The Acting Bug Bites Ethan Hawke

"Reality Bites," a new film about a quartet of twentysome-things coping with life and love, was a marked departure from his previous cinematic outings, says its star Ethan Hawke, who at 23 is emerging as one of Hollywood's hottest young talents.

With virtually the entire cast, a first-time feature film director and a first-time screenwriter all under the age of 30, the movie not only deals with Generation X but was created by it.

"It was sort of a 'Hey, kids, let's put on a play,' " recalls Hawke, who vies for the affections of Winona Ryder in the film. "(Director-actor) Ben Stiller worked hard to create a stimulating environment for us. He didn't want to be usurped by (the distributor) Universal Pictures. We knew the studio wanted the movie to be good and original but had little idea of how to get us there."

The title of the romantic comedy, which opened in Los Angeles on Friday, is a double-entendre: "Bites" as in "sound bites" of the reality captured by Ryder on a video she hopes will propel here into the big time. And "bites" as in "stinks." Though this generation has rejected the idealism of their countercultural parents, the film suggests, it has found little of meaning to put in its place.

Preparing for the role of Troy--an ironic poet/musician who bucks compromise and commitment--required little preparation on the part of Hawke. He performed at an L.A. club in anticipation of his first singing scene. For the most part, howev er, the character just kicked in.

Like Troy, Hawke grew up in Texas, the product of a broken home. Unlike the character, however, he knew where he was going. Acting was a refuge for this self-described "terrible student," a way to get out in the world for a kid who couldn't wait for life to start. Hawke's family eventually moved to Princeton, N.J., where, as a 13-year-old, he made his stage debut in the McCarter Theater's production of "St. Joan." A casting director who caught the show had him audition for Joe Dante's sci-fi fantasy "Explorers." Young Ethan got the part, but the film was a flop. "I dreamed they did a remake without me," he says. "On some level, I blamed myself."

After graduation, Hawke enrolled in Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University. When the role of the tongue-tied writer in "Dead Poets Society" came along a few months later, however, he threw academics to the wind.

No regrets, he maintains. " 'Dead Poets' made me an actor," he says on the phone from his New York apartment. "(Director) Peter Weir is very passionate about what he does and gave me the feeling that this is not a business but a creative place to be. I soon learned that all movies aren't like that--but it's nice to know it's a possibility."

The outgoing Hawke lost out on a flashier role, ultimately played by Robert Sean Leonard, when Weir cast against type. The actor emerged from the critical and box-office success with a measure of recognition, nonetheless.

Fame, Hawke acknowledges is a complicated animal. He's grateful, in retrospect, that his career took off incrementally--"unlike a Johnny Depp, who went from out-of-work actor to wildly famous months after '21 Jump Street' hit the air." Still, part of him was drawn to the limelight.

"For awhile, I was a little jealous of (the late) River Phoenix," he says of the actor he appeared with in "Explorers." "A part of me finds fame appealing. I just hope I can handle it as well as Peter Weir. Success just made him more confident instead of an asshole."

Acting, Hawke has learned, is a profession of compromise. The fact hit home during the physically arduous shoots of "Alive"--based on the true story of a soccer team resorting to cannibalism after its plane crashed in the Andes--and the Alaskan adventure "White Fang," in which he played the lead at the age of 20.

"When you're on top of a mountain and have time for only two takes before the sun goes down, a lot of priority isn't placed on acting," he says. "You aspire to perfection, but it gets down to 'What do you have . . . and can you give it to me right now?' No one makes it easy. And there are no subtitles onscreen explaining that you did a damn fine job, considering that you'd been shooting all night or had only 15 minutes to prepare."

In film, some of an actor's best moments can end up on the cutting-room floor, Hawke observes. Likewise, cinematic magic can be created out of a lackluster performance. Theater, in contrast, is an actor's and writer's medium--one which gives him particular satisfaction. This year, he and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman rented space on Manhattan's Theater Row, where they put together a three-play repertory season, a coffeehouse and a literary journal. Next fall, he hopes, will hold more of the same.

Hawke's last few pictures took him away from the innocent, idealistic youths he'd been playing in films such as the World War II drama "A Midnight Clear." But, he suggests, it's anyone's guess what's ahead. Though his preference has always been drama over comedy, substantive projects are hard to get off the ground.

"The better the script, the harder it is--particularly if the lead is unlikable," he says. "And, yet, an 'Ace Ventura, Pet Detective' not only gets financed but turns out to be one of the most popular films in the country. I can't figure it--which is probably why they'll never make me a studio chief."

What about "director"? He's already directed onstage and his short feature "Straight to One" screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

"I just want to be the best actor I can be," says Hawke, before cutting himself off. "Hell," he comments in apparent disgust, "I sound like a (expletive) Army ad."*

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