No actor wants to look foolish, especially if there are a couple of Oscar nominations and a Tony nomination on his resume. And the time you worry about that, says Ethan Hawke, is "when you're sitting there, covered in fake blood, or somebody's handing you a bottle of blood that they're treating like a vintage wine."
Whatever the requirements of the scene, which had him wearing fangs and playing a vampire hematologist, Hawke couldn't help having his moment of doubt.
" 'God, I hope this movie's good,' I'm thinking. 'If this is bad, not only is it embarrassing, it's DISGUSTING.' "
For "Daybreakers," which opens Friday, Hawke was willing to tackle a genre that he, as a star of stage, screen and TV, hadn't chanced upon before. He "bought into the vision," the concept that German writer-director-siblings Michael and Peter Spierig came up with. A virus has allowed vampires to take over the world, hunting the last remaining humans, farming their blood. Hawke's character is a vampire who wants to save the human race by developing artificial blood or a cure for vampirism.
"This whole story - a world where vampires have taken over and vampires are destroying the last of their human blood supply - that's a metaphor for the human race today. That elevates the whole movie," Hawke says. "The thing that makes a great genre movie is one that's not just entertainment, not just horror or sci-fi or whatever. The ones I love are the genre pictures with some subversive message underlying it all."
Hawke, 39, has spent the last couple of years aging into and busily living up to a label The Washington Post once gave him, "a middle-aged actor who rarely stops working." He accepted the offer to do "Daybreakers" while performing a nine-hour trilogy of plays by Tom Stoppard, "The Coast of Utopia." He's about to direct Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind" on the New York stage.
"That has me more nervous than I've been in a very long time," Hawke admits.
And then there is the TV project he just finished - an adaptation of "Moby Dick" in which he plays Starbuck.
"Working on a film of a classic novel reminded me of being 18 and doing 'White Fang,' " he says. "When I was in high school, they made me read that story. I hated it. But that piece is poetry, beautiful, prescient poetry."
Hawke doesn't just look for messages in genre films like "Daybreakers." He hunts for deeper meaning in the classic roles, too.
"The fact that Herman Melville was writing this book about how pursuit of oil and greed for oil was going to corrupt and destroy us, a book about hunting whales in the 19th century, is amazing. It's like reading a newspaper from today - different kind of oil, still pursuing it. It still corrupts us."
His guiding principle, Hawke says, is trying to mix up the work - doing less lucrative plays for his craft, indie films for his art and commercial fare such as "Daybreakers" and the icy 1997 sci-fi thriller "Gattaca" so "you can keep working and stay relevant.
"I'd be lying if I said I had confidence in every choice I've made, that I have faith in every film I do on every shot," he says. "But doing genre films is fun because I have so little experience with, you know, vampires. If I was Christopher Lee and had done a hundred of these, it wouldn't be new and fun."