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Ethan Hawke talks 'Macbeth,' says Shakespeare role is 'like running a marathon'

Ethan Hawke at the screening of "Sinister" in

Ethan Hawke at the screening of "Sinister" in Los Angeles. (Oct. 1, 2012) Credit: AP

Ethan Hawke couldn't have picked a better soundtrack. As he sips his tea at a cafe near Lincoln Center, a soulful voice comes warbling over the sound system -- it's Adele, singing "Should I give up/Or should I just keep chasin' pavements/Even if it leads nowhere?" Adele's amazing, he says. He took his daughter to see her in concert. If this were a movie, the song would be perfect underscoring for a guy who seems to stretch himself more, perhaps, than expected.

Hawke, 43, shot to prominence as a Gen X poster child in the film "Reality Bites," following that with probing films like "Gattaca" and "Training Day" (which earned him an Academy Award nomination). Then there's "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and the recent "Before Midnight," a film trilogy exploring one relationship over two decades, which he co-wrote with co-star Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater (earning an Oscar nomination for screenwriting). He's written two novels, and taken on theater roles -- Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia." His latest is the wily, blood-soaked Macbeth in, yes, that Scottish play, a lush, mystical production running at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre through Jan. 12.

He spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

You're an incredibly physical Macbeth. The sword fights, the bellowing. How do you keep up your strength -- and voice -- each week?

It's the project of my year. I keep wondering -- how did Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton do Shakespeare and go out and get [drunk] every night? I mean, how did they do that?

I think it's in their DNA.

But also it's in their education system. Let's face it, in Britain they really value training their young actors. When Winona Ryder and I were being hoisted up as poster children for a generation and handed all this money, most British actors were still... in training. So now... I'm a little behind. When I was younger, I was cavalier about all the stuff they wanted to teach you in theater school. I blew it off. Now, I'm back in class learning it. All summer, I worked with an acting coach, vocal coach. ... So I'd be ready -- physically, vocally, intellectually -- to do this. It was ... a real, um, come-to-Jesus moment to admit I just don't know what I'm doing.

Onstage, you mean?

Yeah. Doing a Shakespeare role is kind of like running a marathon. If you have a slight instep, over 26 miles it's gonna bother you. It's not gonna bother you running 3 miles. For a lot of plays, I was fine. But I read this and thought, OK, I have a lot of bad habits as a performer, and if I do my old ways in this part, I'll blow a gasket.

I'm not sure most actors would admit that.

I've been acting since I was 13, and my relationship to it has to keep changing or it'll become static and die.

I just saw "Before Midnight." The scenes last 10 minutes, 20 minutes. It's like I'm actually riding in the car with you, or hanging at your dinner table. I thought people don't have attention spans anymore.

But they do. It's amazing how that movie challenges people. They love it.

How do you three write these films?

Once we have an outline, we hole up in a hotel together. Maybe I'd come in one morning with something for the old man to say in the dinner scene. And Julie would say, "Yeah, but what if we add this joke?" And Rick would say, "Good, but maybe the woman should say it." By the time it's done, we're never really sure who wrote what. It goes through this giant blender.

What pushes you to try all these things?

I don't know.

You seem OK outside your comfort zone.

I guess when I was younger, I had no sense of what I shouldn't do. I started a theater company when I was 21. I didn't know jack about theater. But I knew I loved it. I never went to a writing school -- but I wrote a novel. For some reason, I never see the downsides of anything till it's waaaay too late. It makes some people loathe me. A lot of my friends struggle with giving themselves permission to, say, write a book. They wrestle with demons -- "Ohhh, I'm not Leo Tolstoy." That doesn't mean writers shouldn't write, actors shouldn't act, musicians shouldn't play their songs. It's one of the strange ways my lack of an education helped me. I wasn't taught a lot of the right ways to do things. So I just... marched ahead. Now, as I've gotten older, I have a lot more fear. But, yeah, I still put my hand in the fire. I don't really mind but... it wears on you.

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