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Classroom co-stars

October 28, 2002|Michael Quintanilla | Times Staff Writer

Here they sit at the head of Maggie Shrout's fifth-period English class, Hollywood's reigning sensitive male of the moment, Jake Gyllenhaal -- dreamy eyed and all sexy, messy hair -- and his buddy, Ethan Hawke, author of two books. They repeatedly encourage the students at Dominguez High in Compton to fire away with questions, to get serious with them about what's on their minds. As guest teachers, they want to know.

Juan Patino, 16, raises his hand. "Are you guys dating any celebrities?"

"That's not interesting," Hawke says politely and then turns the tables. "Who are you dating? Any celebrities?"

"No," Patino answers flatly.

"Well, I'm married," Hawke says, pausing, trying to get a jolt of something out of the students. "I think Jennifer Lopez would excite this room," he adds, as the teenagers laugh, breaking their shy and reserved selves out of star-struckdom. Soon a conversation with the actors results, ranging from moviemaking to making decisions about life.

After it was over, Gyllenhaal and Hawke -- and the 16 students -- were pleased with the session that was part of Friday's Teach for America Week, an annual nationwide program in which professionals became guest teachers at schools in low-income communities. Shrout, 23, was recruited at George Washington University by the Teach for America program, which places recent college graduates at schools in low-income neighborhoods for two years.

Shrout's students lucked out not only with Gyllenhaal, who co-stars in "Moonlight Mile" and "The Good Girl," but with his good friend Hawke, who was not scheduled to be part of the visit. Over dinner the night before, Gyllenhaal had invited Hawke.

"I'm an actor and have been in films since I was your guys' age, 16," Gyllenhaal told the class. "I went to college for two years, dropped out and started making more movies. But my goal has been to pick movies that have a political statement," he said. With Hawke's help, he tried to engage the students in a conversation about the movie choices they make, encouraging them to add thoughtful flicks to the action-packed ones on their lists.

"There are a lot of people who have power over what you see and you have a choice," he said. "It's more important to know what people are saying to you. We have the power to speak our minds, to get more than one opinion. When you go to the theater, just think to yourselves, 'Why is it there? Who put it there? Why do they want me to see this movie?' "

Said Hawke: "The great democratic experiment seems to have turned into the great capitalist experiment." Then came questions about what it was like working with Denzel Washington in "Training Day."

"He's an amazing person," Hawke said, using the opportunity to share a story about education and success. Hawke said that while working on "Training Day," kids would often come up to Washington and say to the actor, "I want to be in a movie. I want to be a rap star." Washington would ask the kids, "What college do you want to go to? I'll pay your way through, right now." The kids would walk away, he said.

"Everyone has a dream. Everyone wants a dream. But the dream is only good if you enjoy the work," Hawke said, encouraging the students to work hard in school so they will succeed in college and later in life.

"But success in life is also measured by how you handle your disappointment," he said, adding that he realizes how high school can be tough, especially on self-esteem. "Your world here is small. Someone might think you are not interesting, not funny enough, not good. That is so not important. I felt incredibly repressed in high school," Hawke said looking out at the kids, noticing a few yawns.

"I think I lost you guys. Some of you are yawning," he said as the students laughed. "Look, the point is to have a quality of life." And to be interesting. "I've met a lot of people who make a lot of money and they aren't interesting."

Follow what you love, Gyllenhaal said, confessing that after he graduated from Harvard-Westlake High School, he attended Columbia University in New York but dropped out after two years to take up acting full time. And he never used to like to read that much, he added.

"In college we read a book a day. It's not possible for me to read a book a day. But now I pick the books I want to read," he said, adding that serious reading has only been part of his life for two or three years. "Books are important as movies," he added as the hour came to an end, followed by a class photo with the stars and a few autographs.

"I'm not much older than these students," said Gyllenhaal, 21, after the students left the room. "But I think they really understood what I was talking about."

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