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Young Ethan Hawke: A Look Back On the Actor’s Rise In the Hollywood Ranks

And he still has that same boyish charm to this day!

Ethan Hawke‘s journey as a young actor began, like many others, on the stage. Born to two high school sweethearts in 1970, his parents would eventually separate, and a young Ethan Hawke would spend the days of his early life moving around before setting in New York City, and then, New Jersey.

It was at the age of 13 that Hawke was bit by the acting bug, when he made his debut on the stage in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. He continued acting in numerous productions until attending college at Carnegie Mellon University. It was in the midst of his studies that he dropped out for his pivotal role in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society — and the rest is history.

Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise, 1995
Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise, 1995Castle Rock Entertainment/Getty Images

Young Ethan Hawke and his debut in Dead Poets Society

Despite his actual debut role being in 1985’s Explorers, its poor reception caused him to give up acting until Poets. In the 1989 cult classic, Hawke plays Todd, a student attending an all-boys preparatory boarding school who begins the film as a timid and shy teen. As the story progresses, he comes out of his shell with the support of his eccentric English teacher, played by Robin Williams, and his fellow classmates.

Related: Robin Williams Movies and TV Shows: Reflecting on the Comedy Icon’s Remarkable Career

In an interview with Script, Hawke reflected on the iconic “Yawp!” scene of the film, where his shy and timid character of Todd, with the help of Robin Williams, gives a loud “yawp” and improvs a poem in front of his classmates.

Dead Poet's Society, 1989
Dead Poet’s Society, 1989Francois Duhamel/Sygma via Getty Images

It remains one of the most significant days of my life — professionally for sure. It was the first time I really felt the experience of being an actor, where I could lose myself inside a story, and lose myself inside a collective imagination. At that moment in time, the Steadicam was a very new camera tool, and I didn’t have a lot of experience with that thing, so it was exciting to play long, massive takes. And Robin is such an inventive, alive, and awake human being to be near, that you never knew what to expect.”

Dead Poets Society, 1989
Dead Poets Society, 1989Touchstone Pictures/Getty Images

Hawke continued, “And Peter Weir [director] is just a card-carrying brilliant man. Since this was my first movie, I just thought all directors were brilliant, you know? I didn’t realize the privileged position I was in, but I did know that it was a magical day. This was a true ensemble movie, but on that day, the Todd character took center stage, so I got to take the spotlight. It’s like being part of a great team, and knowing it’s your chance to carry the baton.”

The film was nominated for and received numerous awards and accolades, and still stands as the film that kickstarted Ethan Hawke’s career.

The success continued

Parts continued to come his way in films like White Fang (1991), Alive (1993) and Reality Bites (1994) alongside Winona Ryder.

Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, Reality Bites, 1994
Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, Reality Bites, 1994Universal/Getty Images

In 1995, he experienced another round of success for his role in the romance film Before Sunrise, where he plays an American man who falls in love with a French woman (Julie Delpy) on a train before spending a romantic evening exploring Vienna.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise, 1995
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise, 1995Castle Rock Entertainment/Getty Images

It’s turned into a big part of who I am,” Hawke told the Toronto Sun of the film. “I could never have anticipated that.” The film went on to spawn two sequels: Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013). In 1997, Hawk starred in the science-fiction film Gattaca alongside Uma Thurman, who he would eventually marry.

Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Gattaca, 1997
Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Gattaca, 1997Getty Images

Another Ethan Hawke film defining of his young career was Great Expectations, a modern adaptation of the novel by Charles Dickens, alongside Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert De Niro. This particular version of the story takes place in New York during the 90s, as opposed to 1800s London.

Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, Great Expectations, 1998
Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, Great Expectations, 1998Lawrence Schwartzwald/Sygma via Getty Images

Ethan Hawke in the 2000s

Ethan Hawke once again took part in a modern retelling with his role in Hamlet (2000), alongside Julia Stiles, Kyle MacLachlan, Liev Schreiber, Bill Murray and more. “I didn’t want to be so presumptuous to think I had anything new to offer,” Hawke said in a 2000 interview with Hollywood. “My goal was just to approach it as simply as possible…”

Julia Stiles and Ethan Hawke, Hamlet, 2000
Julia Stiles and Ethan Hawke, Hamlet, 2000Larry Riley/Miramax Films via Online USA/Getty Images

Training Day (2001) was Ethan Hawke’s next great box office success. The crime thriller put Hawke alongside Denzel Washington as an ambitious L.A. police officer who spends the day with a rogue detective that makes him question what he thought he knew about law enforcement.

Denzel Washington, Training Day, 2001
Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Training Day, 2001Warner Brothers/Getty Images

At this point in time, Ethan Hawke, still full of the spunk of a young actor, had cemented his status as a Hollywood heartthrob and respectable artist.

Throughout the rest of the 2000s, Hawke had continued success as an actor, as well as a director, recognized for his directorial work on Chelsea Walls (2002) and The Hottest State (2006). Over the years, he’s acted in films including Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), Lord of War (2005) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007).

Ethan Hawke in the 2010s

Into the 2010s, Hawke began to have success in the thriller and action genres with films like Sinister (2012), The Purge (2013) and Getaway (2013). In 2014, he starred in the successful documentary/drama style film Boyhood, which chronicled the life and upbringing of a child named Mason between the years 2002 and 2013 and was filmed with the same cast throughout the entire duration. It received countless awards in the wake of its premiere.

Hawke had a lot to say about the integrity of the film at a 2014 press event for the film, reported by Collider: “It was just so fun to tell a real story about a real family. So much of the problem with most movies is that they create a false narrative, so that it has a beginning, middle and end that all takes place over six months. But, our lives never feel like that. We have moments of grace, or moments when we feel something deeply, but it is because of 90 million other things that happen before it, and not just that moment.”

He continued, “I found it so enjoyable to tell a story without any lies in it. Time is so much a part of what makes you close to people. Time is what creates trust. We got to do that with each other, and we got to do that with the audience. The audience starts to believe these characters because they are watching them experience time with each other.”

Hawke today

Over the last few years, Ethan Hawke has taken on various diverse projects, his most recent being Netflix’s Leave the World Behind. His other recent prominent credits include a role in 2022’s The Northman, as well as the Marvel series Moon Night. We can’t wait to see what he does next!

MUST-READ: From ‘Mystic Pizza’ to ‘Erin Brockovich,’ Our 10 Favorite Julia Roberts Movies, Ranked!

Mahershela Ali, Myha’la Herrold, Julia Roberts, Leave the World Behind, 2023
Mahershela Ali, Myha’la Herrold, Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Leave the World Behind, 2023Jojo Whilden/NETFLIX

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