Born November 6, 1970, Ethan Hawke’s debut as an actor was in the 1985 film “Explorers”, alongside River Phoenix as teenage schoolboys who build a spacecraft to explore outer space. His breakthrough, though, wasn’t until four years later in “Dead Poets Society”, which granted him numerous roles in following years. In the 90s, he became Generation X’s sweetheart by taking roles in the dramas “Reality Bites” and “Before Sunrise”, both granting him critical praise.
Now, having been nominated for four Academy Awards, both as a writer and actor, he has directed two feature films, one documentary and three Off-Broadway plays. After dropping out of college to pursue an acting career, he published his first novel “The Hottest State” in 1996, about a love affair between a young actor and a singer.
One director’s name is, as usual when it comes to Ethan Hawke-related pieces, particularly associated with some of the actor’s best roles. In 2001, he participated in two different Richard Linklater films: “Tape” and “Waking Life”.
For being an animated single scene shared with former co-star Julie Delpy continuing conversations begun in “Before Sunrise”, the film “Waking Life” was kept from this list and, instead, the real-time drama “Tape” was found more adequate – being regarded as Hawke’s “first adult performance” and well noted by famous critic Roger Ebert for his “physical and verbal acting mastery”.
Here are the 10 films where not only we can enjoy various engaging performances by the actor, but also delight with the incredible projects he’s been envolved in for the last two and a half decades.
10. Lord of War (2005)
Andrew Niccol’s crime war film, which he directed and wrote, was co-produced by and starred Nicolas Cage at its core. Cage plays an arms trafficker and, due to this, the film was officially endorsed by the human rights group Amnesty International – as it highlights the subject of arms trafficking by the international arms industry.
With similarities to post-Soviet arms dealer Viktor Bout, we watch Cage’s character – Yuri Orlov – in its rise and decline, meaning it takes many predictable and cliché narrative steps. It’s also not a strong film when it comes to character development, and upon meeting most of them, they seem almost like planned caricatures.
Hawke plays idealistic Interpol agent Jack Valentine, who refuses to fall in Yuri’s bribing schemes and always follows the law to the letter. While it might carry resemblence to Hawke’s character in “Training Day,” his role here doesn’t get as much development, but is convincingly steady and worth mentioning.
In the end, it’s an original satire, provocative when exploring violence and leaving us with a haunting note.
9. Predestination (2014)
Michael and Peter Spierig directed this film based on Robert Heinlein’s celebrated 1959 short story “All You Zombies”, where Ethan Hawke plays a Temporal Agent who travels in time to prevent future killers from commiting their crimes.
First appearing to be a classic noir, soon enough the story welcomes a more subtle tone, but to go deeper in the story would be to enter in unwanted spoiler ground. Its central performer, Hawke, holds the success of the film by making for an ideal choice in guiding the mysteries it holds.
The actor gives acute genuine emotional weight to a storyline that, falling into the genre of time travel could blatently fail, guaranteeing a high level of interest to grab the audience’s attention. His co-star, Sarah Snook, also offers a knockout performance – especially is scenes that could’ve easily provoked bad laughs, wasn’t it for the actors’ masterful delivery.
8. Reality Bites (1994)
This Generation X drama, directed by Ben Stiller, opens with badly-shot footage of college friends on top of a Houston skyscraper on their graduation day. The person holding the camera is Lelaina (Winona Ryder), the center of the film and of its romantic triangle. She’s an aspiring filmmaker who is making a documentary about her friends, which include her roommate Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), Sammy (Steve Zahn) and Troy (Ethan Hawke).
Troy is a slacker, the unemployed friend who asks Lelaina for a place to stay but still mocks her ambitions. Hawke’s performance as the glassy-eyed guitarist who pines for Lelaina is subtle but strong, and film critic Roger Ebert said about him: “Hawke captures all the right notes as the boorish Troy.” The New York Times noted, “Mr. Hawke’s subtle and strong performance makes it clear that Troy feels things too deeply to risk failure and admit he’s feeling anything at all.”
Lelaina herself won’t admit her feelings for Troy until another guy comes along, Michael (Ben Stiller) – Troy’s rival, a good-hearted yuppie who works for a network called In Your Face TV, aiming to resemble MTV’s style. There’s a thin line between satire and reality, but this film plays with it and the result is as funny and easy as it intended.
7. Training Day (2001)
In 2001, this cop action-drama was Hawke’s biggest film, a huge hit that earned him his share of recognition: a first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Denzel Washington, Best Actor winner at the Oscars that year, played the lead as extreme cop Alonzo Harris, who stepped away from his usual likeable roles and appeared as a near villain, the meanest narcotics cop in the city.
The story follows him teaching Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) in his first day of training. Hoyt is a young cop who dreams of getting a promotion in order to move his wife and child to a better house. He’s been placed in the hands of Alonzo, who shows him what really happens on the streets, but this quickly becomes a shady move.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Bait”) and written by David Ayer (“The Fast and the Furious”), there’s a certain fantasy feel to it, which becomes more evident throughout the film. Hawke is well cast as the determined, almost naïve cop who wants to “serve and protect”, while trying to accept Alonzo’s own style of doing just that.
6. Dead Poets Society (1989)
The story, set in 1959, occurs mainly on the grounds of the “Welton Academy” in Vermont, an elite prep boarding school for boys that has a tendency towards tradition and English literature. John Keating (Robin Williams), who was once a Welton alumnus, returns to teach English.
When doing this, he chooses to teach in unconventional manners – starting by ordering his class to tear out the introduction to a poetry book. His enthusiasm for poetry is contagious, and he soon begins to mold the minds of his various pupils.
They include, among others, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), a devoted honors student who dreams of becoming an actor despite his father’s wishes of him going to Harvard to study medicine; and Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), the new student, who who wants to be a writer but is filled with fear when asked to speak in front of others.
Standing up on a desk made made for a great breakthrough appearance for the actor, a haunting performance that resulted in many critical opportunities offered to him due to the film’s success. Having quit college to be in the film, he then went back – only to quit again to pursue other roles after he realized this monumental accomplishment.