[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published during last year’s SXSW Film Festival. “Predestination” opens in select theaters today and is available to view on video on demand platforms.]
Over two decades into his career as a screen actor, Ethan Hawke is in demand now more than ever. He recently experienced the biggest box office opening of his career with the surprise smash horror hit “The Purge,” and now Hawke is at SXSW with not one, but two films: Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making “Boyhood,” and “Predestination” by the Spierig Brothers, the duo responsible for “Daybreakers,” which also starred Hawke. The actor also has four other projects set to open over the next two years, including “Good Kill,” which reunites him with his “Gattaca” director Andrew Niccol.
While “Boyhood” made its world premiere at Sundance, the Texan film made its Austin one earlier this week, where it was met with a prolonged standing ovation and more than a few tears. “Predestination” made its world premiere the night prior. In the the sci-fi thriller, Hawke plays a mysterious agent sent on a series of time travel journeys to ensure the legacy of his law enforcement career. Now on his final job, he must pursue the one criminal that has eluded him throughout time. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Indiewire sat down with Hawke in Austin to discuss the two projects and his love for sci-fi.
“Predestination” is one heady film. I read the press notes after seeing it just to make better sense of it all, and they open with a quote by you that reads, “If you understand this film, you’re lying.”
Why make a movie you couldn’t even understand?
What I mean is as soon as you say the movie’s about one thing, you isolate it, and then you’re going to miss something else. What Robert A. Heinlein’s short story is a riff on is the idea of a time traveler giving birth to him or herself. That’s a fascinating idea. I’m going to say how the movie moves me, but I went with some people last night. What moved me about it none of them got. They got something else.
In time and space there’s kind of a gender war in every person. Every person is masculine and feminine and they’re at war with each other. And it moves. The whole end of the movie is about him loving himself. And if he doesn’t, then the cycle will actually continue. It’s an obvious masculine/feminine yin/yang thing.
I think that’s the good job of science fiction. It makes you think and rattles your sense of reality. It’s like the value of LSD. It makes you see things from a different angle.
It’s crazy to note that this marks your first all-out sci-fi film since “Gattaca.”
It would be a good double feature with “Gattaca.”
Why has it taken you so long to return to the genre?
It’s hard to find good material. I’m shocked this movie got made. Most movies that are this idea oriented… it could play in a festival with “Brazil,” “Gattaca” and “A Scanner Darkly.” The best of Philip K. Dick, the best of Ray Bradburry, the best of George Orwell. That’s the kind of sci-fi I grew up loving. One of the things I always loved about “Gattaca,” when it came out, was that it was a sci-fi movie without anything blowing up. The marketplace is very strange for that. People like science fiction as long as it’s got a lot of lasers.
And shit blowing up.
And shit blowing up! I grew up loving “Sirens of Titan,” all that great stuff! My first director Joe Dante who did “Explorers,” which is kind of science fiction, is a huge Robert Heinlein fan, and that’s how I know about stuff like that.
You’re drawn to projects that have a lot on their mind. Even “The Purge,” for a mainstream horror movie, is provocative stuff. Has it always been a conscious effort on your part to choose projects that ask big questions?
To be totally honest with you, I haven’t done as well as I wanted to when I was younger. This sounds like a weird thing to say, but I remember thinking Robert Redford wasn’t that great an actor, but that he’d had an unbelievable career because he knew how to use himself well. He has incredible taste, a literary development. Is he one of the greatest actors of his generation? No. But he’s certainly one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. “Butch Cassidy,” “The Sting,” “The Candidate,” “Downhill Racer,” “Ordinary People,” “The Natural,” “Out of Africa.” He had a great ability to use whatever modicum of talent he had to its absolute uttermost.
I love acting. It’s my passion. But I never excelled at being a shape changing, character actor that a lot of the finest actors are. One of the ways that I felt I could have something to offer was to be picking material well and be idea-orientated and putting myself in as many different types of films that I could. The work that I’ve done with Richard Linklater is really a part of my heart. But then there’s this other professional part that’s pushing myself.
I like “The Purge.” It’s the best kind of genre film to my mind. Rather than make a film about Trayvon Martin, you can make it a sci-fi horror film. And you make it about those ideas without preaching it at all. A smart person will see the movie and go, “This is class war.” The best John Carpenter films were always doing that. In the same way that “Daybreakers’ is a huge metaphor, analogy, however you want to put it, for how we’re destroying the planet. Rather than making some do-gooder movie, it’s kind of fun to tell a story about vampires who are out of blood.
I’ve always been drawn to that. I think that you could meet some heavy-duty Buddhist scholars who could have something to say about the movie last night. There’s a lot of new age spiritualism in every good sci-fi story. “Her” has it. “Her” is just a normal love story if we saw Scarlett [Johansson]. But put that one sci-fi element, and the whole thing becomes original.
Another film that deals with the passage of time like “Predestination,” albeit in a totally different manner, is “Boyhood,” which is also playing at the festival.
I’ve done a lot of work with Rick, but I kind of feel this is the thing that he’s done… it’s the greatest execution of his voice that makes him so unique. He’s not Scorsese, he’s not Altman, he’s Richard Linklater and that movie is amazing. I’m sorry, I’m just ranting.
When you first saw the finished work at Sundance, what went through your head upon seeing 12 years of your life up there on screen?
It’s a fascinating experience. When the movie started I honestly thought, “Damn, I still look pretty good.” That was 12 years ago!
We all grew up and we hear older people talk about how time goes by so fast. And we understand that but it doesn’t really mean anything to us. But there’s something about seeing 12 years go by over the course of one narrative. It’s the first time I really understood how fast my life is going to go by.
I have to start learning how to speak about it with appropriate humility. I don’t feel any sense of ownership over it. I feel it was really Rick’s baby. It’s an unbelievable act of patience and love. It’s giant epic that doesn’t have one death, one first kiss, or one’s first sex — it’s a whole epic about what’s ordinary. I just think he took his game to the next level with this movie.