I moved to New York City in 1989, shortly after the release of “Dead Poets Society.”
I was in search of an identity — an identity I imagined, at the time, as the classic “New York actor.” You went to Los Angeles to be a movie star, and you went to New York to be an actor — at least, that was the simplicity with which my 18-year-old mind saw the situation.
There are times I’ve stayed in Los Angeles for extended periods and felt pressed, even smothered, by the overwhelming gravitational pull the film business has on the community. I never wanted to see making movies as a business. Los Angeles made me feel like a number, and not a very high one. Whereas there’s a feeling in New York that a certain nobility exists in simply being part of a sweaty-handed struggle; it’s a feeling that you are part of a long, dynamic history of the arts — from John Barrymore to the Group Theater to “Hamilton.”
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There is a sense in New York that the superficial and materialistic will be mocked, and the humble will inherit a truer kind of gold. Of course, a lot of this is pure romantic lunacy on my part. I actually remember in the early ’90s, when people in L.A. were first getting cell phones, that New Yorkers would never descend to such crass communication. What is true, however, is that New York is not dominated by any one industry. There is a lot of noise here, which I find makes it easier to maintain a kind of anonymity.
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For me particularly, my love of the theater made my choice a simple decision. The legacy of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and August Wilson obviously wields a heavy influence over New York’s artistic community. This city places a higher value and respect on theater, and therefore the individual actor is more valued and respected. Starting a theater company here — running around the city raising money, reading plays, handing out fliers, staying up all night in diners talking — made my heart bigger and beat faster.
The worlds of music, fashion, and literature also have deep roots here in a mainstream way, while maintaining a powerful counterculture energy. The arts are not immediately quantified in terms of what they might mean financially. They have intrinsic value.
New Yorkers nurture so many industries — finance, trade, and tech — and have so many influences, and come from so many cultural backgrounds. And because we’re forced to be together and interact physically in our daily lives, my life feels more vital. We take the subway with lawyers, homeless people punching each other, nurses falling asleep on their way home, teachers scolding their students, and many other people from every walk of life. I have never found a way to do that in Los Angeles. When I think of Los Angeles, I see myself alone in my rental car.
Have I missed out on meetings? Have I missed out on relationships in the film industry? Undoubtedly. Do I have a great many friends that live and thrive in L.A.? Certainly. However, one of the exciting things about contemporary life as an actor is the ability for actors to put themselves on tape. I used to have to fly to Los Angeles to audition, and that made not getting a part all the more difficult to swallow. If I could have sent in tapes via my phone, I think I would have been saved many brutal, sad flights home.
But I’ve come to believe people can grow and achieve their dreams anywhere. We all need to be inside an eco-system that supports us — with family and friends and work that stimulates. What matters is the people in your life, not the dot on the map. N.Y.C. just made sense to me. And now I’ve built a community here with friends and collaborators that give and take in ways that create a woven intimacy with the city itself.
Ethan Hawke is a writer and actor, recently seen in “The Magnificent Seven” and playing Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue.”