Ethan Hawke has worn many hats over the years—actor, director, screenwriter, novelist—but he'd never done a horror flick. Until now. In Sinister, which opens this Friday, Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a once-successful true-crime writer who's trying to reclaim his prominent stature in contemporary culture. To do so, he moves his family into a house where another family was recently murdered and finds a box of old Super 8mm films, and (naturally) trouble ensues. Details spoke with Hawke, 41, about Sinister and the appeal of horror movies, the forthcoming Richard Linklater film Before Midnight (in theaters in 2013), and if we'll ever see the veteran actor on the small screen.
DETAILS: Growing up, what were you afraid of?
ETHAN HAWKE: I was afraid of life. Girls and bullies, everything. But I wasn't afraid of monsters. One of the great things about horror movies is that they make regular life less scary. I think most people are petrified to wake up in the morning, and what's nice about watching a movie about child demons is that when the movie is over, they don't exist.
DETAILS: That's a good point. A viewer may have a less-than-desirable job, but at least he doesn't have demon children chasing him.
ETHAN HAWKE: Exactly. Your kids may be bothering you, your wife may be annoying, but you know what? A ghoul isn't behind the corner. So be grateful.
DETAILS: What made you want to do a horror film?
ETHAN HAWKE: It didn't happen like that. I didn't think, "You know, I really want to do a horror film." When I was a kid, I did this movie called Explorers, and the director, Joe Dante [he directed The Howling, Gremlins], taught me a lot about genre movies and how great they can be. The best ones have a truly punk-rock, subversive movement happening inside of them. So I've always enjoyed watching them. My friend Jason Blum and I started a theater company when we were in our twenties called Malaparte. He said, "You should do one." I said, "If you ever have a great character with a great director, then I would do it." The trouble with genre movies is that sometimes they can be extremely successful without giving a shit about acting. Really corny ones can be really lucrative, [but] that doesn't mean they're good movies. He called me up and said, "This guy Scott Derrickson is the real thing, he's a great director and the script is great." I realized if I was ever going to make one, this was the one to do. It's actually scary.
DETAILS: I'm not ashamed to admit that I yelped a few times.
ETHAN HAWKE: One thing I've learned is that if you go [to a horror film] with a girl, you'll end up bonded forever. The trouble with taking a girl to a romantic comedy, Sleepless in Seattle or something, when you walk out, the girl is a little irritated that you're not as gentle and sensitive as Tom Hanks. And if you take them to see Sinister, they're going to be psyched that you're not a ghoul.
DETAILS: Sinister has a very small cast—a lot of the performance is of you interacting with film, your character watching film, converting film, analyzing film.
ETHAN HAWKE: It's the most subversive idea of the movie—that the devil gets into you by watching evil images. That's the punk-rock edge of the movie. It's ultimately about a guy, whose own ambition destroys his family, his own ego lets in the demons. That's the metaphor of the movie. That's a fucked-up idea.
DETAILS: It was recently announced that Before Midnight, the sequel to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, has been completed.
ETHAN HAWKE: Yeah, I just finished shooting a couple of weeks ago. For [filmmaker] Rick [Linklater] and Julie [Delpy] and me, it's the fruition of 20 years of dreaming. The idea that we have this little life project is pretty incredible. And this one, of all three, was probably the most fun to make. The movies end up being more about time than anything else. I can't wait for it to be done and show it to people. Obviously, people have high expectations—we can't be what everybody wants us to be. The way the second movie ends, it always felt in the back of my mind that there was something unfinished about this project and we were going to have to revisit these characters. And I feel that this itches that scratch.
DETAILS: What's the central plot?
ETHAN HAWKE: You know, what's the plot of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset? There's hardly a plot to any of these things. They're kind of more about how it happens than what happens. It's a boy and a girl and can they get along? Can they last? Is love real? That's what it's about.
DETAILS: What's the writing process like for these films?
ETHAN HAWKE: Each one of these processes has been very different. For the first film, Rick had this basic idea and Julie and I did a bunch of improvisation. The second one, we all came up with the idea together and Rick gave us each assignments. We sent in monologues or riffs on our characters and Rick would put them into a blender. The three of us got together and put a 40-page document into a script. For this one, we got together over Christmas because we realized that this summer would be the exact same amount of time between Parts 2 and 3 as it was [between] 1 and 2. It became clear that we had one image in our brain, and we built the whole script around that. After years of feeling like I had no idea what the third one should be, it became very clear to all three of us. It happened kind of fast.
DETAILS: What's on the horizon for you?
ETHAN HAWKE: For the last 10 years, I've spent so much time working in the theater. I wanted to put myself back in movies. I did four movies last year. And now I'm throwing myself back into theater. I'm doing Chekhov's Ivanov this fall, and this winter I'm doing an adaptation of Brecht's Baal. That's what thrills me.
DETAILS: If the right thing came along, would you ever do a TV series?
ETHAN HAWKE: I've thought about it for a while. I know great TV shows get made, but in general, it's so difficult to maintain a level of quality when you have to create that much product. I don't really know much about television, so somebody would really have to come to me with a real vision of what they thought could be great.
Sinister opens Friday, October 12.
—Mike Ayers (@themikeayers) is a New York City-based arts and entertainment writer.