Supporting Actor: 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead'

When Ethan Hawke first took a look at his role as Hank in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” he quickly realized it wouldn’t necessarily be a fun experience.

“I knew that what it would take to play that guy right would mean a completely unenjoyable shoot, and I was right,” Hawke recalls.

But after meeting with his director, he knew he’d be in good hands. “The subject matter and the tone are right in his sweet spot. That’s a fastball over the plate for Sidney Lumet.”

Hawke plays the weaker of two brothers (the other played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who, in a pinch for some dough, hold up their parents’ jewelry store with tragic results.

“The resentment in this family is like a cancer that spreads and turns into a disease. It’s really a family made in cinema hell,” he says.

Hank, Hawke notes, “is incredibly spineless. He’s the classic ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ There are a lot of men in this world who, when push comes to shove, are not there. They find a way to be missing at the right moment.”

Yet worse, he says, is that, unlike his scheming brother, Hank actually has a conscience talking back at him.

“He knows what the right thing to do is,” he says. “He just always finds excuses for why he wasn’t able to do the right thing.”

So was Hank modeled after anybody in Hawke’s life, someone whom he could reference for research?

“I find Hank so unappealing that I wouldn’t want to say who,” he chuckles.

Working with Lumet sometimes meant having to rise above Hawke’s level to date.

“The fun thing about working with Sidney is you know that you are not the best actor he’s ever worked with. Knowing he’s worked with Marlon Brando and Paul Newman can be intimidating, but it can also be really inspiring. It makes you match your dreams of being the actor you’ve dreamed of being.”

FAST FACTS

Favorite film: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” “I’ve probably seen that movie 15 times.”

Young actor you admire: “I’m directing a play right now called ‘Things We Want,’ and it stars Paul Dano (also co-starring in ‘There Will Be Blood’). I think he’s terrific. (Also) Mark Webber, who was in a movie I directed, ‘The Hottest State.’”

What you want in a director: “Commitment. There’s nothing worse than a director who’s half-assing it. Somebody who isn’t giving it their all is real disappointing.”

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