Ethan Hawke Describes ‘Nightmare’ Relationship With Late Actor River Phoenix

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Actor Ethan Hawke felt a huge loss when rival River Phoenix passed away in 1993, even though their relationship had been a “nightmare” for many years.

The leading men starred opposite each other in the 1985 movie Explorers when they were both teenagers, but they became rivals shortly afterward when the two actors discovered they were vying for the same roles.

The rivalry hit a high when Phoenix received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in 1988 film Running on Empty, and Hawke admits he was “so jealous” of his peer’s growing success.

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“It was really hurting my life,” Hawke told the audience during a frank talk at the Austin Film Society on Thursday night. “(River’s film) Stand by Me came out and it was this runaway hit. That summer, the (soundtrack) song (by Ben E. King) was everywhere, I could not get away from it, and River’s calling me up and telling me he lost his virginity, and I still was a virgin. It was a nightmare for me.”

Phoenix was 23 when he died from a drug overdose in 1993, and when Hawke learned of the tragedy, he was surprised by his own reaction and quickly realized his jealousy was silly.

“In his death, all I did was feel the vacuum,” he recalled. “It’s not like more parts came my way. It was nothing but loss. And I learned really sharply what a waste of time that kind of competitiveness with your peers is – I really missed him.”

Hawke felt a similar loss when his actor friend Philip Seymour Hoffman also succumbed to a drug overdose in 2014.

“He was ferociously dedicated to the pursuit of truth in acting,” Hawke said of his late pal, who he co-starred with in 2007 film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. “He was a pillar of my community. If you were aspiring to be a serious New York theater actor, he was a very serious and important member of our community. It’s been a hard loss.”

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