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A Trainee No Longer

Ethan Hawke's having some year: a new son, a new novel, a brush with Oscar and his feature directing bow.

April 14, 2002|IRENE LACHER

Congratulations to everyone who was born on Nov. 6. As birthdays go, it's certainly turning out to be a red-letter one, at least for Ethan Hawke. This year, the stars have been unusually generous to Hawke, so shouldn't his fellow Scorpios be enjoying a mach 2 ride as well?

"It's the kind of year that makes me believe in astrology," Hawke says, and then he ticks off the heavens' economy pack of good fortune, a string of important firsts and a couple of seconds not to be sneezed at. Roan, his first son and second child with wife Uma Thurman, made his debut on the planet two weeks into the new year. "Training Day" earned him his first Oscar nomination (for best supporting actor, holding his own against best actor winner Denzel Washington) as well as a reported $12-million paycheck, bolstering his faltering relationship with Hollywood and putting him on everyone's call-back list. His second novel, "Ash Wednesday," about a pregnant woman who returns home to Texas with her boyfriend in pursuit, will be published by Knopf in July. And "Chelsea Walls," his maiden voyage as a feature film director, will be released by Lions Gate on Friday.

Oh, yes. For fun, he plays piano, violin and trumpet.

"I believe that all the arts are very much different exercises, but it's all for the same purpose," Hawke says. "My life has been dedicated to the arts."

Hawke's public image is mainly that of a stand-up guy who hit the big screen at 13 in Joe Dante's "Explorers" and went on to acclaim a mere four years later in 1989's "Dead Poets Society." But for most of his adult life, Hawke has also been walking the walk of a Renaissance man--or dilettante, depending on which beholder you ask. Regardless, it's hard to quibble over the sheer force of his creative energy.

As his "Great Expectations" co-star Gwyneth Paltrow told Time Out New York a few years ago, "He's the only one of my young artist friends who says, 'You know, I want to start a theater company, direct a video and go to Paris and write a novel. I want to do Sam Shepard in Chicago'--and he does every one of those things."

For a guy who's already master of his universe at the tender age of 31, Hawke looks very much like he's, well, the tender age of 31. Media aesthetes may periodically groom him for the screen or book jacket, but sooner or later that scrubby goatee keeps resurfacing. There it is as he slouches in a rattan chair in the courtyard of the Chateau Marmont. Dressed in a sweatshirt and baggy pants, Hawke is polishing off a somehow unsurprising stream of cigarettes and coffee.

The Gen-X diet or, at the very least, fuel for final exams? Hawke would be horrified at the thought. Films like "Reality Bites" (1994) and "Before Sunrise" (1995) may have made him the poster boy for scruffy slackerdom, but he's nothing like the aimless drifters he's portrayed. "That Gen-X stuff used to bug me when I was younger," he says. "It was just a label for a time period. I don't know that Gen X has any kind of identity outside a group of people coming of age in the '90s."

Artists interest Hawke far more than slackers, and in bohemia, which artists have always ruled, an eccentric New York City hostelry known as the Chelsea Hotel may very well be its Buckingham Palace. It follows that the legendary Chelsea is the star of the New York-based actor's first feature film as a director. With an ensemble cast of 30, "Chelsea Walls" portrays a day in the life of five alienated artists who reside within.

"The Chelsea holds a lot of mythos for people who romanticize bohemian life," Hawke says, lighting a cigarette. "The Chelsea Hotel is like Notre Dame, so I've always been intrigued by it. If you're a young kid and you walk by the Chelsea Hotel, you feel like you're walking by all these ghosts. That hotel has been home to so many creative movements from the Beats to Warhol and his crowd and the punks, plus you've got Thomas Wolfe, so you have the whole Lost Generation passing through there. Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe fighting in the lobby.

"It was built as a home for artists and it really has been that, largely due to the credit of Stanley Bard, who owns the place. His father owned the place before him, and he's kept the spirit intact. So it just always held mystique for me. And this woman [Nicole Burdette] wrote a beautiful piece that I thought had captured the spirit of it, and I thought it would make a wonderful film."

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