Bearing the kind of sensitive-man good looks that have led many to think he would be perfect for a career as a tortured, latte-chugging intellectual, Ethan Hawke instead emerged in the 1990s as both a talented actor and a thinking girls' poster boy. In addition to acting, Hawke penned two novels -- The Hottest State, which is rumored to be based on a former relationship he had with singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb, and the best-selling Ash Wednesday.
Born November 6, 1970, in Austin, TX, to teenage parents who separated when he was a toddler, Hawke was raised by his mother. The two led an itinerant existence until she married again, and the family settled in Princeton Junction, NJ. There Hawke began to study acting at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, and at the age of 14, he made his film debut in Explorers (1985). A sci-fi fantasy flick that starred the actor alongside River Phoenix, it didn't make much of an impact upon its theatrical release, but thanks to the presence of both Hawke and Phoenix, it went on to a second life on cable.
Following his debut, Hawke stopped acting professionally to attend Carnegie Mellon University. His college career didn't last long, however; while still a student, Hawke was chosen to play one of the young protagonists of Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society. The 1989 film, which marked the beginning of Robin Williams' turn toward more dramatic roles, was a success, and Hawke, in his role as the shy, cringing Todd Anderson, made prep school angst look so photogenic that he soon had something of a teenage following. After starring as Ted Danson's son in Dad the same year, Hawke went on to make a string of movies that allowed him to demonstrate his talent but never quite propelled him further into the realm of stardom. White Fang (1991) provided him with a go at adventure by casting him as a young gold miner who forms a bond with the titular canine, while Waterland (1992) had Hawke plumbing the depths of mild delinquency as the troublesome student of an emotionally estranged Jeremy Irons. Unfortunately, almost nobody saw Waterland, and the same could be said of Hawke's other film that year, the WWII drama A Midnight Clear. Lack of an audience obscured the actor's strong performances in both films, and it was not until 1994 that he began to gain recognition for something besides Dead Poets Society. In that year, Hawke created something of a reputation for himself, both on- and offscreen. Offscreen, he became tabloid fodder when he was caught dancing with a then-married Julia Roberts and thus gained a certain -- if fleeting -- kind of notoriety. On screen, the actor starred in Ben Stiller's Reality Bites, portraying the kind of goateed, ennui-mired, more-sensitive-than-thou slacker that helped get him labeled as such in real life. Matters weren't helped when, that same year, the actor published The Hottest State, a meditation on love from the point-of-view of an angst-ridden twentysomething that was scorned by many critics as pretentious posturing.
After starring as another sensitive student of life in Richard Linklater's romantic talkathon Before Sunrise (1995), Hawke went back to his sci-fi roots with Gattaca (1997), a near-future parable about the dangers of genetic engineering. Although the film was a relative disappointment, it did present Hawke with an introduction to co-star Uma Thurman, whom he married in 1998 and had a daughter with later that same year. Also in 1998, the actor starred opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in an adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations; despite mixed reviews, the film heightened Hawke's profile while further establishing him as one of the leading interpreters of sensitive-boy artistic angst. After a starring turn as one of the titular Newton Boys alongside Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, and Vincent D'Onofrio in Richard Linklater's neglected 1998 Western, Hawke took on an entirely different role in 1999. Starring in Scott Hicks' Snow Falling on Cedars, he portrayed a journalist investigating the murder of a Japanese-American man in post-WWII Washington State. The same year, he appeared in Joe the King, the directorial debut of his friend and Midnight Clear co-star Frank Whaley.
In addition to his film work, Hawke has remained active in the theater. He was the artistic director of the now-defunct Malaparte, a New York theater company that he co-founded with a group of actors including Robert Sean Leonard, Frank Whaley, and Josh Hamilton. He has also worked behind the camera, directing the music video for Lisa Loeb's "Stay" in 1994.
Hawke subsequently earned some of the best reviews of his career to date as the title character of Michael Almereyda's 2000 adaptation of Hamlet. Set in modern-day New York, the film allowed Hawke to give the famously tortured prince a slackerish spin that more than one critic noted seemed to come naturally to the actor. The following year, he could be seen in an altogether different feature, portraying a rookie cop opposite Denzel Washington in Training Day, Antoine Fuqua's gritty cop drama. He also collaborated again with director Linklater, first for Tape, a drama co-starring Robert Sean Leonard and wife Thurman, and then for Waking Life, a groundbreaking animated feature in which the actor reprised the role of Before Sunrise's Jesse. 2001 also marked Hawke's first significant foray behind the camera as the director of Chelsea Walls, a multi-character drama about various artists living in New York's famed Chelsea Hotel.
In 2002, Hawke played alongside Frank Whaley in The Jimmy Show and made an appearance on the hit television drama Alias the next year. The year 2003 was not a banner one for the actor -- after rumors of an affair between Hawke and a young model began circulating among various television and print tabloids, Uma Thurman announced their official separation after five years of marriage. In 2004, Hawke starred with Angelina Jolie in director D.J. Caruso's Taking Lives and reprised his Before Sunrise role opposite Julie Delpy in Linklater's sequel Before Sunset, a film which also provided the long-time actor with his first screenwriting credit.
Hawke appeared in several moderately successful films throughout 2005 and 2006 (Assault on Precinct 13, The Hottest State, Fast Food Nation), but found himself back in the limelight for 2007's crime thriller Before the Devil Know You're Dead, in which the actor played one of two brothers involved in a plan to rob their parents' jewelry store. The film would win the Best Picture from the American Film Institute. He found success yet again for his role in the 2008 crime drama What Doesn't Kill You. The film, which also stars Mark Ruffalo and Donnie Wahlberg, features Hawke as a street-hardened young adult struggling to rise above the dog-eat-dog lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. In 2009 Hawke starred in Daybreaker, in which he played a vampire sympathetic to the human plight, and worked with Don Cheadle, Wesley Snipes, and Richard Gere for his role as a narcotics officer in the crime thriller Brooklyn's Finest. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi