Ethan Hawke allows himself what is either a self-deprecating grin or a smirk when he's told he was James Franco before there was James Franco.
It's true, though. Franco gets a lot of attention these days for the multiplicity of his talents and interests, but the guy with the really enviable track record – as screen star, stage actor, novelist, filmmaker, theatre director, hunk – is Hawke, who turns 41 in November.
He's at TIFF this week to promote The Woman in the Fifth, a smart, intriguing and unsettling feature from Polish-British director Pawel Pawlikowski in which Hawke plays a struggling, emotionally fragile American novelist returning to Paris to be closer to his six-year-old daughter, now in the sole custody of his estranged wife. It's a fine performance and, with ugly, thick-lensed Ray-Ban glasses, Hawke looks thoroughly down, out and distressed.
On Tuesday, however, he was the very acme of Ethan Hawke-ness – attentive, engaged, blue eyes flashing, easy in his skin, looking fit in a smartly tailored suit and tie. But he acknowledged tempus fugit. "One of the ways in which I think that this movie was personal to me … was this moment of feeling at this midpoint in your life," he said in an interview. "Being 40 means you're already so far down the path. I mean, Dead Poets Society came out 22 years ago. That's starting to be a while ago, y'know? And next year is the 20th anniversary of the first time I came to the Toronto film festival. Is the festival much older than that?
"When I was younger, I gave myself permission to try a lot of things," he observed. "But there's something about turning 40 that makes me feel that I'm not allowed to experiment any more, like I should know what I'm doing … that there's a kind of acting I want to do, a kind of writing I want to do."
Indeed, when Hawke was in his early 20s, he thought his life would be like that of Albert Schweitzer – the first half devoted to the arts, the second to public service. "But now that I am at that midpoint, I feel like I'm at such an entry place, not an ending … To be honest, I'd just like to keep being a student until I arrive somewhere. But does that mean I'm going to direct more theatre or wind up writing another novel? I don't know."
Almost 10 years since he published his and second novel, Ash Wednesday, Hawke says he is "really working hard on" finishing a third. "But at the same time, the older you get, the higher your standards are. I feel like if I'm gonna write another novel, it had better be good, for Chrissake. I didn't use to feel that way; I just used to feel it was fun to try. Now I have this other agenda with myself."
If Hawke has a model as a screen actor, it's probably Jeff Bridges. But, really, he confessed, "my first love is the theatre. More and more I've found that most in tune with who I am … And if you look at actors who grow old well, theatre actors just do it so much better."