Ethan Hawke(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Ethan Hawke
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Asked what kind of challenge his latest New York City stage role presents, Ethan Hawke quips, "It's a lot of goddamn lines." The actor is starring in Hurlyburly, David Rabe's 1984 play about four men in Los Angeles and their dysfunctional relationships with each other and the women they encounter. Hawke's character has a penchant for ranting; the role includes several lengthy monologues. (Rabe has revised the script for this production, trimming some of the play's length and changing the three-act structure to two.) Hurlyburly begins previews on January 11 and opens on the 27th at the Acorn Theater in the Theatre Row complex, presented by The New Group. Scott Elliott directs a cast that also features Bobby Cannavale, Josh Hamilton, Catherine Kellner, Parker Posey, Wallace Shawn, and Halley Wegryn Gross.

Hawke plays Eddie, a Hollywood casting director who is emotionally adrift; he drinks a lot of liquor, snorts a lot of cocaine, and seems on the verge of losing control of his life. "Eddie's not a person at his most heroic moment," says Hawke. "The play is a great portrait of a lost man, and I think it sparks a really interesting dialogue about where men are and what they're feeling. The men in the play have these friendships with each other, and they're looking for why they're alive and why they feel so lost."

Although Hurlyburly is set in Hollywood, Hawke feels that Eddie's troubles are not specific to the movie business. "I think it's much more a portrait of a man in crisis," he states. "The characters happen to be in one given industry, but it's no more about movies than Raging Bull is about boxing." Though a film version of the play was released in 1998, starring Sean Penn as Eddie, Hawke has no desire to see it. "The play is so incredibly theatrical," he remarks. "There's so much language in it, you know? Cinema doesn't love language like the theater does."

Hawke is best known as a film actor, with such credits as Dead Poets Society, Hamlet, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Training Day (for which he received an Academy Award nomination). Opening this month is his latest movie, Assault on Precinct 13 -- a remake of John Carpenter's 1976 thriller -- co-starring Laurence Fishburne, Drea De Matteo, John Leguizamo, and Maria Bello. "I play a down-and-out loser cop," says Hawke. "Fun part."

The actor has also built up an impressive theater résumé that includes the recent Lincoln Center production of Henry IV (in which he played Hotspur), a Steppenwolf staging of Sam Shepard's Buried Child, and the 2001 New York premiere of Shepard's The Late Henry Moss. Hawke co-founded the Malaparte Theater Company in the 1990s, but that troupe is no longer in operation. "We had a ball together and learned a lot from each other," he says. "We did it for about three or four years and it was pretty much the most thrilling period of my life -- of my work life, certainly. But everyone started drifting away. A couple people moved to L.A. I got married [to Uma Thurman, from whom he's now separated] and had a baby. I had spent all my time fund-raising and reading plays; it was an unbelievable amount of work. Throw a couple of babies into the mix and something had to give."

Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawkein Assault on Precinct 13(Photo © Focus Features, 2005)
Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke
in Assault on Precinct 13
(Photo © Focus Features, 2005)
In addition to all of the activity noted above, Hawke has written two novels (The Hottest State, Ash Wednesday) and directed two films (Chelsea Walls and a short film called Straight to One, featuring his Hurlyburly co-star Josh Hamilton). "I started acting incredibly young and did my first professional play when I was 12 years old," Hawke says, "so I've always struggled to challenge myself in other ways, to learn new things, and to try to have the most interesting life possible. I've needed to constantly work on changing my relationship to acting; I don't do it for the same reasons I did when I was 13. I think part of the reason why so many young actors burn out is because you ultimately have to develop an adult relationship to the profession and to keep changing. Writing a book, directing a movie -- they're all operating on the same avenue, they're just kind of on different sides of the street."

As far as the roles Hawke chooses to play, that often depends on who else is involved in a particular project. "Whether you're doing theater or movies, you want to be in the room with the most talented people that you can be in the room with," he says. Personal connections don't hurt, either; his friends Josh Hamilton and Catherine Kellner were already cast in Hurlyburly prior to Hawke's involvement. As Hawke tells it, "I'd been traveling and got back to town and my first question was, 'Who's playing Eddie?' They said 'nobody,' so I started making some calls."

Hawke is an admirer of The New Group and has known director Scott Elliott for awhile, but this is the first time they are working together. "I'm thrilled that I'm the right age to do this play that I've always wanted to do," he says. "I think it's going to be the hardest thing I've ever done -- and that's what I'm in the mood for."