Laurence Olivier played him. Kenneth Branagh played him. Even Mel Gibson played him (and quite well at that). But what does Ethan Hawke have over these and the numerous others who have played the role of Hamlet, that most tortured Danish prince of William Shakespeare's oft-staged and -filmed tragedy? Youth. "[Actors who previously played Hamlet] were mostly spinning around 40. But many of his dilemmas are a young man's dilemmas: he's concerned with this relationship with his father and his mother; he doesn't really know who he is and what he's about; he's got this girlfriend; he's being sent off to school. I always kind of thought that in a modern sense he's much more of a Holden Caulfield or a Kurt Cobain, and I tried to evoke that spirit."
Playing Hamlet in the spirit of Nirvana's late frontman may seem odd, but it's perfectly in line in Michael Almereyda's film of the Bard's play, which casts the tale of revenge in Y2K New York City. The radical approach to the material proved to be the drawing card for 29-year-old actor. "The production as a whole excited me. I felt it could open up some doors, hearing these speeches in all these new environments. I had the hope that it might allow for the audience to treat it not as some kind of dusty old thing that is very precious, but to break down those walls and to let the character's emotional life live in a new way. When Michael Almereyda approached me with this, what really attracted me to it was that he had an idea of why to do the piece as a whole, not about just who's playing Hamlet."
Even so, Hamlet is indeed the central character of the piece bearing his name, and Hawke follows a number of illustrious actors who have tackled the role on stage and screen. He is quick to heap admiration on his predecessors' interpretations. "It's a testament to why the piece is a masterpiece that everybody brings something else to it. My favorite film version of it, I have to say, is Olivier's. I think if anybody's is definitive, it's Olivier's, to my mind. But I really did like a lot of them in different capacities. That's the thing about Hamlet the character: he's so multifaceted that everybody who attacks it kind of focuses on a different side of the character. Mel Gibson's was rambunctious, and it reminded me of the guy in Lethal Weapon, which was kind of a good thing." Those other performances helped him put his own in the right perspective. "I was intimidated in that I didn't want to be so presumptuous as to think I would have anything new to offer."
The model for Hawke's take on the character came from not from a previous Hamlet, but a production of another Shakespeare work. "There's a Peter Brook version of King Lear with Paul Scofield that I think is really more in the spirit of what I wanted to do. The great opportunity about getting to do it as a film is you have an opportunity to not be histrionic with [the material], to try to be as really simple as possible. That was my goal--to approach it as simply as possible."
What wasn't so simple was streamlining Shakespeare's massive text into a workable script for a two-hour movie. While the actual job of adaptation was Almereyda's, not his, Hawke still felt a certain sense of responsibility. "Whenever you're the lead of something, very much how you choose to adapt the material defines your Hamlet. Which lines and passages you choose to highlight and which ones you choose to cut out defines how you're displaying the character for the audience. So I felt very personal about that."
Personal connections for the audience is what Hawke feels is the key to Hamlet's longevity. "People keep doing the piece is because everybody relates to it. I just think the idea of seeking meaning, feeling overshadowed by your parents, and being lost and confused and overwhelmed by society... I think it's very common."
Quite uncommon is the career path Hawke has mapped out for himself after first earning major notice with 1989's Dead Poets Society. Hamlet is but the latest entry in a filmography full of unconventional projects that aren't usually touched by the under-30 acting set, who generally gravitate toward more mainstream fare. Being part of that desirable demographic, does Hawke ever get offered those big-budget popcorn projects? "I did for a brief time period, and now nobody's interested in me anymore for them," he says with a laugh. "That's not really where my interests lie. I've been offered a few in my life, and, who knows, I might end up doing one someday. For the most part, I've been acting since I was very young, and so I don't have a large patience for sitting around on a set waiting for them to blow up a car, so I can say, 'Come on, everybody!' I really try to find things that are really going to be the most challenging to me as a performer."
Arguably the most challenging--and most controversial--endeavor Hawke undertook was branching out beyond acting and entering the literary world. His 1996 novel The Hottest State sold well, but it was no less than savaged by the critics. "To be honest, I feel all [the bad press] was OK. You're a young actor; you're gonna get a certain bit of criticism for the chutzpah of it. I just think a lot of people assume the worst; they assume that it's some kind of publicity stunt or that you're trying to be somebody you're not. It was very much the opposite for me--it was a struggle to try to be who I was, and to try to not let the fact that Dead Poets Society was a big hit stop me from growing as a person. I think a lot of the reason why I got heat was because it was so easy for me to get it published, so I'll take that heat. And I feel ultimately it was a really successful experience for me. The fact that anybody saw through that at all and responded to the book I take as a positive. [The experience] was a big turning point in trying not to worry about what other people think about me, and to just try to put one foot in front of the other, keep being who you are, and let the chips fall where they may."
Living up to that philosophy, Hawke is currently finishing his second novel, and he is exploring the other side of the movie camera. "I just directed a feature on digital video. It's called The Last Word on Paradise. I got real turned on to it by The Celebration and the possibilities of how cheaply you can make a movie now; I think that's really exciting. I'm trying to edit that right now."
With a book and a film directorial effort on his plate in addition to his regular acting assignments, it may seem that Hawke is all about his work. But placed above that for him is life with wife Uma Thurman and their young daughter. "I used to be able to run a theater company [New York's Malaparte, of which he is a founding member], do a movie, and then try to write because I didn't have a personal life at all; I was just working all the time. You realize that if you don't make your family a priority, you'll lose them. So now I just try do things that I really believe in and that I feel are the most bang for my buck. Thus, Hamlet."
Hawke believes that audiences will share that sentiment. "The thing I feel most happy about the movie is that despite being set in this whole modern setting, when the movie is done, it's the play that resonates. It is the story and these characters' struggles that you're left with. I feel like you really do hear this piece, and I think it can be experienced in a new way."