Ethan Hawke interview: Good Kill, drones, sci-fi and Joe Dante

Ethan Hawke stars in Andrew Niccol's military drama, Good Kill. Here, we talk to the actor about SF, modern warfare, Joe Dante and more...

Over the course of 30 years, Ethan Hawke’s appeared in a remarkable array of films, from his early breakthrough roles in Joe Dante’s Explorers and Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, to last year’s spectacular Boyhood.

Hawke’s latest film, Good Kill, reunites him with director Andrew Niccol – back in 1997, they worked together on the superbly moving sci-fi, Gattaca. Set in 2010, Good Kill’s a military drama about a former US pilot-turned drone operative, who carries out strikes in the Middle East from an office chair in Las Vegas.

Niccol shoots the film with the imagination of his sci-fi films, which makes Good Kill’s true-life subject matter all the more disturbing. And once again, Hawke turns in a spectacular performance – one that, as is so common with him, feels so natural and unselfish that it’s easy to overlook how moving and superbly wrought it is.

As Good Kill opens in the UK, it was our pleasure to talk to Mr Hawke about his role in Good Kill and some of his earlier films – including his work with Joe Dante 30 years ago, and his love of science fiction. Here’s what he had to say…

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You’ve probably heard this many times, but what I found chilling about Good Kill is that it sounds like science fiction, but it isn’t. 

Yeah, exactly. Especially coming from Andrew [Niccol] – there’s something about the way he films everything. Even Nevada looks like a foreign planet, or a sunset looks like a foreign moon. I don’t know why. The level of detachment the characters have between each other – it’s almost Orwellian, you know? Yet it’s totally contemporary. So that’s my favourite element of the movie too.

There’s an interesting voyeuristic element to it, too.

The spying on people.

Yeah. It’s almost like a technological Rear Window, in a way. 

That’s well said. If you talk to the real drone pilots, that’s one of the hardest things – you spy on people. It’s easy to start to feel like you know them. Even though, what the drones are brilliant at is creating less collateral damage than you would if you were, let’s say, carpet-bombing Vietnam. The only problem is, you kind of know the people that are collateral damage.

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You spy on a guy’s wife for a long time, and all of a sudden you get the call and you have to kill them both. It’s a little bit worse, in a way, because you’ve registered the person as a human being, you know, as you spy and see the relationship with their kids and their friends. It’s very strange. In the history of warfare, lots of people drop bombs on each other, shot missiles, but you rarely count the dead when you do – which is what these drone pilots have to do. 

I think it’s interesting that it feels as though it’s dawning on writers and directors that we’re entering a quite scary new age. Drones are even turning up in very mainstream stuff – Fast & Furious 7 has them.

And there’s drones on TV shows now. It’s part of the lexicon, you know? It’s weird, because nobody talks about this. Even American Sniper, which is a story that’s about 10 years old, or however long ago Chris Kyle [fought]. That’s antique! There’s no need for a sniper anymore, a guy who can shoot from a 1000 metres. I could shoot that guy from Nevada, you know? We’re living in a completely new territory, and what will be interesting is seeing what this film looks like 10 years from now. 

What happens when other countries expand their drone programs? It’s going to change the landscape of the sky, and change the way people feel about drones. Everybody likes a gun if you’re the only one who has one, but when everybody else starts to have one, you start thinking, “Should we put the guns away?”

How do you feel technology’s going in that respect, then? 

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It’s always two-handed isn’t it? There are always compromises. How do you define progress? You know, Andrew has this thing – the scariest thing about the drone program is that the only thing that’s stopped past wars is body bags coming home and how expensive they are. Drones are cost-efficient, and body bags don’t come home. Body bags stay there.

So it creates a scenario for perpetual war, and I think, in my lifetime, Desert Storm happened when I was 21. It’s been a long time that we’ve been at war with that region, and it doesn’t show any signs of stopping. The drone program is the most efficient way to work it, and it will perpetuate it. 

Some of the best scenes in the film, I thought, were between you and Bruce Greenwood. I thought it was terrific to see you two play against each other.

He’s a terrific actor. I think he’s a really underrated actor – he’s always been terrific. And that’s a great character, because my character’s having an inner crisis, but his character’s really, logically debating the issue. You see him wrestling with it in his head, the positives and the negatives. I find his character really compelling.

You seem to be very good at choosing these kinds of characters with real edges to them. You haven’t chosen that path through Hollywood where you play these nice leading men.

Well, the trouble with nice leading men is you always know what they’re gonna do – they’re gonna do the right thing. For me, it’s just trying to search for original stories. In away, this is one of the best time periods of my career in that regard. Boyhood is such a unique film in its very DNA. And I did this weird science fiction movie called Predestination

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I saw it! I loved it.

I love this movie! And [in Good Kill], I haven’t seen this character in the history of war films. A guy who’s compartmentalising to such an extent that he’s fighting a war from his own house. It creates a kind of schizophrenia and depression. I love that, when you get to Predestination and you get to play [spoiler redacted] – it’s such an interesting story. 

You’re one of those rare actors who doesn’t seem to have any genre snobbery, either. I wonder if that goes back to your first film, Explorers

I’m glad that you said that. He was my first teacher, really, Joe Dante. You know, Quentin Tarantino’s made being a film geek kind of famous, but Joe was a film geek way before. And he loves all kinds of movies. He would talk to me about John Carpenter’s The Thing, he would talk to me about John Frankenheimer’s The Train, he would talk to me about why Frank Sinatra was a great actor… he had no differentiation between high and low.

It was a differentiation between people who put thought and artistry into what they did, and those that didn’t. There’s nothing worse, in my mind, than these movies that come out that small like they’re chasing an Oscar. I’m just allergic to it – it’s like, urgh. And I feel the same way about the ones that are chasing $100m or something. You can smell it on them. They’re playing to the lowest common denominator. A movie like The Purge aspires to be as socio-political as, you know, the early Carpenter films. 

I thought The Purge was really clever.

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Yeah. It’s a way of talking about politics without being pretentious. Or to hit people, at least, where they’re not sure what the left-wing point of view is or the right-wing point of view. The beautiful thing about science fiction is it does that. You take a totally foreign context, so you don’t know what your mom or dad would have said – you have to make up your own mind. And I love that. 

Ethan Hawke, thank you very much.

Good Kill is out in UK cinemas on the 10th April.