NEW YORK — You’d be forgiven for confusing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy with Jesse and Celine, the now middle-aged Gen-X couple at the heart of the beloved “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” trilogy, the third installment of which opens in Boston on Friday. Because these conversation-fueled films feel so natural, the actors confess that some fans mistakenly believe they’re just playing versions of themselves and improvising much of the dialogue.
And indeed, in person, both actors prove to be voluble types. Hawke, still angularly handsome at 42, evinces a boyish charm that is not unlike his restlessly rakish character, whom Celine compares to an overgrown American teenager. Meanwhile, Delpy, 43, shares Celine’s feisty feminism, raunchy vivaciousness, spiky neuroticism, and fearless desire for self-expression. But those parallels, the actors contend, exist only on the surface.
Still, they collaborated on the scripts to all three “Before” movies with the director Richard Linklater, so they acknowledge drawing material from their own lives and experiences. (They didn’t receive an official writing credit on the first film, but the “Before Sunset” screenplay earned them an Oscar nomination in 2005.)
“There’s something authentic of us in these movies,” says Hawke, seated next to the still-ethereal, porcelain-skinned Delpy during a recent interview in Manhattan. “I’m a child of divorce. I’ve been through a divorce. I like to write about it. . . . So we’re trying to use the material of our lives to create something.”
“It’s not autobiographical, but it comes from a true place,” Delpy interjects. “I mean, I couldn’t be further from Celine in so many ways.”
Linklater, in a separate interview, says that every six or seven years Jesse and Celine seem to rear their heads: “They’re still alive in all of us in some way — like they have something to say about a new place in life. We’ve all got these little alter-egos out there that we can express ourselves through.”
When Celine and Jesse first met, 18 years ago, as strangers on a train in 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” they were early-20-something Gen Xers walking and talking and falling in love during a magical brief encounter in Vienna. In the 2004 sequel, “Before Sunset,” the duo were reunited nine years later, still holding a torch for each other, but wiser and more grown up, having faced some of life’s disappointments, frustrations, and regrets. With “Before Midnight,” Celine and Jesse are finally a couple, settling into early middle age, with its daily routines and narrowed life choices.
When we encounter the pair, they’re on a sun-dappled holiday in Greece in the waning days of summer, which recalls the idyllic milieu of their youthful courtship. But they now have twin girls in tow, along with Jesse’s teenage son from his first marriage, who lives in Chicago but has spent the summer with them.
You can feel the couple trying to rekindle those heady, carefree days of young love. But after nine years together, they are more chastened in their illusions about romance, passion, and the nature of long-term relationships — a reflection of the actors’ own shifting perspectives.
“I remember reading ‘Anna Karenina’ when I was younger and thinking Vronsky and Anna were so romantic. And then I read it again recently and I thought they were idiots,” Hawke says of the star-crossed couple at the heart of Tolstoy’s novel.
“Where does romantic love live in the midst of everyday life? When your life becomes consumed with paying bills and taking care of responsibilities and meeting obligations, and some small part of you is trying to chase the dreams of youth,” he wonders. “Love affairs invariably burn bright for a period of time. Then what do they turn into? How do you make love stay?”
In the film’s middle section, we see Celine and Jesse in the midst of an enthralling afternoon lunch with a group of friends, where the conversation flows as freely as the wine and the discussion veers from growing old with your partner to the innate differences between men and women.
“In the second film they had regrets. But, in a way, they were able to get over those regrets and follow their dream [of being together],” Delpy says. “But those dreams have consequences, which they have to deal with in the third film — which is Jesse not living in the US anymore, the separation of father and son, and all the collateral damage of the choices they’ve made. In a way, they’re in a really beautiful place. But life is not that simple. There are always issues.”
Indeed, festering resentments, frustrations, and doubts emerge when the couple take a stroll into town to spend a romantic evening alone at a hotel.
‘In a way, they’re in a really beautiful place. But life is not that simple.’
“It’s funny because one of the things Rick said to us early was that our bar to aim for with this movie shouldn’t be ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset.’ Our bar should be ‘Scenes From a Marriage,’” says Hawke, of the 1973 Ingmar Bergman epic.
But whereas “Scenes From a Marriage” was about the wholesale disintegration of a relationship, “Before Midnight” aims for something not quite so savage — even when things between Celine and Jesse devolve into acrimony.
“People hit a crossroads in a relationship,” says Linklater, “and they have to decide, ‘Do you want to keep going?’ And people in middle age, they still have an out. Do you choose to stick it out, see what is good in somebody, and overlook certain things?”
Hawke says that the essence of these movies is a bonding that resonates. “For most of us, the most meaningful thing that happens in life is connecting with someone we love,” he says.
Yet capturing that dynamic can be an exceedingly precise, even tedious, process. Fans often ask the actors whether some of the dialogue is unscripted, which usually elicits a “if you only knew” chuckle. The films are all painstakingly written, rewritten, and rehearsed. For “Before Midnight,” the trio gathered together in Greece last spring and summer and co-wrote the script over the course of 10 weeks. The shoot lasted just 15 days. Each of them says they relish the collaboration and rewards of co-writing, which outweigh any drawbacks.
“They save you from a bad idea or from running down a false path,” Hawke says. “We’re all hunting for the movie. So we write a lot of stuff together, and then we throw out all the bad, pretentious stuff.”
Says Delpy, “They even know how to deal with me when I’m panicking. Because I can get totally neurotic. Like ‘We’ll never get this scene right!’ ”
“This will never work. We have to shut it all down,” Hawke interjects, wryly mocking her frazzled, despondent state.
So will they continue to revisit the story of Celine and Jesse as the decades pass? Or will this be the last we see of the couple?
“We’re always waiting to have substantial ideas about what Jesse and Celine are doing,” Linklater says. “It took the same amount of time between each of the movies — about six or seven years of thinking and talking about it, and then suddenly it starts becoming real. We can see it’s going deeper.”
And Delpy and Hawke contend that the writing and production process for the films is so intensely draining, it takes them a long time to recover and to refuel.
“We just have to live a few more years to even know what comes next,” Hawke says. “But for some strange reason that we don’t fully understand, these films keep calling us.”Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@ gmail.com.