a young American who spends a night wandering around Vienna with a pretty French girl (Julie Delpy).
“Sunset” caught up with the characters nine years later; now they’re young adults in Paris and reconnecting long after their one night of intimacy. Richard Linklater directed both films.
“There’s always talk of a third movie. It would surprise me if we didn’t make another,” Hawke said. “But it also wouldn’t surprise me if Julie and I are 60 when it happens.”
Of all the films he’s made, Hawke said, “Before Sunset” has the most devoted fans.
“You know, ‘Before Sunrise’ wasn’t all that successful so there wasn’t any pressure for a sequel. Richard, Julie and I did it simply because we wanted to. We enjoyed working together.
“But people loved the second film so much that it’s raised the bar. We want to make sure that if we make a third film, we really have something to say.”
Hawke said he also treasures the time he spent with legendary director Sidney Lumet making the crime thriller “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007). Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman played brothers who arrange a robbery of their family’s jewelry business — a robbery in which their elderly mother is killed.
“I’m really proud of that movie,” the actor said. “Not only did I get a chance to work with Sidney, but on an excellent film. A lot of credit goes to Phil Hoffman, who’d just won the Oscar and used the muscle he’d earned to greenlight this script Sidney had been trying to get off the ground for years.”
Working with Lumet (who directed “Network,” “Twelve Angry Men,” “The Pawnbroker,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Verdict”) was one of his best professional experiences, Hawke said.
“Here’s a guy who comes from live television, and there’s nobody living who knows how to work the way he does. I can’t tell you how many directors have asked me, ‘What’s Sidney’s process like? What do you mean he rehearses for six weeks?’ No matter how much you think you know as an actor, you learn from working with someone like Sidney.”
In “Brooklyn’s Finest,” Hawke plays Sal, a police officer who turns to stealing from (and killing, if required) drug dealersto support his growing family.
Hawke calls it “the sort of bread-and-butter New York role I thrive in,” and compared Sal to Shakespeare’s Macbeth — a character one simultaneously dislikes and feels compassion for.
The one disappointment of making the film by director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), Hawke said, was that he rarely got to interact with co-stars Richard Gere, Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes. The actors appear in three story lines that only dovetail at the end of the movie.
“Basically, we’d pass each other in the lunchroom. But I think the final film works. It’s like that Mexican movie ‘Amores Perros.’ ... Antoine was really making three short films and editing them together to make a cop epic.
“Brooklyn is actually the lead character in the movie. We’re just players. Brooklyn is the continuity that holds it together.”
One thing he’s learned over the years, Hawke said, is: “An actor is about as good as his opportunities. And one of the nice things about aging is that the older you get, the more interesting your characters.
“Still, you can never take anything for granted. Either get humble ... or life will humble you.”