Backstage at the Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, Ethan Hawke makes an impressive transformation from casual street clothes to Hollywood star about to hit the talk-show couch.
As he walks into the show's greenroom, he holds his hands out to display his sharp blue Calvin Klein suit. "Look," Hawke says with a smile. "It's the new me."
This change goes beyond his duds. Hawke, 41, is starring in his first horror movie, Sinister, opening Friday.
"I have wanted to make a genre movie," says Hawke of the horror subculture. "But I wanted it to be a good one. I didn't want it to be stupid."
Paranormal Activity producer Jason Blum says he spent years trying to get his longtime friend Hawke to take a horror part in one of his movies. ("I got rejected every time," Blum says.) Sinister director Scott Derrickson co-wrote a script about a once- famous true-crime writer trying to make one more score with the story of a gruesome family murder in a small town.
In Sinister, the writer moves his entire family into the murder scene -- without telling them -- to research the book he believes will relaunch his career. Derrickson knew he needed the writer to be portrayed sympathetically to keep the audience engaged despite his terrible life choices. He remembered Hawke's bad-guy role in 2009's Brooklyn's Finest.
"I thought, 'Who could play a character like this that's flawed? Ethan Hawke?'" says Derrickson. "That's a guy the audience would not turn on. Not a lot of actors can pull that off."
Hawke finally was hooked. "I was moved by this notion that blind pursuit of your ego can destroy you. This is a guy who is in the pursuit of one more hit of the limelight."
It's the same type of temptation that the Reality Bites star, who has had a lower Hollywood profile in recent years, could relate to.
"There isn't anyone who makes it to 40 who doesn't wonder if their best days are behind them," says Hawke. "It's a terrifying thought, really.
"I did Dead Poets Society when I was 18, and that movie was nominated for best picture (at the Oscars)," he says. "So I certainly know all of those feelings, intimately. Whenever you can put something personal inside of a movie, it makes it fun."
Besides writing novels and directing productions of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, Hawke has been focused on other aspects of his life. Divorced from Uma Thurman in 2004 after having two children, he married Ryan Shawhughes in 2008 and has two additional children (Clementine Jane, 4, and Indiana, 1).
"This is one of the most exciting times in my life," says Hawke. "I have four healthy kids and a beautiful wife. I'm kind of scared to even talk about it, because I feel the cancer ward will be coming tomorrow."
Professionally, he's enjoying the work on his own terms. "It's wonderful to find myself in the middle of my life here and still getting to do what I love. That's not lost on me."
The docket is full with yet another horror film with producer Blum, The Purge, as well as an off-Broadway production of Ivanov, in which he'll appear with his Sinister co-star Juliet Rylance.
Hawke also has completed Before Midnight with director Richard Linklater -- the third chapter of a love story between Hawke and Julie Delpy that began in 1995's Before Sunrise. "The more we revisit it, the more the main character is Father Time," says Hawke.
And when he is asked to take stock of his own life, Hawke says, "I'm not dead yet," adding, "I don't have to cash my chips in right now. But so far, so great."
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