Jeff Labrecque
June 14, 2013 AT 04:00 AM EDT

He has oodles of indie cred. But Ethan Hawke, 42, is still awfully psyched to have a bona fide box office hit on his hands with The Purge, which scored a surprising $34.1 million to win the weekend. ”We made the movie for $3 million, so it made 12 times its budget in its opening weekend,” he says. ”It feels a little bit like sneaking into the candy store.”

In the horror thriller from producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity), the government sanctions a cathartic annual ”holiday” allowing citizens to murder and pillage with impunity. Drama (and bloodshed) ensues when a hunted man seeks refuge in Hawke’s character’s house, and a masked mob demands that he be turned over to them. ”We called it ‘smugglers cinema,’ which is [when] you disguise an interesting film as a genre film,” says Hawke (who also starred in Blum’s spooky Sinister last year). ”You make something wildly entertaining, and underneath it has a subversive message.”

The Purge‘s big debut coincides with Before Midnight, the latest in Hawke’s beloved romantic series with director Richard Linklater and costar Julie Delpy. Midnight averaged more than $10,000 per theater in its third weekend of limited play (bringing its total to $1.5 million) and is poised to expand. ”It is strange to have one of the gentlest movies of all time out with one of the most terrifying,” says the actor. Though, he admits, calling Before Midnight ”gentle” shortchanges the marital drama’s sharp wit. ”My friend [saw it] with his wife, and at one moment he was feeling really touched and put his hand on her knee,” Hawke says. ”And she slapped him!”

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