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Screen Tests: 5 Breakout Roles of Ethan Hawke

A closer look at the start at this actor's breakthrough roles.

Ethan Hawke is an actor who has been working in film (and occasionally television) since the late 1980s. His good looks and often dour shoegazer acting style earned him a lot of praise and attention, becoming nominated for Academy Awards four times. Here are five early roles that paved the way to being one his generation’s most popular stars.

Explorers (1985)

Ethan Hawke
Explorers, 1995 © Paramount Pictures

After the success of Steven Spielberg‘s E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, it was all sci-fi alien adventures for a while in Hollywood and a popular one that spawned from the mix was this classic fantasy about three boys who build a spaceship on their own, looking to explore the galaxy. Directed by the legendary Joe Dante, Hawke, in his film debut, plays Ben, a youngster saddled by weird dreams of flying over strange circuit-board like cities and when he shares his visions with friend, child prodigy Wolfgang Müller (River Phoenix, also in his debut), they work with other friend Darren Woods (Jason Presson) to transform an old tilt-a-whirl amusement park car into a working spaceship, not realizing that they are actually being guided by real aliens in space wanting to have contact with humans. A fun, wildly inventive adventure, the fourteen-year-old Hawke already puts to use his boyish charms and natural wonder revealing he’s a kid with career. It’d be four more years before he got the chance to work in a film again though, but oh boy, did it change everything.


Dead Poets Society (1989)

Ethan Hawke
Dead Poets Society, 1989 © Touchstone Pictures

Robin Williams was already a national treasure by the time he got the lead role in Peter Weir‘s Dead Poets Society, a film that earned him an Oscar nom, and while he is the center of the story, it is the young supporting cast that really was the glue that held it together. Hawke plays Todd Anderson, a meek but kind student at Welton Academy, an all-male, elite prep school where he makes friends with a few others, all of whom fall under the influence of their English teacher John Keating (Williams), who encourages the boys to think freely and explore themselves, which tends to rub opposite of some of Welton’s more rigid teaching practices. Hawke is up against some stiff acting competition with a host of young new acting talents (some who would go on to greater fame) but is the heart of the story, once again, his innocence and boyish naivety grounding his character. It’s a great performance in a film with many, but he was ready for something adult and after a solid turn in the kid’s film White Fang, got himself into a war.


A Midnight Clear (1992)

Ethan Hawke
A Midnight Clear, 1992 © A&M Films

One of the most underrated war films ever made, this unconventional entry in the genre is a minor masterpiece, follows a group of specially-selected soldiers at the start of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II to occupy an abandoned French chateau near the German lines to gather intel during the month of December. Hawke plays Sgt. Will Knott, one of six men in the group who soon find themselves in an unusual relationship with a small band of German soldiers who are clearly not aggressive and in fact, have just the opposite in mind. But can they be trusted? With a stellar cast, including Gary Sinise, Frank Whaley, John C. McGinley, and Peter Berg, this is a sensational thriller and underseen film that is one of Hawke’s best early performances. Tense and very well-performed this is a must see and while it might not have opened many doors, serves as proof that Hawke was an actor stepping out of kid’s roles and very capable for more. That would be made all the more clear the following year.


Alive (1993)

Ethan Hawke
Alive, 1993 © Buena Vista Pictures

This historical drama was a sort of small phenomenon on release with the true story of survivors of a plane crash high in the Andes having everyone asking “what would I do?” in the same situation. Hawke plays Nando Parrado, a member of a rugby team traveling to Chile who, with a few others, manages to not only survive the horrific crash but work together to battle the extreme conditions and stay alive, making a controversial choice that becomes the centerpiece of the movie. Once again, surrounded by some terrific supporting actors, Hawkes stripes away the boyish charms and takes on a heavier role, basically having the lead here. It’s a challenging film set mostly in one location and therefore dialogue heavy, but it’s a tense and often chilling experience with some pretty harrowing moments. Hawke was getting some attention, his work earning him some well-deserved praise, but it would be another year before the actor finally landed a part that changed everything.


Reality Bites (1994)

Ethan Hawke
Reality Bites, 1994 © Universal Pictures

Every decade has a movie that comes to define it or the young people growing up within it and it was Ben Stiller‘s Reality Bites that ended up doing most of that for the 90s. I’ve already written about the film in detail here, but in essence, this film captured much about the changing sensibilities and attitudes of a new generation trying to find a place for themselves. Hawke plays Troy Dyer, a coffee-house guitarist with little to no future, in and out of minimum wage jobs who can’t seem to get this feet on the ground. He plays opposite Winona RyderJaneane Garofalo and Stiller, firmly establishing his heart-throb appeal while proving once again that he could carry a film. The movie was a big hit and Hawke become an international celebrity for it, and there’s no doubting why when you watch him work. His performance marks a significant shift in the actor’s career and demonstrates a maturity that ranks him as one of the best of his generation.


90s and Beyond

Ethan Hawke
Snow Falling on Cedars, 1999 © Universal Pictures

With this, a string of box office successes followed, but more importantly, Hawke found great range, never settling on a ‘type’, from sci-fi spectacles like Gattaca to the deeply moving Snow Falling on Cedars to the long running Richard Linklater Before series. He earned his highest praise for his role alongside Denzel Washington in Training Day and continues to push himself in challenging directions. What are some favorite roles of Ethan Hawke you like best?

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