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“Hamlet”: Ethan Hawke Interview

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., May 3, 2000 — Ethan Hawke ambles into the hotel suite, and the image is striking.

That’s because he’s dressed — albeit awkwardly — in a jacket and slacks. He sits, not slumps, in his chair. And while mixing in discussion about books he’s reading, music he listens to (his favorite band at the moment is Wilco) and favorite films (“Reds” is a mainstay), Hawke talks about the need to learn children’s songs because Maya Ray, his almost-2-year-old daughter with wife Uma Thurman, doesn’t like his guitar playing when he takes her to the park.

It’s a far cry from the leather jacketed, greasy-haired, goatee-wearing slacker we’re used to seeing. But more than 10 years after his breakthrough in “Dead Poets Society,” the 29-year-old actor is settling into familydom with wife and child, slowing down his workload and looking long and hard for roles that challenge him.

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So it’s appropriate that his latest undertaking is one of the most difficult to play, hoping to please the Bard with a modern-day adaptation of “Hamlet,” directed by Michael Almereyda and set in New York City. Suffice to say, the role, played onscreen by everyone from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh to Mel Gibson, presented a bit of intimidation for the much-younger Hawke.

“I didn’t want to be so presumptuous to think I had anything new to offer,” Hawke says of the role. “My goal was just to approach it as simply as possible and .. [Michael] had this whole idea that most of the guys who’ve played Hamlet were too old. In many ways they’re all spinning around 40. And I kind of thought, in a modern sense, he was much more Holden Caufield or Kurt Cobain.

“Many of his dilemmas are a young man’s dilemmas. He’s concerned about his relationship with his father and his mother, and he doesn’t really know who he is or what he’s about, and he’s got this girlfriend, he’s getting sent off to school. And I feel like there’s really kind of a young man’s issues,” Hawke says.

This time, Hamlet is an aspiring digital-video filmmaker whose father (Sam Shepard) has recently died. His uncle Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) takes over as the CEO of Denmark Corporation, also taking Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) as his bride. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father returns to tell him he was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet is spun into a tormented rage as he seeks vengeance.

The film also stars such diverse talent as Julia Stiles as Ophelia, Bill Murray as Polonius, Liev Schreiber as Laertes, Steve Zahn as Rosencrantz and Casey Affleck as Fortinbras. It’s the second big-screen modern Shakespeare adaptation, the first being Baz Luhrmann’s successful 1995 film “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

“It was a model, to prove to me that it really could work,” Hawke says of Luhrmann’s film. “I loved Baz Luhrmann’s film. [But] ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a much more commercial play, even when done on stage. If you’re running a theater and you want to make some money, you do ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ People love it. Hamlet is much more unwieldly.”

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Which makes it the perfect project for Hawke, who experimented with playing brooders (“Reality Bites”), artists (“Great Expectations”) bank robbers (“The Newton Boys”) and the genetically flawed (“Gattaca,” where he met Thurman). None of these films have measured up to the critical and box-office success of “Dead Poets Society,” but Hawke continues to push himself, even publishing a novel, “The Hottest State,” which came under fire when it was published in 1995.

“I feel like all that’s OK,” he says of the criticism. “I’ve always believed that time will tell everything, if I’m any good at writing or serious about it. … It was really a struggle for me to be who I was, and to not let the fact that ‘Dead Poets Society’ was a hit stop me from growing as a person. When ‘Dead Poets Society’ came out, it really altered my life and it opened up all these avenues in this profession of acting. And at the time I was an English major at NYU.”

Hawke remains undaunted, having recently directed a short film, “Straight to One,” and having started on another novel. But while he hopes to follow in the multi-faceted footsteps of “Hamlet” co-star Sam Shepard, who he calls “a real role model” for his writing/acting/directing endeavors, marriage and fatherhood still take precedence.

“Mostly I’ve been learning to be even more discerning than I was before,” Hawke says. “Whereas I used to be able to run a theater company and do a movie and run around and try to write; because I didn’t have any personal life at all, just was working all the time. You realize if you don’t make your family a priority you’ll lose them. So now I just try to do things that I really believe in that are the most bang for my buck — thus, Hamlet.”

“Hamlet” opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 12.

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