It’s hard to believe, but four-time Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke has celebrated over three decades in the film business. Hawke made his film debut in Joe Dante‘s 1985 film, “Explorers.”
Although an accomplished Tony-nominated stage actor, Hawke is primarily celebrated for his work in movies. He is one of the few performers who has been a double Oscar nominee in both the acting category (“Training Day” and “Boyhood”) and writing (“Before Sunrise” and “Before Midnight”). Hawke has also been nominated for two Screen Actors Guild Awards (“Training Day” and “Boyhood”), as well as a Golden Globe nod for “Boyhood.”
Unquestionably, Hawke’s most notable film collaborations have been with writer/director Richard Linklater, who had the ability to bring out something extra in him. In three “Before” films — “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013) — Hawke broke hearts all over the world as Jesse with his relationship with Julie Delpy‘s Céline. And in “Boyhood,” he managed to sustain and grow a character over 12 years. And both Hawke and Delpy even lent their voices to Linklater’s rotoscope animated film “Waking Life.” Recently, he received some of the best reviews of his career for 2018’s “First Reformed.”
Let’s book back and rank from worst to best his greatest 15 films in the photo gallery above.
15. GATTACA (1997)
Writer/Director: Andrew Niccol. Starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Alan Arkin, Jude Law, Ernest Borgnine, Gore Vidal.
In Andrew Niccol’s futuristic sci-fi film, Hawke portrays Vincent, a man who was conceived outside of the commonly-used genetics system that is used to distinguish between “valids” (citizens whose genes qualify them for professional jobs) and in-valids (who are relegated to menial work). Vincent is an in-valid, but anxious to move up in the world, takes hair, blood and urine samples from a paralyzed valid in order to pass as one himself. Despite the film’s emphasis on the technical, Hawke manages to carve out a believable character in this high-concept world.
14. WAKING LIFE (2001)
Writer/Director: Richard Linklater. Starring Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Steven Soderbergh.
After his collaboration with Richard Linklater in 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” Hawke came back to work with the director for his pioneering leap into the world of rotoscope animation. Hawke was one of several actors (including his “Before Sunrise” co-star Julie Delpy) whose acting was captured on camera and then drawn over by a team of artists. Hawke’s role is more of a glorified cameo than a co-starring performance, but it’s fascinating to see him act in something other than a live-action film.
13. EXPLORERS (1985)
Director: Joe Dante. Writer: Eric Luke. Starring Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Jason Presson.
Hawke made his film debut starring in Joe Dante’s sci-fi fantasy about a trio of kids, played by Hawke (who was 15 when the film was released), River Phoenix (also in his film debut) and Jason Presson, who dream about flying into space, and together they build a spacecraft to do just that. Thanks to a strong script by Eric Luke, the three boys are well developed, and both Hawke and Phoenix used their fine characterizations here as a springboard to successful film careers.
12. MAUDIE (2016)
Director: Aisling Walsh. Writer: Sherry White. Starring Ethan Hawke, Sally Hawkins.
Although he often plays witty characters, Hawke took on the role of gruff Canadian fish peddler Everett Lewis, who hires arthritic Maud Dowley (Sally Hawkins) as housekeeper and provides her with room and board in his home. Their professional relationship turns into a romantic one, and Everett and Maud marry. But as Maud begins to become a renowned painter, Everett grows more distant from her. Hawke manages to take what is an extremely unlikable character and, without pandering, brings the audience around to him by the film’s conclusion.
11. HAMLET (2000)
Writer/Director: Michael Almereyda, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Starring Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLaughlin, Diana Venora, Liev Schreiber, Bill Murray.
One of Hawke’s most unusual film challenges was in the title role of Michael Almereyda’s “Hamlet.” “What’s so unusual about playing Hamlet?” you might ask. For one thing, the story takes place in contemporary New York City, this Hamlet is a film student, and Denmark is the giant business company, Denmark Corporation. Yet Almereyda retains the Shakespearean dialogue, which Hawke handles deftly.
10. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)
Director: Antoine Fuqua. Writers: Nic Pizzolatto. Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard.
Denzel Washington joined Hawke in being reunited with their “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua in this remake of the 1957 John Sturges Western classic. Washington and his co-star Chris Pratt got the lion’s share of the focus among the cast, but look out for Hawke, as former Confederate marksman Goodnight “Goody” Robicheaux. Not only does Hawke bring great character work to the role, but he displays some mad gun-handling skills as well.
9. REALITY BITES (1994)
Director: Ben Stiller. Writer: Helen Childress. Starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller.
In Ben Stiller’s popular romantic comedy, Hawke portrays Troy Dyer, who is a bit of a washout employment-rise, and now works as a guitarist in a coffeehouse. Troy crosses paths with aspiring filmmaker Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) who is filming a documentary titled “Reality Bites” about his disenchanted friends. Though they are attracted to one another, Lelaina’s work becomes a priority, and they part, only to come back into each other’s lives. It’s fun to see Hawke let loose romantically, and he seems to be having a ball in the role.
8. THE BLACK PHONE (2021)
Director: Scott Derrickson. Writers: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill. Starring Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Davies, E. Roger Mitchell, Troy Rudeseal.
Hawke took a big chance in taking on the role of serial killer Albert Shaw in Scott Derrickson’s adaptation of Joe Hill’s famed horror classic. After all, throughout his career, he was often taken on characters with a thoughtful intellectual side to them, very unlike this killer of young teens. But even though his face was disguised through most of “The Black Phone” with a hideous mask, the voice is unmistakably Hawke’s, as is the intelligence he brings to the role. The smarts that Hawke brings to his performance was in no small part of the reason why “The Black Phone” became one of the best-reviewed horror films in recent years.
7. BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007)
Director: Sidney Lumet. Writer: Kelly Masterson. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney.
In this final film directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet, Hawke is paired with Philip Seymour Hoffman as brothers both in desperate need of money who join forces to rob their parents’ jewelry store. In this team Hank (Hawke) is the dim bulb in the plan, leaving things to his stronger older brother (Hoffman). Hawke and Hoffman have a great chemistry together, and the sharp direction of Lumet brings out the best in both actors.
6. BORN TO BE BLUE (2015)
Writer/Director: Robert Budreau. Starring Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie.
Probably the least known of Hawke’s best films, Robert Budreau’s biography of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker is an impressionistic look at Baker’s life, warts and all. Budreau focuses on Baker’s (Hawke) attempt at a comeback, even though he’s still a heroin addict. Hawke bravely portrays Baker as a scared yet arrogant musician, living only to play the trumpet and shoot up. Although Hawke doesn’t actually play on the soundtrack — that’s performed by Kevin Turcotte — Hawke took trumpet lessons so that he could expertly replicate the finger movements that correspond to Turcotte’s notes.
5. DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989)
Director: Peter Weir. Writer: Tom Schulman. Starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles.
Although most moviegoers look back on “Dead Poets Society” as “The Robin Williams Show” (and it is), Peter Weir’s film also gave its supporting actors, such as Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard. And in many ways, the storyline arc is not about Williams’ teacher as it is about the young men in his class. Hawke’s Todd Anderson, gives the audience fresh eyes where we get a first glimpse of Welton Academy. Hawke deftly carries his character arc from being a wide-eyed new student to the leader of the “O Captain! My Captain!” salute to his teacher.
4. FIRST REFORMED (2018)
Writer/Director: Paul Schrader. Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer.
Writer/director Paul Schrader made a notable return to form in his latest release about Rev. Ernst Toller (Hawke). He is a pastor of a dying tourist-trap church who undergoes a crisis of faith and despair when he tries to offer religious counsel to a tormented parishioner, who turns out to be far more troubled that the padre realizes. This is one of Hawke’s very best performances, slow-walking Rev. Toller’s descent from pastoral comforting to the edge of madness. (This is Paul Schrader, after all.)
3. THE BEFORE…series (1995, 2004, 2013)
Director: Richard Linklater. Writers: Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. Starring Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy.
Richard Linklater had not intended his first “Before” film, “Before Sunrise” (1995) to be the first of a trilogy, but audiences so warmed to young American Jesse (Hawke) and French student Céline (Julie Delpy) in their overnight walking tour of Vienna that Linklater knew that there had to be more. In 2004’s “Before Sunset,” Jesse has become a successful writer and Céline an environmental activist. And in 2013’s “Before Midnight,” Jesse and Céline have finally become a couple, but their marriage is soon threatened. For co-writing “Before Sunset,” Hawke earned his second Academy Award nomination, and for co-writing “Before Midnight,” he earned his third.
2. TRAINING DAY (2001)
Director: Antoine Fuqua. Writer: David Ayer. Starring Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Eva Mendes, Scott Glenn.
Hawke received his first Oscar nomination for his performance in Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day,” for his portrayal of Jake Hoyt, an LAPD narcotics officer who is being paired up corrupt cop Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington in his Oscar-winning performance). Jake wants to learn the ropes from Alonzo for their patrols in South Central, but he soon comes to realize just how corrupt his partner and has to decide whether he turns Alonzo in before he brings down Jake with him.
1. BOYHOOD (2014)
Director: Richard Linklater. Starring Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater.
One of Hawke’s most lasting achievements would have to be his performance as Mason Sr. in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” a film and performance that took over 12 years to film. Hawke’s performance had to be one of the most challenging imaginable — returning to the same role year after year and gauging where his character had been last year and where he is at today without showing the seams. For his performance as Mason Sr., Hawke earned his fourth Academy Award nomination.