Interview: Daybreakers’ Ethan Hawke

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Living in a world of vampires on screen and off

More coverage from Daybreakers: Interview #1: The Spierig Brothers | Interview #2: The Spierig Brothers

Ethan Hawke’s never done a horror film before and judging from our conversation with him about Daybreakers, there remains in him a palpable enthusiasm for the picture. Let me elaborate. All too often when actors make the leap out of their comfort zone (be it dramas, comedies, etc.) and into horror, they try to put an arrogant spin on their decision for doing so, painting the project they’re starring in as something perhaps not “genre” at all. Not Hawke.

In spite of his hesitation to work with Australian directors Michael and Peter Spierig, the actor – who has starred in such films as Before Sunrise, its sequel Before Sunset, Training Day and Gattaca – gave Daybreakers a chance, recognizing its strong genre elements and embracing them. In it, he plays Edward Dalton, a vampire scientist – existing in a world of bloodsuckers – who is concerned about an impending blood drought that will occur if a substitute is not found. He’s welcomed into the fold of a human resistance (led by Willem Dafoe and Claudia Karvan) that claims to have a solution.

As you’ll read, Hawke’s introduction to the material was honest and humorous. You’ll also find that he’s reverent, recalling two great genre artists he got his start with.

Question: What was it about this film that made you want to take a crack at it?

Ethan Hawke: I wanted to do something I hadn’t done. The truth is, they had sent me the script and I didn’t read it. Along with it came the movie Undead and I watched about ten minutes of it and I thought it was terrible. [laughs] I said I didn’t want to meet [the Spierig bros.] Christmas rolled around, or maybe it was Thanksgiving, and I have two younger brothers and they had put that movie on. They were howling with laughter. I sat down and watched it with them and then I thought it was genius. [laughs] I didn’t get their sense of humor. I don’t really understand this genre. My first movie was with Joe Dante and all he’d talk about with Roger Corman, and those kinds of pictures like The Howling and Piranha, those are his first – he’d talk passionately about the power of genre filmmaking and what it can be. I have some base awareness of it, but I fancy myself a dramatic actor and I had finished Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” which is nine hours about mid-19th century Russian radicals and [Daybreakers], a vampire movie, sounded like a lot of fun.

ShockTillYouDrop.com: Admittedly, Undead is a film that’s rough around the edges…

Hawke: But there’s some vision there.

Shock: Exactly. Is Daybreakers an improvement in terms of the Spierig brothers’ aesthetic? Do you see some maturation?

Hawke: I hope so. Undead is a great cult film and I think Daybreakers does well, people will start to discover that movie. It really is hysterical and when you realize how little they made the movie for, you get the level of their creativity. What I was surprised about with Daybreakers is how disciplined they’ve been. The funny thing is the twin aspect of it. The brothers. I can see now why Joe and Ethan Coen have been so successful and why the Wachowskis are so successful. A lot of people who are super gifted have this vision and imagination, with that often comes an arrogance and pride. [In cases like this], the brother beats it out of the other brother. If you work with Martin Scorsese on set, I imagine, very few people will criticize [his decisions]. When you have a twin brother on set, that happens all the time. “Oh, that’s a terrible idea!” They force each other to be better. I’ve watched different cuts of the movie and watched how disciplined it became. I have hopes for them and I think they did a really good job. What’s remarkable is that the film is not based on a graphic novel and not based on anything. There’s a level of imagination at work. They worked it out with subtext.

Question: What does it offer the genre right now?

Hawke: It’s new because it’s the first post-adolescent vampire movie in a while. It’s refreshing to see. It’s new for the genre in that it’s not inundated with Christian superstition. It’s rooted in sci-fi more than it is in some underworld thing. There’s a virus and I think it’s fun – half futuristic movie, half sci-fi and half film noir. There are aspects at the beginning where it looks like a Bogart film. Gattaca had aspects to that, too. I know the [Spierigs] really liked Gattaca. It’s a good aspect where something futuristic should really be retro. Just as we’re always a little retro.

Question: What research did you do to get into the vampire role?

Hawke: Researching vampires, that’d be interesting. I’d like to meet the actor who spent a year biting people to really know what’s that like. [laughs] I think the genius of the vampire myth for me is to wonder what it’s like to live your life without fear of death. I think that’s always the appeal. You’re like yourself but you’re not going to die. What I loved about this movie is they take vampires and put them in the real world. They have jobs. And something as simple as smoking all the time, why wouldn’t you? I love that element of it.

Question: Getting into an FX film like this is somewhat new to you, was it enjoyable?

Hawke: [The FX] was miserable. You’re trying to eat drenched in blood, talk on the cell phone. That’s the part that’s the least appealing.

Shock: But it must have been a thrill to do the sequence in which you face off with the monstrous “subsider” in your character’s kitchen…

Hawke: That was really fun. Because those guys who design the creatures are real artists and it’s exciting to be around them. I remember, when I was a kid, Rob Bottin did a monster for Explorers and that was my first exposure to that whole world, seeing who designed models. It’s a crazy, artistic world. Fascinating. What I felt so proud about this movie is that’s a real guy [beneath the makeup], it’s a computer-generated thing – I mean, they do some of that stuff – but all of the vampires are actors figuring out how to do it. Swinging around upside down. It’s my favorite scene in the movie.

Question: What does the film say about our time?

Hawke: I think it’s pretty self-evident. The idea that we’re running out of our resources is something you see on the regular news. Here the joke is the resource is human beings. Draining the blood dry of the earth is something we’re talking about all of the time as our ice caps melt. I think it’s fascinating. There’s a great Neil Young song, “Vampire Blues,” that was written in the ’70s, it’s an old theme – we are vampires. Every great fortune is made at the cost of something else, right?

Question: How was it working with Willem?

Hawke: Willem Dafoe was in the last great vampire movie, Shadow of the Vampire – he conjured his Klaus Kinski there. You don’t know this until you see the movie, but he’s really not a vampire in this movie. He’s believable as a recovered vampire and I was very happy to get to do the movie with him. I don’t know what it was that possessed the Spierig brothers to want to hire us, but he and I come from the same world of New York theater. There’s a long history of theater actors making their living in genre movies, whether it’s Alec Guiness in Star Wars or whatever. So I took pride in that legacy.

Question: Taking a break from things like Stoppard, do you have a new perspective on the genre now that you’ve done Daybreakers?

Hawke: What was wonderful about working with Tom Stoppard is that he is so curious and excited about life and making entertainment for people that’s at the service of something. Fully exploring this art form and what it can do. So do the Spierig brothers. I’ve never really cared about what avenue you’re doing. There’s a lot of stupid cop shows, for example, but doing Training Day was one of the best experiences of my life. You can be in the room with creative people trying to push any genre forward. You can do ten hours about mid-19th century Russian radicals and all you’ll do is put people to sleep if it’s not infused with somebody really caring and having a real reason to tell it now. Meeting the Spierigs, after my brothers had shown me Undead, their creativity is stunning. If you’re going to keep working in this business, you want to be near guys like this. They’re hungry, they love movies so much. They had books with all of their drawings. They had a huge support group of friends that love comics. They took computer generated shots [in pre-production] from Before Sunset, only my character was a vampire looking at Julie Delpy like this. [Hawke makes a sinister face] They wanted me to do this. My hunch is you just have follow that.

Daybreakers opens on January 8 from Lionsgate. Click on the title for photos, poster art, trailers and more!

Source: Ryan Rotten, Managing Editor