- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

NEW YORK — Ethan Hawke may be subconsciously bent on sabotaging his chances for Hollywood’s A-list. . The actor, whose new psychological thriller “Taking Lives” opens today, started acting at age 14 with 1985’s “Explorers.”

He shelved professional acting to study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, interrupting his studies briefly to film 1989’s “Dead Poets Society.” He followed up the hit drama with the kind of arcane projects (1992’s “Waterland,” for example) that stopped his career momentum cold.

Now, the 33-year-old Austin, Tex., native is getting hit by the press for bungling his marriage to Quentin Tarantino’s muse, Uma Thurman.

“There’s nothing you can do about it,” Mr. Hawke said of the tabloid free-for-all during a press conference to promote “Taking Lives.”

The actor has publicly blamed competing careers for his marriage’s demise, while press reports have linked the couple’s woes to an alleged affair Mr. Hawke had with a model during the “Taking Lives” shoot.

The “work” as he calls it, will set him free.

“If the work is good, ultimately what’s going on in anybody’s personal life ends up being not that substantial,” he says.

What sounds cocky in print comes off, in person, as quiet reflection, a trait the actor has milked in his more calibrated performances.

“Taking Lives” stars Angelina Jolie as a serial killer expert called in to help solve a Canadian murder spree baffling local officers. Her rigid professional approach gets shaken when she develops feelings for a witness (Mr. Hawke) to the murderer’s last killing.

Director D.J. Caruso says he chose Mr. Hawke for the actor’s ability to reveal a character’s wounded interior. “When I saw that scene in the tub [in 2001’s ‘Training Day,’] when the rifle is in his mouth and he’s pleading for his life … I saw such vulnerability in that guy,” the director says.

Throwing himself into a big-budget thriller seems out of character for Mr. Hawke. This is, after all, the same actor who followed up his “Training Day” Oscar nomination by disappearing from the screen for two years.

But embracing mainstream pictures has an upside, says Mr. Hawke, whose face has matured into a collection of angles that banish the memory of his boyish appeal.

“Training Day,” he says, “turned me on to the idea of working within the formula.”

To prepare for the grim material at the heart of “Lives,” he studied news accounts of serial killers. The research gave him a disturbing glimpse of the criminal mind.

The “creepiest” part of most killers, he says, is “how righteous everybody feels and how innocent they feel … Some part of them knows they killed people, but they feel somehow they were justified in doing it.”

Even those who will be shaken by the unrelenting darkness of “Lives” will appreciate the depth of the lead characters. Whether they buy the film’s plot twists is another matter.

“I’m learning very few mainstream movies give you the opportunity to play a really complex person,” he says. “I thought this part was a good opportunity to do something I’ve never done before.”

Besides, it doesn’t hurt to keep his name fresh in the minds of both industry types and the general public.

“Quite frankly, if you don’t [tackle high-profile roles] it gets harder to get anything done at all,” he says, adding that a working actor must be prepared to “find a healthy balance.”

Should the roles ever dry up, he can always fall back on his pen. His debut novel, 1994’s “The Hottest State,” elicited withering reviews, but his second book, “Ash Wednesday,” sold briskly and earned kinder feedback.

A sturdier plan B is being part of director Richard Linklater’s unofficial rep company. The two reunited last year to shoot “Before Sunset,” the sequel to “Before Sunrise,” the director’s 1995 love story. The new film, to be released later this year, marks their sixth collaboration.

“‘Before Sunrise’ is really close to all our hearts,” he says of the bittersweet romance. “For the last nine years we kept thinking how fun it would be to revisit those people and see what it has to say about relationships at this juncture.”

He’ll follow Mr. Linklater anywhere the director may choose to roam, which usually means smart, independent features which resonate with only a small segment of the movie-going public.

“We live in a community where everyone’s trying to get as much jack as quick as they can,” Mr. Hawke says. “This guy’s real sincere. He has a way of looking at life that’s a little bit different.”

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