From Universal Pictures , the horror thriller The Purge illustrates the government’s response to an America overrun by escalating crime and overcrowded prisons. For a 12-hour period, once a year, any and all criminal activity, including murder, becomes legal. And on this one particular night, James (Ethan Hawke) and Mary Sandin (Lena Headey), and their two children, will learn just how vicious the outside world can be.
Actor Ethan Hawke talked about why the subject of families in peril make for good suspense and horror films, what he enjoys about making genre movies, getting to film somewhat chronologically, how much fun the fight scenes were, what he thinks this film says about society, and whether he believes humans are inherently violent.
Why do you think families in peril make for good suspense and horror films?
ETHAN HAWKE: Well, the family in peril trip is kind of obvious, in that it’s everybody’s biggest fear. There’s a moment in the movie where you see the husband and wife loading guns, and he teaches her to take the safety off. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Nightmares are a strange thing. Your worst fear is sometimes something you enjoy thinking about, for some strange reason. I don’t know why that is, but it’s some kind of fantasy that people play out. “What would I do to protect my children? I’d do anything.” And then, you watch it play out. I’m petrified of such a thing. I don’t really enjoy thinking about it.
Did you guys rehearse, at all, to cement the family dynamic?
My favorite element of the script is Lena Headey’s character. She and I did a movie together when I was 18, and she was 14, or something, in England, and I always thought she was a magical actress. We didn’t even have any scenes together. It was a movie called Waterland. But, I remember thinking that there was something really special about her. I’ve watched her from afar, her whole career, and she’s just a terrific actress. And she plays this part so interestingly. It’s my favorite aspect of the movie. I think, partly because I’ve known her for so long, it made the whole family dynamic really easy.
Sinister was your first voyage into this type of genre. What was it that you liked about doingSinister and being in that type of movie, and what was it in the script for The Purge that made you want to return to this genre?
Well, I got this script when we had just finished Sinister. Jason Blum gave me this script. Over the years, we have both loved James DeMonaco, the guy who wrote and directed this movie, so Jason said, “Hey, you’re not going to believe it, but I just read this crazy script by James DeMonaco,” and I was like, “Let me read it.” And I had so much fun on Sinister. I loved genre movies, when I was younger. One of my first directors was Joe Dante, who had directed The Howling and Piranhaand Gremlins, and he had taught me a real love of what was possible with a genre movie. He taught me that a good genre movie is a really scary, really fun thing to go see on Friday night, but also that it can have some subterranean political message. And The Purge is perfect for that. In a way, Sinister was, too.
I’ve always wanted to flirt with genres. I also did Daybreakers and, in a lot of ways, Training Day is a genre movie, too, because it’s the cop genre. Good genre movies are a little bit like trying to write a haiku. There are certain things that you have to do to fulfill the audience’s expectations, but inside that, you have complete freedom to talk about whatever you want. In a way, it’s wonderful because you get to make a movie that deals with all these socio-political issues. Who wants to see a movie about gun violence in America and class? But, if you set it in this terrifying, fun, roller coaster ride of a movie, you can talk about whatever you want. That’s been the game that genre movies play, when they do it well.
As a writer yourself, did you have any input into the script, or did you want to stay hands-off, in that regard?
I have a lot of respect for James DeMonaco. It’s very difficult to make a movie like this with this budget, and he had his work cut out for him. I couldn’t begin to write a movie like this. I could try to help him, or help myself create a full three-dimensional character. This character was very hard to play, in a lot of ways, because he’s not overtly a bad guy. He thinks he’s a good guy. It’s easy to play a villain, and it’s easy to play a hero. This guy is in this weird gray zone of a person, who is culpable for a lot of negative things in his life, but isn’t aware of them, and he slowly wakes up. But, I certainly didn’t assist in the writing. I just worked on my own character.
There’s such a transformation in your character, throughout the film. Did you film chronologically?
Yeah, we pretty much did. That was one of the more fun aspects of the movie because the movie was all shot in one location. It was not exactly in sequence, but more than usual. It was really nice to be able to do that because, once we got things up and running, we could do it like a play. It was all in one set.
You have a lot of crazy, really great fight scenes in the film. Was there a lot of training to prepare for that?
The fun of it was doing the fight scenes in such a domestic environment, and imagining those situations, being hunted in your own home. I think all of us can imagine that. I secretly would love to do one of those crazy fight movies, where you have to have all this training. I’ve done just enough, my whole life, that I’ve always had some training in it, but I wish I was Jackie Chan. Then, we could have gotten really crazy, running through the house.
We have seen, in real life, what happens when there is no law enforcement, and what kind of anarchy that creates. How realistic do you think this premise is, and what do you think it says about society?
I think it plays into an age-old human fear. Whenever any of us see glimpses of revolution or riots on television, or absolute anarchy, or when you’re younger and kids in the schoolyard act like a pack of wolves, it can be really terrifying. It’s extremely violent film with an anti-violent message. It’s almost an oxymoron. Our country is obsessed with violence and our right to protect our violence, and people call you unpatriotic, if you’re not violent. This film heightens it. It just exaggerates it. That’s what the best Philip K. Dick stuff does, and that’s what this is trying to do.
Considering the ending of the movie, would you want to have a gun or weapon to defend your family, if you were attacked?
I’d really rather that nobody had a gun, and then nobody would have to worry about it. That would be more my theory. In America, there’s this knee-jerk response that more walls and more guns make people safer, and I’m entirely suspect of that way of thinking.
Do you think humans are inherently violent?
It’s moments like this that I wish I was an anthropologist, so that I could answer that. If you study the history of mankind, it seems to be a history of violence. It’s kind of terrifying. Certainly the history of art, whether you look at paintings or movies or plays or whatever, is just a litany of murder and death. But somehow, I’m always optimistic. We’re fascinated by things that scare us, and one of the things that scares us is violence. But, if you think about it, the great mass of us never performs any act of violence. For every crazed kid in Boston who wants to blow something up, there are a hundred people running to stop it, and thousands of people crying tears over the fact that it did happen. It’s a conundrum. Violence exists. It’s a real part of our lives. We are obsessed with what we’re scared of, but it certainly doesn’t define us.
Does it blow your mind that both Before Midnight and The Purge are rated R?
It’s amazing. It’s almost like something out of The Purge that Before Midnight would be rated R. It’s fascinating to me, because of a breast. I see PG-13 movies with my son, that have a death count in the thousands, it seems like sometimes. I never know how they come up with it. Our country’s relationship to sex and violence is a fascinating conundrum to me. It’s both puritanical, on one level, and libertarian, on the next. It’s funny. As we did interviews and stuff, it was only the American press that was so concerned with Julie’s breasts. We did interviews with people all over the world, and they didn’t ask her about her tits. But here, everybody was like, “By the way, can we talk about your breasts?” It’s fascinating. We’re like little, abused children who never saw a titty. But yet, The Purge is absolutely terrifying.
It’s just the truth of what we prioritize. I don’t even know what to say about it. Sex is a lot scarier to us than violence. For some, intimacy is scary. We could write essays about it. I don’t really understand what it is, but it’s an interesting observation. On Sinister, Scott Derrickson worked so hard not to get an R. Any time I did an improv that had the F word in it, we would have to go again. He wanted no cursing. There’s no blood in the movie. But, it was just so damn scary that they gave it an R. I never know the rhyme or reason for what we decide children should and shouldn’t see. My mother would let me see anything.
You’re a movie star, but you also work on smaller projects.
What is it about small projects that make them attractive to you, as opposed to getting involved with a superhero franchise? Is it the freedom?
I’ve always done small projects, my whole career. There’s nothing recent about that. I’ve always been interested in creative freedom, and the truth is that the more you get paid, the less freedom you have. They never pay you for nothing. That’s just always the way it is. I’ve managed to do this for more than 20 years, and keep dodging and weaving and not being one thing. I’ve always resisted that. I wanted the freedom to do something else. I didn’t want to try to do Long Day’s Journey into Night and have the audience go, “Oh, there’s Batman.” You know what I mean? But in many ways, as I get older, I wish I had made other decisions, but I’ve just tried to do things that interested me, sincerely. They don’t all turn out good. I haven’t made all perfect decisions. But, I’ve tried to stay interested in my job, and I’ve succeeded at that.
Doing little projects helps me because I feel like I don’t work for anybody.
Is there a movie of yours that you would want your kids to see?
No. They don’t want to see me in a movie. I’m their dad, and they want me to be their dad. They don’t care. I would much rather them see To Kill a Mockingbird.
“The Purge” is now showing in cinemas and is released and distributed by United International Pictures through Solar Entertainment Corp.