Ethan Hawke and Janeane Garofalo: how we made Reality Bites

‘I kept some vodka in my trailer freezer. It certainly didn’t hurt when it came to dancing My Sharona at the gas station’

Ethan Hawke, actor

The last time I watched this, I was at a wedding. I went to my room and it was on late-night TV. I was surprised how well it held up. It was funnier than I remembered, too. Douglas Coupland’s Generation X was published in 1991 and you kept hearing the phrase everywhere. That’s who we were. Everyone would say the script captured Gen X and I would roll my eyes and say: “What does that even mean?” I resisted it, but now I find it fun.

The story, about a woman trying to make a documentary about the disenfranchised lives of her friends and room-mates, is extremely good. Helen Childress based it on her own experiences. What’s rare is that there was no grownup in charge. Usually with movies about young people – like when I did Dead Poets Society – there’s an older person.

Being in your early 20s isn’t a happy time. Everybody is so hungry to prove themselves, even to themselves. This was Ben Stiller’s first movie as a director, too. Ben is a passionate and creative person but he’s also an extremely intense dude. He’d been in some Saturday Night Live sketches and all of a sudden he was directing the biggest movie star in America – and it’s really to Winona Ryder’s credit that the movie happened. She cast me and gave the green light to Ben. She had a lot of power at that moment.

‘It’s really to Winona’s credit that the movie happened’ … Aspiring film-maker Lelaina (Ryder) and her love interest Troy (Hawke).
‘It’s really to Winona’s credit that the movie happened’ … Aspiring film-maker Lelaina (Ryder) and her love interest Troy (Hawke). Photograph: Allstar/Universal Pictures

Her character, Lelaina, is an aspiring film-maker. When we were shooting footage for her home movies, we were encouraged to improvise. In one scene, I recited a Gregory Corso poem, Marriage, while playing the guitar. When I saw the final cut, I said to Ben: “Hey man, that’s a famous poem! We’ve got to buy the rights to that.” A year later, I was in New York and this old guy grabbed me by the face and kissed me. “I’m Gregory Corso!” he said. “You are an angel. I was destitute. And out of nowhere I got a cheque for $17,000!”

Troy, my character, appealed because of his inability to like himself. There’s a lot of young people who are smart, with tremendous insight into the phoniness around them, but they’re unable to be forgiving of themselves. It was strange afterwards: I was constantly meeting people who thought I was full of myself. They thought I was Troy – and they really didn’t like him.

At the time, Lisa Loeb and I were part of a New York theatre company. One day, she played the song Stay for me. I sent it to Ben, saying it felt perfect for Reality Bites. He put it over the end credits and Lisa was the first unsigned artist in history to go to No 1 in the US.

Steve Zahn played Lelaina’s gay friend Sammy. When the film premiered at Sundance, I remember getting stoned on a ski lift with him and saying: “Man, can you believe all this pressure, all this hype?” He said: “What do you mean? Look around you. Snow is falling, we’re on a ski lift, I don’t feel any pressure.” We burst out laughing and skied the rest of the day.

Janeane Garofalo, actor

I was born at the tail end of the baby boom so I’m not even Generation X. I was almost 30 – and playing a 21-year-old. Gwyneth Paltrow and Parker Posey auditioned for the role as well. I think the studio would have preferred to go with one of them, but luckily Ben was a big advocate and so was Winona.

I think it was the first studio film I did. Previously I’d had one line – something like “That’ll be $11.50 please” – in a movie called Late for Dinner. I didn’t like the rehearsal process in Reality Bites and I wasn’t taking things seriously. At one point, I was fired for being disruptive. That taught me a lesson and, after they took me back, I made sure I learned it quickly.

When we shot at night, I figured it was OK to have a cocktail first. So in my trailer freezer, I had vodka chilling – which didn’t hurt my mood when it came to doing scenes like the dance to My Sharona at the gas station. I remember laughing a lot doing that.

‘My dad thought it was Wynonna Judd’ … Reality Bites.
‘My dad thought it was Wynonna Judd’ … Reality Bites. Photograph: Allstar/Universal Pictures

For me, it was purely fun. I was like “the friend” or “the chubby friend” and there’s about 8,050 actors you can put in that part, right? Ethan had to act quite vulnerable and sing. He wanted to transition into leading roles, but I was just thinking: “Hey! Look at this! I’m doing a movie!”

My dad and sister came to watch us film the opening scene on the rooftop. They found it so boring, the way movies are made, doing the same thing over and over. My dad couldn’t believe people were paid handsomely just for that. He thought Winona Ryder was the country singer Wynonna Judd. He’s a fan of her mother, Naomi, and came along because he thought she might be there. He hadn’t heard of Winona Ryder. When I introduced her, he said: “So that little girl is a movie star?”


Interviews by Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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