''Maybe it was because of that stupid movie Dead Poets Society, with that whole 'carpe diem' thing,'' says Ethan Hawke, ''but I really took that whole 'follow your bliss' line that people give you when you're 16 to heart.''
That, more than anything, might best explain Hawke's varied career up till now. If, after getting an Oscar nomination (for 2001's Training Day), he felt like taking time off to write a novel, he stopped everything and wrote the novel (Ash Wednesday, his second). When he wanted to play a cokehead Off Broadway (Hurlyburly) or direct a movie about the Chelsea Hotel (Chelsea Walls), he went for it. But four years ago just as he was gearing up to make 2004's indie hit Before Sunset after separating from his wife of six years, Uma Thurman Hawke lost his creative spark and started to wonder how he could get it back.
''Around the time of Before Sunset,'' he says, ''I just didn't know who I was anymore. I had gotten so depressed that I couldn't find the joy any longer. But working with Rick [Linklater] and Julie [Delpy], my old friends from Before Sunrise, helped me a lot. And since the theater was my first love, and there's something humbling about the theater, I just went back there. I wanted to touch my own past a little bit. It all coincided with a sense that I needed to rebuild myself after my divorce.''
So, by choice, the last couple of years of Hawke's life have been spent ''low to the ground,'' dedicated primarily to roles in the New York theater most recently, he received a Tony nomination for his work in Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia and also to directing the indie-movie adaptation of his 1996 semiautobiographical novel, The Hottest State (in theaters now). In person, the 36-year-old is like a college student who never finished college garrulous, philosophical, willing to hang out and keep rapping. Sitting over a bowl of fruit-laced muesli in the same neighborhood café where he's been coming since he was 22, and where he wrote portions of State, Hawke is upfront about how the film is taken from his own life.
''It's a personal movie, my favorite kind,'' he says of State, which chronicles the doomed love affair between a young actor (Mark Webber) and the girl who ultimately crushes his heart (Catalina Sandino Moreno). In telling the story for the screen, Hawke took inspiration from one of his favorite ''personal'' movies, Bob Fosse's thinly veiled autobiographical All That Jazz. ''Hottest State is a student of Jazz,'' Hawke explains. ''On one level, it's a hopelessly narcissistic film. On another, it tells you something really, really personal and honest and tries to do it well, and be naked, and share what the experience of living life is like. The hope is that like-minded people will gain something from it.''
That approach worked just fine for Hawke in the intensely ruminative Before Sunset, which netted him, Linklater, and Delpy scores of sensitive twenty- and thirtysomething fans, as well as an Oscar nomination for the screenplay. That approach also sometimes gets Hawke in trouble with critics who, for instance, weren't especially kind to The Hottest State, or to Hawke for even presuming to write it.
''I think some people think Ethan's calculated: 'Oh, he's trying to be this or that,''' says Linklater, a close friend since they first collaborated on Sunrise in 1994. ''But a guy like Ethan honestly isn't working for anyone's approval. I swear to God, the guy just follows his artistic muse. He does it to do it, and he doesn't care where the chips fall.''
Since bottoming out a couple of years ago, Hawke sounds like he's finally getting back his footing. Asked if he felt vilified by the tabloids, which pointed the finger at him for the breakup with Thurman, Hawke replies, ''Oh, God, yes!'' but indicates life has settled down since then. ''I mean, nobody starts a family to not have it work out,'' he says. ''The disappointment is there. But I've started to feel better. I'm kind of back in touch with my life.''
His kids with Thurman Maya, 9, and Levon Roan, 5 will visit him on the set of Daybreakers, a vampire movie he's leaving to go shoot in Australia later this afternoon. He's hoping it'll be the kind of big commercial success you need in Hollywood every couple of years if what you really want to do is follow your proverbial bliss and make more Before Sunsets and The Hottest States, films that try to speak to people one-on-one.
''I just hope,'' he says, ''that The Hottest State is the kind of movie where, 10 years from now, somebody will be going through a really bad breakup, and a friend of theirs will say, 'Have you seen The Hottest State?' and they'll say, 'No,' and they'll slide in the DVD together, and then talk about it all night. That's my dream.''
Ethan Hawke's Essentials
The album, film, and epic novel that thrill him most
Sky Blue Sky, Wilco
Hawke, a fan of frontman Jeff Tweedy, loves Wilco's latest. ''It starts with a happy little guitar riff and the line, 'Maybe the sun will shine today.' I felt like, 'He's happy!' And I thought, 'I am too!' Corny, but I love him.''
''I remember when I was 18, I thought I would make a movie like Reds someday. Now I'm almost as old as Warren Beatty when he made it. Not quite, but I'm nowhere close to doing something that good. How am I going to do it? Do I still hope I can? I don't know.''
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
''If you haven't read this, stop what you're doing and read it. The greatest book ever written. It's what you want when you put on a new record, or go to church it's what you want at 3 a.m. or 12 in the afternoon.''