Ethan Hawke plays the lead role in a vampire film, but he says he wouldn’t have signed up for it if the film had a sappy romance. The Oscar-nominated actor/screenwriter is well aware that “Daybreakers” (Hawke’s first horror film) comes at a time when vampires have reached new heights in popularity in movies and on TV. But those other vampire projects usually focus on a tortured love story between a human and a vampire in a world where humans are the dominant species and vampires are the persecuted minority
In “Daybreakers,” vampires have taken over the world and humans are the minority (and endangered) species — and the vampires are running out of humans to feed on for survival. Hawke plays Edward Dalton, a hematologist who abstains from human blood and who is trying to discover an antidote to becoming a vampire. Edward becomes an enemy of forces that see his research as a threat, and while on the run, he is rescued and joined by two humans — Lionel “Elvis” Cormac (played by Willem Dafoe) and Audrey Bennett (played by Claudia Karvan) — who support Edward’s cause of saving more human lives. I recently sat down with Hawke at the “Daybreakers” press junket in New York City, were he opened up about why “Daybreakers” isn’t a typical vampire movie, what is his biggest fear, and why he’s doing a semi-secret, 12-year film project with his “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” director Richard Linklater.
Ethan Hawke in “Daybreakers”
Given that vampires in entertainment have been getting a lot of media attention lately, and “Daybreakers” is your first horror movie, was there anything that surprised you about “Daybreakers”?
When I first read the script, obviously, the whole vampire thing hadn’t taken off. So I actually thought it was an original moment to be bringing back the vampire movie, but no longer. The world moves in mysterious ways.
When I saw the final cut of the movie, it’s funny. I’d never really been interested in genre movies — acting in them. I like watching them. But when I was a kid, I did “The Explorers” with Joe Dante, and he was one of the last directors to come out of Roger Corman’s whole thing. He [Joe Dante] had directed “The Howling” and he had directed “Piranha.” And he spoke eloquently and beautifully about the power of genre filmmaking and what the whole idea of Roger Corman was. He could take a poster and sell the poster, and you could make a movie about whatever you wanted to, as long as it had a werewolf in it at some point.
I’ve always been interested in it and flirted with it, doing sci-fi with “Gattaca.” And the cop genre is one I’ve really dabbled in, but the straight-up horror “Dawn of the Dead” was never really [my thing]. I had no idea the whole time I was working on [“Daybreakers”], I tried to help them by applying my limited knowledge of story and how that works. I don’t know what to do in a scene where somebody’s head explodes or giant bats are flying around you and stuff.
What I liked about [“Daybreakers” co-directors/co-writers Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig] is they’re very old school. They really were guys spending days in makeup, not in a computer lab. They did computer things, too, but Peter and Michael love the old-school horror-movie idea. And in a subversive way, it [“Daybreakers”] is intelligent. I love a good genre movie that has an allegory to it — that is what John Carpenter did so well. I think it’s cool.
Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe at the New York City premiere of “Daybreakers”
You’ve acted in movies and theater, you’ve written and directed films, and you’re a published author. Do you have a favorite thing to do?
My favorite thing is to work with talented people. When I met Peter and Michael, they’re these Australian kids, they’re twins, and first of all, they came in with these giant drawings and things that they’d done with the script. And you start to realize that so many of these movies are based on graphic novels, and how original [“Daybreakers”] was. It wasn’t based on something else. It was actually their own [idea]. Most of the world has become vampires, and you’re sitting there listening to them tell you about it, their passion is exciting to be around, and they don’t take the idea of making a movie for granted.
At the time, I had just finished doing Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia,” which was a nine-hour play about mid-19th-century Russian radicals — which couldn’t be more different than a vampire movie. But they share a joy of making art. These guys [Peter and Michael Spierig], if you talk to them about John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” they talk about it with the same joy and enthusiasm as Stoppard will talk to you about Dostoevsky. So I like being around people that make me remember what a privilege and how much fun it is to make a movie or make a play or do anything.
You’re also a supporter of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, which is an annual $10,000 prize given to a writer under the age of 35. Can you talk more about that?
The Young Lions thing is about being around young writers, people who are in love with the idea of what can be accomplished. They don’t take anything for granted. As you get older, you start to worry. People can get really jaded.
Vince Colosimo and Ethan Hawke in ‘Daybreakers”
What’s your opinion of the allegory in “Daybreakers”?
It’s pretty self-evident that it’s about people destroying their natural resources. That’s the most obvious one. Are we going to wait until the polar icecaps melt to do anything about it or are we going to wait until there are two humans left? That’s the one I find so interesting: turning us into the icecaps, turning us into the American Indians, turning us into the meat industry. I was making a joke earlier that I thought this film was going to become the staple for all PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] members. PETA will love this!
Now that there’s a huge vampire craze in pop culture, are you glad that “Daybreakers” is being released at this time and that the movie actually holds true to the “vampire rules,” such as vampires will die if they go out into the bright sunlight?
It’s the first post-adolescent vampire film in about 20 years. My [older] daughter is such a huge fan of the “Twilight” series that I cannot speak ill of it in a public forum. But I do think it’s fun to be in a rated R vampire movie. I think there’s something that’s supposed to be badass about a genre film. It’s not supposed to be for the intelligentsia. The best punk rock, the best comic book, the best heavy metal or whatever seems like it’s one thing, but it’s actually another. I love that.
If you were a vampire in real life, how would you handle it?
The only fun idea I had in the movie was I liked this weird notion that when faced with immortality, everyone was depressed … They’re smoking all the time, and there’s this haze and deadness to it. And when faced with mortality, it becomes joy and hope. It doesn’t make sense. You think you’d be happy if you could live forever, but I think you realize the reason why life is beautiful is because it’s passing.
Claudia Karvan and Ethan Hawke in “Daybreakers”
What was it like for you on set when you were around dismembered bodies and other horror-movie props?
Those are the days you think, “If this movie isn’t good, I will kill myself.” You know what I mean? Because you just kind of imagine your grandmother looking at you among all the severed limbs. When you talk about the allegory of the movie, what’s so beautiful about everybody eating each other, it’s like the violence begets the violence begets the violence. It’s like some weird orgy. Everybody wants to kill each other and everybody ends up dead … Those were the days when the ground ran red like a river, and you wondered where the hell you are. I’m not really a violent person. I’m not normally terribly comfortable with that stuff. It was weird.
Usually the male lead in a vampire movie isn’t as intelligent as your “Daybreakers” character is. Can you talk about that?
That was so strange. It’s like being in the middle of “The Road Warrior” and saying, “I have a cure!” I never quite understood why, by they really wanted me to do this movie. [Peter and Michael Spierig] showed up with these comic books and these things they were drawing on. They also had pictures they had mocked up of “Before Sunset” of me with fangs and me in other movies. They loved the idea of everybody’s a vampire. They wanted [Edward Dalton] to be as normal as possible and not super hero-y. I really thought that was fun.
There are a million vampire movies, and you’re always trying to find what’s unique about this one. And it is bizarre that it seems you can’t really have a very lucrative career in the film business without killing a lot of people on screen. It’s very bizarre. There’s a couple of people who’ve managed to do it.
They wrote this part in “Daybreakers” for you, right?
That’s what they say, but I never understood why.
Ethan Hawke in “Daybreakers”
Did you feel more of an obligation to do the movie when they said they wrote the part for you?
It’s flattering. Ultimately, you don’t really care if it’s not good. I responded not to that [writing the lead role in “Daybreakers” for me] but because [Peter and Michael Spierig] reminded me of Joe Dante and the people I met around Joe when I was younger, because they have that kind of glint and joy. [Quentin] Tarantino has it: the joy of making movies and how you can make movies that are about something without being pretentious in the slightest little bit. I love people like that! [Peter and Michael Spierig] are really creative guys.
What was the most surprising or challenging thing that happened on the set of “Daybreakers”?
The funniest thing that ever happened was being directed by twins. One twin comes up to you and says, “Oh, that was terrific! Just a lit more scary. A little more scary” The other one says, “Great job. But just you seem a little timid. Fight! Get in there!” And you go like, “What?” And they go into their perspective corners. [He makes conversation noises.] “OK, do what you did.” That happens constantly.
You know, the biggest thing with movies like this is that the fun of it was the obstacles were not like James Cameron. There’s so much that’s possible now in people’s imaginations. They’re used to seeing just unbelievable spending, that to be competitive in that way is very difficult, because we didn’t have the money to do all that.
This movie is totally resting on a lot of different ideas to carry it. It can’t compete in the other [big-budget] way, so you kind of have to go old school with it, with the puppets and try to make it funny and find something else to make it clever or worth your time. So that was always challenging: trying to figure out, “Should we bother with an action sequence here, because we can’t really afford to do it?” We had to be really discerning about the final stages of the script, what could be achieved.
“Daybreakers” co-director Peter Spierig and Ethan Hawke on the set of “Daybreakers”
Can you talk about the ending of “Daybreakers”?
It always struck me as very optimistic about daybreak, and it seems like there is going to be a cure and there is going to be some other humanity. But it’s hard for it to imagine it being that optimistic. It does seem like the whole world is dead. We get told the whole planet is vampires.
What’s your biggest fear as an actor? And what’s your biggest fear in life?
My biggest fear as an actor is that I would not be hired again. It’s funny. I worked with Jack Lemmon when he was older. I was 18, so he seemed ancient. He may have been in his late 60s/early 70s. He said, “The thing is always worrying about if this is your last movie.” And he had this whole career. “You’ve been nominated for, like, five Academy Awards! Of course, you’ve never stopped working.” And he said, “Oh, you know how many chance ingredients came into you being in the position to get be with so many good parts.” There are so many talented actors and [there’s a] fear that it’s going to be taken away from you, because you weren’t in control over why you got [a role]. My biggest fear as a human being? That I’m not going to be a vampire. [He laughs.]
Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy on the set of “Before Sunset”
Can you talk about working with filmmaker Richard Linklater on the still-untitled 12-year project?
He’s asked me not to talk about it, but then I find he does press junkets and talks about it. It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever been involved with. I can’t wait. We’ve been doing a short film every year for seven years, and we’re going to do it for 12. We’re taking a child — we improvised the movie, a short [film] every year — taking him from first grade to 12th grade. So in a two-hour movie, you’ll watch little vignettes of childhood. It’s a movie about time, about growing up …
[Richard Linklater] says, “Stop talking about it!” And then [Linklaters’s 2009 film] “Me and Orson Welles” came out, and he’s talking about it everywhere. But I will stop there. It’ll be five years before we shoot the last scene, six more years before it comes out. It’s not scripted right now, but we script it as we go. I have no idea where we’re going next. What will happen, this spring we’ll spend a weekend with the main actor [Ellar Salmon]. I play his dad, so I’m in every other episode. But he tries to do one a year with the mom and the dad, and then he’ll intercut together. I just talk to Ellar and see where he’s at, and we talk about things, where I am, and we come up with a scene that might be relevant.
For example, the [most recent] scene we did was all about the election, so by the time it comes out, it’ll be like a time capsule. We’ve caught things in the moment, maybe things people will have totally forgotten about. It’s father/son stuff or mother/son stuff.
Ethan Hawke (center) in “Daybreakers”
If “Daybreakers” does well at the box office, do you see yourself being in the sequel?
Could I be the Christopher Lee of my generation? Sure. I like to make good movies, and my taste doesn’t often draw me to things that are terribly entertaining. It’s fun. If Andrew Niccol wanted to do a sequel to “Gattaca,” I’d do it. I like this movie [“Daybreakers”], and if this movie is a big hit and people wanted to know what happened [next] …
Part of me always thought this could be our “Mad Max.” “Mad Max” is actually quite a humble little movie, and “The Road Warrior” is huge and amazing. You could envision a world of vampires and undead that exists post this moment of running out of blood and those subsiders. I could imagine a sequel to this movie being kick-ass. It would be a combination of Cormac McCarthy meets “The Road Warrior,” but if there’s a sequel, I’d want to do it.
For more info: “Daybreakers” website
RELATED LINKS ON aerochug.com:
Interview with Willem Dafoe for “Daybreakers”
“Daybreakers” news and reviews
Photo credits: Photo #1: Carla Hay. Photo #3: AP. Photo #8: Warner Independent Pictures. All other photos: Lionsgate Films.