Ethan Hawke is taking on Macbeth, the most daunting role of his career, and he was happy to talk about it.
"For a long time, I was scared of this play," he said. "It was too black, too dark."
What changed for him was talking to director Jack O'Brien, who's staging the production. It begins previews Thursday night for a Nov. 21 opening at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.
"He has so many ideas about the play," said Hawke, who grew up in West Windsor Township, near Princeton. "I was offered the part in an off-Broadway production about 10 years ago, and I called Jack to ask him if I should do it.
"He ended up talking to me for three hours, analyzing the play. I decided then that I was never going to do 'Macbeth' unless I had Jack O'Brien directing me."
We spoke several weeks into rehearsal, with the cast taking a break for a meet-the-press day.
While most of his fellow actors wore rumpled casual, Hawke was spiffily dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and skinny black tie. Despite a whisper of a mustache and faint chin stubble, he remained, at 42, defiantly boyish looking.
While headlining many movies, of varying quality, over two decades, Hawke has tenaciously kept ties with the New York theater, working principally off-Broadway.
To explain why, he reached back to "Dead Poets Society," his breakthrough film, made when he was just 18.
'Seize the day'
"Robin Williams [playing his character's teacher] said the time is now; you have to seize the day. And that's what I try to do.
"I love the theater, and I believe you should chase your love, within reason." (Hawke has four children to support.)
"I like movies. I want to do good films. But most of what Hollywood wants to make is for teen-agers. I don't want to spend two months making the same stupid movies.
"It's hard not to sound like a pompous blowhard, but theater challenges me. And the opportunity to do Shakespeare is incredible; he provided the basis for all our story-telling."
Hawke traced his feeling for theater to when he was 12 years old and taking an improvisational acting class at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, which led to a small role in a production of Shaw's "St. Joan."
"That was so much fun," he recalled. "Just being with the actors, who were so involved with what they were doing. I didn't know that you could act for a living.
"In doing stage work I might have missed out on some good film roles over the years, but that's OK."
As the highlights of his career, Hawke mentioned "Dead Poets" and the trilogy of small, romantic films he made with Julie Delpy: "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight."
The stage piece on the list was Shakespeare's "Henry IV," a memorable 2003 production of Shakespeare's history plays -- it combined Parts 1 and 2 -- that was directed by O'Brien and featured Hawke as the valiant Hotspur and Kevin Kline as Falstaff.
"That was the best experience of my acting life," said Hawke. "I enjoyed working with Jack so much; he just has this incredible passion."
Hawke went on to play the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in Tom Stoppard's trilogy "The Coast of Utopia," also directed by O'Brien.
To transform himself into a Scottish nobleman, a great general who murders his way to the throne, the very American Hawke -- who's paired with British actress Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth -- suggested he would rely on who he is as an actor.
"I'm not going to speak the poetry the way an English actor can," he said. "My goal is to make him as recognizably human as possible, a man who undergoes great change."
For director O'Brien, that's the point.
"I want Macbeth to be likable [at first], not a monster," said O'Brien. "He starts with a clean slate. But he's overtaken by ego, hubris. They're an addiction, just like fame or drugs. [With the prospect of ruling Scotland], he becomes addicted to evil."
Seeking an analogy, O'Brien turned to professional football. "When Tom Brady won the Super Bowl, he thought he could do anything. That's when the trouble starts."
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