Start your new year with a bang. The first horror movie of 2010 is Daybreakers, and it is a good way to start off the new year. Ethan Hawke stars as a hematologist (aka a blood guy) in a world dominated by vampires. The few humans left on earth are being farmed for their blood, but the supply is dwindling fast and a substitute must be synthesized. A band of rogue humans have accidentally discovered a cure for vampirism, and Ethan Hawke helps them spread the good word, in the face of starving vampires turning violent, then feral, and evil pharmaceutical head Sam Neill. It’s not all socio-political commentary, though – there is still some good ol’ fashioned vampirism.
We chatted with Ethan Hawke about his role and what drew him, at age 40, to a horror movie.
FEARnet: Twilight has Team Edward and Team Jacob. Do you think we can get Team Ethan going?
Ethan: This is the first post-adolescent vampire movie in a while, so I think we can avoid that.
Were those post-adolescent vampire movies all the rage already, by the time you started shooting Daybreakers?
Not really. I was doing a Tom Stoppard play when I got the script for Daybreakers and it seemed like the most radical thing. Tom was saying that it was time for a good vampire movie. I had no awareness of any of this stuff. It has been fascinating to watch all of this explode, especially just having made a vampire movie. The truth is, that is how it is with genre movies. The western will explode and be in style for a while, then there will be too many westerns, and no one will want to see them.
What I think is valuable about Daybreakers is that this is an R-rated movie. It’s for adults. I remember being a kid and sleeping over at a friend’s house, staying up late and watching the Isabella Adjani Nosferatu. Vampire movies are supposed to be secret and bad. They should be rated R.
Vampires are supposed to light on fire in the sunlight, not sparkle.
What drew you to the role, other than the fact that the Spierig brothers wrote it for you? I understand that you and your agents weren’t exactly enamored with the script initially.
They sent me the script along with a DVD of [the Spierig brothers’ first film] Undead. I didn’t read the script, but I popped in the DVD. I watched about 10 minutes of it and thought it sucked. My brothers were in town for a holiday and they watched it late one night and they started howling with laughter. So I came in and watched it with them, and I got it. I hadn’t initially gotten the sense of humor with the movie, but it got me thinking about when I first started acting, and I was working with Joe Dante. He had just come off things like Piranha and Gremlins and The Howling, and he had a real passion for these movies and taught me about them.
So I sat down and read the script. I liked that it was a totally original story. It’s not based on a graphic novel or a comic book or a 1960s TV show. It has real originality. I think the best genre movies have a metaphor or analogy at work in the subtext. This idea of people destroying their resources, and not caring about that until it was all gone is a really powerful idea. It fuels the way the sci-fi element works. By the time I met the Spierig brothers, I was really impressed. They have that kind of irrepressible curiosity and love for movies that I think are required if you are going to make a good movie.
How was it working on an Aussie set?
It wasn’t that much different. The thing that impressed me the most is that there was such a small population, but so much tremendous work comes from there. I had always – mistakenly – thought that Australia had roughly the population of the United States. It’s a fraction. But there are all these good actors and good theatre companies, amazing TV shows... I was impressed. It was a long flight though.
Daybreakers touches on several major issues. What do you think is the prominent metaphor? Consumerism, classism, something else?
I feel that when an analogy is really singing, it is what you want it be. I made a joke that this could be the #1 movie for PETA advocates. It could be a champion for animal rights, in a certain way of thinking. But oil is the most obvious one. Sucking the blood dry. Years ago there was this great Neil Young song, 'The Vampire Blues,' the idea that we are literally sucking the earth dry, and the idea that oil is the earth’s blood certainly didn’t start with this movie.
The movie wouldn’t be good if that were the only interesting thing about it. The movie works as a flat-out genre movie. It just happens to have something else at play in it. Gattaca was similar in that way. It worked as a straight forward sci-fi movie, but there were all these themes at work underneath.
How physically demanding was this role?
There was nothing really demanding about this role, except how much I didn’t want to make a bad genre film. As someone who has never done this kind of movie, that was part of the appeal. Invariably, the challenge of this film is that the Spierig’s don’t have enough money to make the movie of their dreams. They want to be James Cameron someday. I’ve had a lot of experience in independent film and you have to be very discerning about where you put your five bucks. Where you cut, where you don’t. I always think that what separates a good genre movie from a bad genre movie is, whether you care about the characters. The dime-a-dozen films are where you have no awareness of the characters. In the first Blade film, Kris Kristofferson is great, and you are really sad when he gets killed. Kurt Russell in The Thing is just great.
I’ve done movies that were physically grueling. This was not one of them. I was watching Apocalypto the other day, and there are so many shots of this guy running. Every time he is running through the brush, the actor in me says, “okay, that hurt.”
Do you still enjoy making movies as much as you used to?
Part of the appeal of this role was that the Spierig’s really wanted me for this role, and that really caught my curiosity. Why in the world did they specifically want me? Lots of times, when you have any kind of “celebrity” or “notoriety,” often times people just want you in their movie for the name power – they will take anybody off a list of names. I like doing things that are different. The fact that these guys are so different and so creative meant that I knew that they weren’t just interested in making a blood n’ guts movie. I don’t care about the genre so much, as long as the people involved really care about what they are making.
I did a play and this film back-to-back. On the play, I worked with Tom Stoppard, this 70-year-old man, whose passion for what was possible in the medium of the performing arts was contagious. Then there are these two young guys making their second film – the first with a budget – and their passion was contagious. It was a different kind of passion, but it was equally contagious. Then to be in a room with Richard Linkletter and hear him break down the history of cinema, it is exciting to be near. I am turning 40 this year, and the people I know who are turning 60 are still really excited and passionate about filmmaking – and they are still really good at it. A lot of people burn out.
How do you feel about turning 40?
Well, it beats not turning 40. Acting is an area that is largely youth-oriented, but at the same time, I am playing characters that are so much more appealing to me. When I was younger and playing the male equivalent of the guileless ingénue, I longed for a part that was as interesting as my role in Brooklyn’s Finest or Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It’s really exciting to get to play adult men. But the downside is that you aren’t as pretty and they don’t want you to kiss people as much. The upside is that I am getting to do the kind of work I always dreamed of.
Can you talk about working with Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe? Three seasoned actors coming together for a genre film is pretty rare.
That’s the Speirig brothers – they wanted us all. A lot of people who make these kinds of movies don’t care about the acting. I always think that that is what makes a good genre movie: if the director can also care about the acting. If the acting doesn’t stink, it goes a long way!