Updated at: 11/25/2013 8:35 AM
By MARK KENNEDY
(AP) NEW YORK - Most actors who plan on playing Macbeth would immediately run away from watching any other actor play the part. Ethan Hawke is not like most actors.
"I decided, `I’m going to watch `em all,’" he says.
Hawke watched Nicol Williamson play the doomed Scottish nobleman. He saw Sean Connery in the role. He watched Sir Ian McKellen do it. He watched Roman Polanski’s 1971 film version. He even saw animated versions of it.
"All summer I did this," he explains. "I thought if I had one in my head too much I might imitate it. So I inundated myself with it. I can’t even remember what anybody did."
It’s a telling anecdote: Hawke is likely to yin while others yang. And not just in his research. Even the challenge of playing Macbeth on Broadway sounds a little mad for this Academy Award-nominated, handsome movie star.
But Hawke, over soup and tea at a Lincoln Center cafe, shrugs. Many people told him not to do Hamlet in a 2000 film and he survived. Why shouldn’t he at least try Macbeth? Why not embrace something risky?
"I’ve been learning on my feet in front of people since I was 18," he says. "Early on I realized that if I was scared of failure, I wasn’t going to learn anything."
So Hawke, typically, jumped in _ even his wife asked skeptically "Are you sure?" _ and went to work. "You can’t fake 25 years at the Royal Shakespeare Company. And I don’t have that. I might have something else but I don’t have that. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give myself the opportunity to try."
Try he has. Last week, Hawke led a cast that includes Anne-Marie Duff as Lady Macbeth, Brian d’Arcy James as Banquo and Richard Easton as Duncan in a revival at the Vivian Beaumont Theater under the direction of Jack O’Brien.
The revival has been elegantly put together with stylish costumes, and visually arresting touches, as in the casting of all men to play the Three Witches who tempt Macbeth. At its center is Hawke, who plays a self-conscious Macbeth growing more and more dispassionate and disoriented.
"I’ve tried to make it as personal as possible. That’s always what I try to do with anything. Try to make those demons _ those witches _ as real as possible," he says. "This play is a huge meditation on the ego run wild."
Critics have been mostly unkind, with USA Today saying Hawke "lacks certain fundamentals necessary" and The New York Times sniffing that "he delivers Shakespeare’s poetry like a moody, glue-sniffing teenager reciting Leonard Cohen lyrics to himself."
Hawke, who also had a role in "Henry IV" at the same theater in 2003, admits he was worried about critical reaction. "I care immensely. But I don’t control it and I have to get super zen about it," he says. "I can’t allow anyone writing about the theater to take away from me whether or not this is a good idea to do."
His fellow actors have come to his defense, including Jonny Orsini, who plays Malcolm and says Hawke is "very fresh with everything. You can see how everything works on him in a sort of raw way rather than a very studied way. It’s like no Macbeth I’ve ever seen."
John Glover, who plays one of the witches, watched Hawke in "Henry IV" and had hoped to work with him because he approaches roles with such rawness and honesty. "There’s a part of him that’s like a teddy bear _ just so open and innocent. That’s where Macbeth is when he starts," Glover says.
Hawke, who has been acting since appearing in "Dead Poet’s Society" at 18, has lately been juggling stage and screen. The star of "Reality Bites," "Gattaca" and "Training Day" tries to encourage new artists and smaller projects from emerging writers.
"We have a culture of instant celebrity, of telling anyone who has a modicum of talent that they’re washed up by the time they’re 30," he says. "If the arts represent the psyche of a country, there needs to be a place for something that borders on avant-garde."
Even if the critics don’t like it, Hawke has already found a big fan in his father, who flew in from Texas to see a preview. James Hawke is a mathematician and not a huge fan of theater. "My life choice has always been kind of a surprising lark to him," Ethan Hawke says, smiling.
And yet the power of The Bard left Hawke’s father deeply moved. That night over dinner, his father and stepmother peppered Hawk with questions. "Nobody could stop talking about the themes," he says. "Kind of like a great song when you just want to hear it again when it’s over."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)