Ethan Hawke: All about the arts, and more

Actor Ethan Hawke.
CBS News

(CBS News)   Ethan Hawke first won wide notice with his performance alongside Robin Williams in the 1989 film, "Dead Poets Society."  Now he's branching out with a role on the Broadway stage. So how does he relax in his moments of downtime?  Serena Altschul tells us that, and more, in this Sunday Profile:

Meet actor Ethan Hawke for a friendly game of pool, and you'll see it's not about whether you win or lose, but more about how you play the game.

"The important thing is not to sink the ball," he told Altschul. "The important thing is to look good while you do it."

And he's no hustler, either: "I would go for the green," he helpfully suggested.

Pool sharks Ethan Hawke and Serena Altschul. CBS News

Altschul met Hawke at The Players in New York City, a 125-year-old club for those in the arts, which is what Hawke is all about.

His portrait is on the wall, next to members Christopher Plummer and Carol Burnett.

"It's all corny," he laughed of his picture on display. But at 43, Hawke's earned his place there. 

It all began with an audition in Manhattan, not too far from his boyhood home near Princeton, New Jersey.

"My mother thought it would be nice to get experience -- she never thought I'd get the part," Hawke said. "In fact, a big fight erupted when I got one of these parts, and then my mother felt like, 'Well, you can't do it.'"

"But you somehow convinced them?" asked Altschul.

"Yeah.  Well, you know, 13-year-olds can be very persuasive," he laughed. "'Cause making them unhappy is such a miserable experience."

The role was opposite River Phoenix in the 1985 sci-fi film, "Explorers." It was a big-budget flop.

"I like to say that it was the best thing that ever happened to me," Hawke said. "If you really want a life in the arts, get some good, solid failure right at the start."

Hawke didn't give up. Four long years later, he got his big break in a little film with Robin Williams called "Dead Poets Society." But it was the 1994 film "Reality Bites" that made Hawke the face of Generation X, as slacker Troy Dyer.

"I played this role that represented a kind of an unwillingness, or a dubiousness about the older generation, and at the same time not knowing what to do at all, of being totally unmotivated," said Hawke.

Motivation has never been a problem for Hawke. In fact, he's the kind of guy that seems to do it all. 

At 21, he started his own theater company. At 27, he married actress Uma Thurman and started a family. By 32 he'd published two novels and got an Oscar nomination for his role in "Training Day," opposite Denzel Washington.

For movie critics the trilogy of films beginning with "Before Sunrise" tells one of the greatest boy-meets-girl stories in movie history. 

In 1995's "Before Sunrise," the film's characters, Jesse and Celine, spend a single magical night together in Vienna.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in "Before Midnight," the third film in a trilogy of romances spanning 18 years directed by Richard Linklater. Sony Pictures Classics

They meet again, nine years later, in Paris, in "Before Sunset."

In this year's "Before Midnight," it's been another nine years.  Jesse and Celine are now married, but things aren't so romantic. 

This past summer Hawke returned to his magnum opus with "Before Midnight." This time, things weren't as romantic:

Celine (Delpy): "This is where it ends."
Jesse (Hawke): "What're you talking about?"
Celine: "This is how people start breaking up."
Jesse: "Oh, my God. What'd you just . . . you just jumped off a cliff."
Celine: "No, no. I'm marking this. This is the day you light the ticking bomb that will destroy our lives."

Does he get tired of talking about the story 20 years in the making? "Rarely have I had the experience of doing something really, truly meaningful to me and having it land on fertile ground. It's something audiences are really interested in."

The only thing audiences seem more interested in is Hawke's own love life. 

Uma Thurman and he had a highly-publicized divorce in 2004. 

But he has no regrets about their marriage: "I would never second-guess that decision, it was the greatest decisions, one of many of my favorite decisions I ever made. I was, In fact, had no tools to make a life-long relationship work at that time."

Hawke married again in 2008. 

Ethan Hawke in "Macbeth." Lincoln Center Theater

Right now, he's taking a break from Hollywood for Broadway, where he's playing Macbeth.

It opened to less-than-stellar reviews.

"Do you play attention to the critics and the reviews, or do you kind of just let it wash over you?" Altschul asked.

"You have to," he said. "It's a lie, anybody says they don't. It's part of your profession.  I mean, I've always had a strange relationship with critics."

Hawke's also working on his third book, as well as a graphic novel about the life of Geronimo.

When asked how he wanted to be known, and what he wanted his greatest gift to be, Hawke said, "People used to tell me that, to be really successful in this profession you need to kind of have an identity that people can understand, and make up a personality. I have no agenda with how people see me. And it's no work being me."

And maybe that's because being Ethan Hawke comes down to one simple philosophy: "If your life is in service of the arts it's going to be a beautiful thing. It doesn't matter whether you have success or failure."

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