Ethan Hawke is out and about in New York, the city he’s lived in for 30 years, a place where famous faces slide past every day. He’s wearing a baseball cap, a hoodie and a pair of cords. It’s an outfit you might think he chose especially to look nondescript, but in reality it’s because he likes corduroy trousers, though his stylist hates them and wishes to God he wouldn’t wear them in public.

Someone spots him and timidly approaches. As they lean forward Hawke can see the tears in their eyes. The fan trembles: “Mr. … Dorff?” Hawke doesn’t want to ruin their moment, so he gives a smile, shakes their hand. This has happened before — Ethan Hawke gets mistaken for a lot of famous people. Christian Bale, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt. And, it seems, Stephen Dorff.

“You start realizing how many fans Stephen Dorff has,” laughs Hawke as he tells the story. “Wow, people really love him.”

The irony is not lost on an actor who has spent a career carving out a distinctly individual career, who refused to appear in adverts because he doesn’t want people to look on screen and see “the Dunkin’ Donuts guy,” who has turned down innumerable projects from the Hollywood studios desperate to commodify him. “You spend so much energy trying to differentiate yourself and no sooner do you do that than somebody comes up to you: ‘I loved you in that movie’ — the one you refused to do because you thought it was a piece of shit.”

At 42, Hawke has made some 50 films, and played the lead in almost all of them. Some, like “Gattaca” and “Training Day,” achieved marquee status; most, however, are cult classics and critically lauded indie projects that Hawke seems to have sniffed out with the adroitness of Winnie the Pooh nosing honey. The day before we meet, Hawke has flown home from Melbourne where, for the past six weeks, he’s been shooting a time-travel thriller adapted from a Robert Heinlein short story. Now he’s needed here in New York because he has two films about to premiere and a suit to pick up from Dior (his stylist really doesn’t trust him in his own clothes).

He’s jetlagged, but that’s OK, because he’s had “like, 14 cups of coffee”; his morning has already incorporated a haircut and a two-hour photo shoot. The shoot’s got him thinking about photography and, as we wander the streets north of Madison, he tells me the story behind a Marilyn Monroe print he owns, a nude taken by a photographer’s assistant when the photographer was on a break. Hawke commits to small talk with the same enthusiasm he shows for every subject he broaches. He likes to look into your eyes as he talks, creating an intensity at odds with his languid air. I feel like I’ve experienced this before. Of course I have: we’re inside one of his movies.

Hawke was 24 when he played Jesse in “Before Sunrise,” the Richard Linklater film that followed a brief encounter between two strangers in Vienna talking their way through the city (and falling in love) over the course of a single night. On paper, the film should not have worked — “It’s not even entertaining enough to be a play!” Hawke grins, once we’ve found a restaurant and sat up at the bar. On the shoot, Julie Delpy fretted to Linklater that it was going to be dull.

“Reeek,” cries Hawke, deftly imitating his co-star, “it has to be funny! We need to write jokes!”

Instead, it became one of the most beloved screen romances of all time — particularly by anyone who saw it at the impressionable end of their 20s. Nine years later Hawke, Delpy and Linklater wrote a sequel, “Before Sunset,” and were jointly Oscar-nominated for the screenplay. Now the trio returns with “Before Midnight,” which answers the question of whether Jesse and Celine ever got together, and raises a few more of how romance can survive middle age.

In spite of the fact that these films are the most personal projects of his screen career — or perhaps because of it — Hawke would almost rather not talk about “Before Midnight” at all. “Invariably you’re selling it, trying to tell people it’s special, and it becomes less special because you said that,” he says. He rubs his hair with his hand; he does this a lot, and by the time our food arrives, his sleek new coiff has become a thatch. “For the people that care about these films, they have a certain kind of meaning, and for another kind of person it’s the most boring movie of all time. People in my own family wouldn’t want to listen to me talk that much, you know?”

Hawke considers meeting Linklater to be one of the defining moments in his life: the second, perhaps, after Peter Weir had given him his big break as a self-conscious schoolboy in “Dead Poets Society.” Linklater’s passion, his refusal to compromise on his artistry, were values that Hawke took to heart. “It was stunning to me the agency he took in his own life. He was 30 and he had things he wanted to say and things he believed in. He thought movies I’d grown up with — Hollywood movies — were all crap. He had a whole different vocabulary from anybody I’d met before, and I felt woken up by him.”

Hawke’s characters are often positioned at a place where good intentions meet hard reality, whether it’s the rookie cop in “Training Day” or the corrupt one in “Brooklyn’s Finest,” or Vince, the slacker college-friend and “potentially violent dick” in “Tape.” And while Linklater has described Hawke as “a Beatnik following his own muse,” others have accused him of pretension, especially when, in his mid-20s, he announced himself as a novelist.

That accusation seems unfair — his two books, for a start, are pretty good novels, written with brutal honesty and a spare, matter-of-fact delivery. And yes, his conversation does range from Keith Carradine and Jimi Hendrix to Rilke, but never in a self-regarding way — Hawke seems to have deep reserves of curiosity and is clearly equally fascinated by the plate of food in front of him. “By the way,” he warns, mid-sentence, “I’m thinking about something else while I’m talking to you, which is that these carrots are tasty as hell!”

William, the protagonist in Hawke’s debut novel The Hottest State, has “nice crooked teeth” and “the strangest energy.” Which pretty much describes Hawke. Also like Hawke, William is born in Texas to teenage parents who divorce only a few years after he is born and moves away with his mother; the book contains a heartfelt longing for a father he never saw. It also contains an interesting note of self-warning: William’s mother tells him that “I’d better be careful because I was a bullshitter and that there was no sadder creature on the planet than a handsome bullshitter, because everything came easy for them and they never did a damn thing with any of it.”

Acting certainly seemed to come easy to Hawke. There’s a shot in “Explorers,” the children’s sci-fi he co-starred in with River Phoenix, in which a 14-year-old Ethan looks up at the window of a girl he has a crush on; if the scene itself is bald cliche, the way his face conveys emotion is anything but.

Four years later he found fame but, he argues, it was an invisible sort of fame (“I was one of the Dead Poets; nobody knew my name”) and his friendship with co-star Robert Sean Leonard helped set the tone for his future career. “I was just this kid from Texas, but he had a real ethos about acting. He didn’t want to be Warren Beatty — he wanted to be Alec Guinness.”

With their fellow Dead Poet Josh Hamilton they formed a set of New York 20-somethings with a passion for theatre and time on their hands; at its center were Hawke and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman. Sherman, who describes himself as a “lifelong insomniac,” had found his soulmate. “I met somebody who could stay up as late as I could, and who talked as much as I did, about things that interested us both,” he tells me over the phone. “Ethan was smart, funny, creative. We’d just go round the city shooting the shit. We took a road trip across the country together once, in no small part because we couldn’t find girlfriends who would tolerate us for a long enough period of time.”

For the next three years, the Malaparte Theater Company put on fringe productions — its first, a Pirandello adaptation called “A Joke!,” included Cynthia Nixon in the cast. They charged $10 a ticket — “We wanted our friends to come see us without having to skip their rent,” says Sherman — and made no money. Unlike the A-listers who drop in on Broadway like philanthropists dispensing favors, the stage feels like Hawke’s natural home, as anyone who saw him at the Old Vic a few years ago, when Sam Mendes directed him in “The Cherry Orchard” and “The Winter’s Tale,” will attest.

These days he directs, too. His last outing was “Clive,” a Brecht adaptation with Sherman in January, which received both standing ovations and boos. He sees the directing as an apprenticeship, so that he still has a job when the decent roles dry up. Like Kenneth Branagh, I say. He looks thrilled: Branagh’s “Henry V,” it transpires, is “the single reason” he loves Shakespeare. “I saw it five times in one weekend!” He must be joking, I think. But no — “I brought the girl I was dating, I brought my mother, I brought my stepfather, I brought my brother … I was obsessed with it!”

Obsession, mania, whatever — Hawke once described himself as a “half-madman,” and there would certainly be plenty here to interest a passing psychologist. “I have recommended that Ethan leave his body to science,” says Sherman, “because he runs on something a little different than the rest of us. He has more energy than anyone I have ever met.” I put it to Hawke that he’s a man who wants to live several lives at once. “Don’t all of us feel that way?” he asks. “I think that’s one of the hardest things you go through, that you just get to walk one path. When you’re young, I think most of us think we somehow won’t make any mistakes, somehow we are going to avoid the traps our parents fell through, our friends fell into, somehow we’ll handle it all right. And I certainly haven’t been able to play all the cards right and handle it all right.”

Hawke’s marriage to Uma Thurman put him briefly in the fullest glare of Hollywood’s searchlight. He wrote his second novel, “Ash Wednesday,” while they were together, a tale of marriage and pregnancy that’s full of hope and optimism, but the relationship ended after six years, and Hawke did not emerge from it well; there were rumors of an affair, and he has described it as “the most agonizing period of my life.” In “Ash Wednesday” he writes, presciently: “The truth exists with or without our acknowledgment. If the truth is unclear, silence is often a useful tool.”

He has two children with Thurman, and two with his second wife, Ryan, and he is an active father to all four. This morning he took his eldest, Maya, to school for the first time in six weeks: “Every time I come home we have … the nice way of putting it is ‘catching up to do,’ She’s missed me and I haven’t been here.” It reminds me of the scene at the start of “Before Midnight,” where Jesse is saying goodbye to his teenage son at an airport. As the son heads through security, returning home to Jesse’s estranged wife, the camera fixes on his father’s face; it’s motionless, yet it seems to be threatening to tear apart.

It must be hard, I say, to combine fatherhood with his workload. He puts his fork down and turns on his stool to face me. “You’ve put your finger on the single greatest challenge of my life,” he says earnestly. “Because what nobody tells you when you’re 17 and reading “Letters to a Young Poet” and you want to live an examined life in the arts … they don’t really tell you how difficult it is to be a parent alongside that.”

Hawke returns to munch on a carrot. “In this Brecht play I just did, I dyed my hair white and I had eye make-up on and my son was like: ‘It’s all right, Dad — I’ll go to school by myself today.’ Being a parent, it begs you to be a Republican, it begs you to be as safe as possible, because that’s really what they want. I wasn’t prepared for that.” He leans in conspiratorially: “There’s a reason why George Clooney doesn’t have any, and that’s because he’s smart.”

What he needs, he smiles, is a nice TV series, something that would keep him at home with the kids for six months of the year. Hawke has notably not had a television career — he’s skeptical of its ability “to maintain a level of quality.” If that sounds like snobbery, he has, by his own admission, “no barometer” when it comes to high and low culture. Late last year he was playing “Ivanov” off-Broadway the same month that his horror flick “Sinister” was filling multiplexes. “I hate how society or the rules say that one is better than another,” he sighs. “You’re just speaking to a different audience. There’s a huge part of the culture that would rather take a nap than see Chekhov and someone whining about his inner dilemmas.”

As if in proof, “Before Midnight” will be in cinemas at the same time as “The Purge,” a horror flick set in a near-future society that maintains order by legalizing all crimes for one night of the year. It’s a subversive movie with a sociopolitical statement about class warfare, but it’s also very scary, says Hawke — “If you don’t like to be frightened, don’t go,” he adds paternally.

He’s also writing another book, which he hopes will hit the shelves within the next 18 months. It’s all but finished, he says, but he’s hanging on to it because he suspects he published “Ash Wednesday” before he was really done with it. “I was very hungry to prove that I really could write, you know, and that I wasn’t a dilettante. And in hindsight I wish I took a little more time. When you’re younger it’s just cool you did it, but when you’re over 40 you’re like — it should be good!”

Hawke has noticed a change in his outlook. His mother joined the Peace Corps in her 50s and is now one of the prominent voices on gypsy rights in Eastern Europe, and he’s been greatly inspired by her “second act,” he says. “My parents both believe intensely in that old-school Christian ethos of being part of your community and giving back, and the older I get the more I understand the wisdom of that,” he says. It’s the reason he’d like to start running a theater company again: “We have a different relationship towards training our young people that is much less successful than the British way. We have a culture that worships money, and it makes it hard to survive the first blush of fame because they have nothing to fall back on — no tradition, no craftsmanship.

“It really is this culture of specialness,” he says, warming to his theme, recalling his friend River Phoenix and the “sense of fraudulence” River felt. “You know in your heart of hearts that you’re special only like every human being is special, so you don’t know why you’re getting all this attention and you feel guilty about it. And what you feel guilty about is the feeling that some part of you thinks you deserve it! Cos it feels good! And it’s this weird snake that’s eating it’s own tail.” He’s getting animated now, gesturing with his hands in big swooping circles. “You covet the fame, you hate the fame, you covet the fame …”

I wonder if, for all the time he’s spent with Uma and Quentin, Hawke’s always been a little adrift in the Hollywood universe. He’s bemused by how proud young actors are of their endorsement deals. “I think: wow, I take such pride in not doing that, and it doesn’t mean anything to anyone but me. Me and Neil Young! But you can’t judge. As soon as you judge them too much you’re indicating some lack of understanding.”

To illustrate the point he tells me how he and Philip Seymour Hoffman begged Sidney Lumet not to film “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” on video. “We wanted it to look like ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’ ‘Trust me,’ Sidney said, ‘live long enough and this video shit’ll look vintage.’ This man was 83 years old and his brain was more supple than mine.”

The restaurant’s getting busier and it’s a good time to leave, though not without a thank you from Hawke to the waiter — “Those carrots were the best carrots I ever ate in my life, and I’ve eaten a lot of goddamn carrots, OK?”

We wander back out into the street discussing music, the other passion in Hawke’s life. Is he tempted to record an album? “C’mon … I got enough crap for doing my writing. If I tried to pawn myself off as a musician I don’t think I’d ever hear the end of it.” Instead he’s planning to a documentary of an 85-year-old piano maestro, Seymour Bernstein, who he met over dinner one evening. Hawke found him fascinating and wanted to record his wisdom on camera — Bernstein told him that the key to doing one thing well is the same for doing all things well.

“The truth is,” says Hawke as he returns to his car, “I’m only good at one thing. Anything to do with the arts, I have this immense interest and joy in. But anything having to do with any other element of life — paying bills or fixing the car — I seem to be lost at. It gives the appearance that I’m doing a lot of things, but in truth I’m just doing one thing over and over again.”

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