Ethan Hawke talks about playing Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue” and how to survive in Hollywood today

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By/Por Anne Thompson/Special from TOH for LWR

Ethan Hawke is working hard these days, in a wide range of roles, from his long-term collaborations with Richard Linklater in the “Before” trilogy (with co-writer-costar Julie Delpy) and “Boyhood,” which explore the complex dynamics between men and women through marriage and parenthood, to his latest film, “Born to Be Blue” (which just hit VOD), writer-director Robert Budreau’s low-key portrait of melancholy jazz junkie Chet Baker.

With a rich performing career behind him, Hawke is finding his stride as a nuanced thespian in his 45-year-old prime. Sometimes maturity is an asset for an actor—experience brings emotional depth and gravitas. And Hawke has enough clout on the foreign finance side to get movies made. Unlike some in his profession, he’s trying to make smart picks, taking some risky bets that have paid off.

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In the year since “Boyhood” Hawke has taken on quite a few films in a range of budgets, from Jason Blum horror flicks to Andrew Niccol’s drone pilot drama “A Good Kill” (IFC) and Rebecca Miller’s festival hit “Maggie’s Plan” (SPC, May 20), a delicious relationship triangle comedy co-starring Julianne Moore and Greta Gerwig. Hawke has never been better.

I ran into Hawke on several occasions in the past few weeks, at the opening of Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” in New York, at SXSW, where he promoted two films, “Born to Be Blue” (proudly displaying his custom blue Armani suit at a jazz party), and Ti West’s gritty spaghetti western “In a Valley of Violence,” in which he plays a damaged—and dangerous— ex-soldier with nothing to lose but his horse and beloved dog. He also got to practice his outlaw skills for the upcoming “The Magnificent Seven”(September 23, Sony/MGM).

Hawke has scored four Oscar nominations so far, for supporting roles in “Training Day” (Warner Bros.) and “Boyhood” (IFC Films) and two for co-writing “Before Sunset” (Warner Independent Pictures) and “Before Midnight” (Sony Pictures Classics). His documentary about a musician’s process, “Seymour: An Introduction” (IFC’s Sundance Selects) debuted at the New York Film Festival, and in 2013 the theater veteran starred on Broadway in “Macbeth.”

What appealed to Hawke about “Born to Be Blue,” besides the obvious chance to learn how to play the trumpet (for the camera) and perform for real Baker’s signature crooning, was Budreau’s approach to the biopic. It’s a slice of Baker in mid-career, when he gives up heroin for a short period, and tries to make a comeback. Hawkes plays Baker as a charismatic seducer who loves his music more than anything, but needs help keeping his life together. “I’ve got some habits,” he says.

Carmen Ejogo is a strong counterfoil as the actress he meets in a never-completed black-and-white Baker biopic (in real life it was never shot), who helps him to get back on his feet, supporting him and nursing his wounds, physical and emotional. She also teaches him how to be a better man and lover. So this jazzy movie is also a sexy romance.

 

Hawke and I talked in Beverly Hills, where I used my iPhone to shoot a blue-tinged video snippet of our longer interview.

Anne Thompson: Like a lot of people, I discovered Chet Baker in “Let’s Get Lost,” [the 1988 Bruce Weber documentary]. Did you know him before that?

Ethan Hawke: That movie came out right around the time that I graduated high school, and when I was really first paying attention and caring about music. So that movie had a big impact on me. First of all, it looked so cool and made the whole world, that jazz ethos, so seductive and interesting. And “‘Round Midnight” and “Bird” came out around the same time, and those films were my early jazz teachers. And like you, I mean, after Bruce Weber’s film came out, I started buying the records. And there’s something so mysterious. He lures you in, Chet, you feel like you’re hip to a secret or something.

You captured something of that in your performance in this movie because we’re talking about a guy who, on the face of it, was a royal fuck-up.

Yeah.

And yet he’s an incredible talent, you understand and explored the anxiety of the artistic ethos to a great degree in your documentary, “Seymour.”

It’s really helpful to me that this script appeared in my lap in the weeks after I finished “Seymour: An Introduction,” that I had the life of a musician on my brain. I’d been studying that and really beginning to see how much that kind of immense confidence that it takes to achieve at a high level at a musical instrument has a corresponding insecurity. There’s a dance back and forth about that that can be really crippling.

At the beginning, there’s this extraordinary scene where he’s playing [Birdland], and Miles Davis is watching him. How could you be more intimidated? And he doesn’t clap!

Right, right. The age-old story is that at the Lighthouse in L.A., Miles came and they were supposed to play together, but Miles apparently — I don’t know if this is true or not, I think it is true — refused to go on stage until all the Chet Baker 45’s were taken out of the jukebox and smashed. And it showed you how much Chet idolized Miles. He just laughed and said that was fine, but nobody was kidding! But he just kept pretending like it was a joke.

Was heroin his way of dealing with anxiety?

Well, you know, all those drugs and alcohol… Not all of them, but a great many of them are painkillers. And in some way, it’s how people manage the pain that they’re in and there are healthy ways to manage that and unhealthy ways. But my feeling, I remember whenever I would look at those old William Claxton photos and you really see that’s where he was the James Dean of jazz, him and that horn, those images are so powerful. But it’s really two-dimensional. I remember thinking, if you look behind that, I could imagine a tremendous amount of insecurity.

So was Baker insecure about being the West Coast “soft” jazz guy, the one who was white?

Baker was not a revolutionary figure; a lot of these guys, they were creating music you never heard before. To his credit, Chet understood it, which we put in the movie. When Chet auditioned for Charlie Parker, how he got a stake in the game, was Parker picked him to play his west coast tour. He got that gig because he was the only one who could play his music back to him. Neither one could read music. Other great trumpeters were used to reading music. Chet was all ears, he could play Parker’s solo back for him, that’s how how in love with the music he really was, he loved it completely. But he was not dissimilar to Elvis, he was selling a lot of records on music that African Americans were creating. I don’t blame Chet for that, that’s society’s problem. He loved it as much as anybody did, he was not trying to appropriate something that was not his, he genuinely loved it.

You play Baker very seductively. And Carmen Ejogo holds her own with you through the whole movie. I like the scene in the bowling alley when he is convincing her to fall in love with him—he’s good at bowling—and he’s confident he’s going to seduce her.

The funny thing about guys like him: when you have early success like Chet Baker did or frankly, like I did, it gives you a tremendous amount of confidence with the opposite gender because you have an in, that people like what you’ve done, so you can not be so interesting, the work is interesting for you, it gives you confidence. One of his things that I found seductive in his music and his person was the level of honesty, he warts and all presents himself to her. He doesn’t lie to her in the slightest.

In the movie she’s teaching him to be a better person, and lover, too. “Play me,” she says to him.

Exactly, what I liked, one of my favorite moments in “Ray,” his wife doesn’t get him off the junk until she convinces him that it’s effecting the music. He doesn’t clean up for her or the kids, it’s, “your music is not as good as it used to be.” “That’s not true,” he says. Then he realizes it is, in a lot of ways, that’s what these people care about most.

Chet Baker believed that junk helped him. It appeared to do. Keith Richards was functional with heroin.

Yes, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Chet used to say she didn’t have a heroin problem she had a cop problem; they refused to let her have her medicine. He wanted to be an outlaw, wanted to live on the fringes of society, be apart. He cultivated the jazz outlaw. You can make a case that his best music was before he tried heroin or after he’d been a junkie a long time. His high water marks were the beginning and the end of his career.

Budreau picks a moment in time that suits your age right now.

It works well for me. When people try to tell a whole life I feel like they often trip, life doesn’t work with a beginning middle and end that way. I don’t know if people want to be taught. We live in such a great world of documentaries. If you want to see the real story, we’re using somebody’s life to tell a story that you might be able to relate to, make meaning from, not to be factually accurate.

“Raging Bull” set the bar for me. It’s a biopic I guess, but really it’s a film about a certain kind humanity. It speaks to something larger. It doesn’t matter if you know who Jake LaMotta is or not, you can find value in the movie. That was my hope making a movie about Chet, it shouldn’t try to teach you about Chet, it should tell you a great story that’s interesting no matter who it was, and bring up human issues.

Budreau approached you?

He came to me. He had an idea that I thought could make this possible. which was that Dino De Laurentiis had approached Chet to star in his own life story. It’s a great idea, because the movie never happened —Chet screwed it up in prep before it got to production, but it imagines they did get into it. I found it so interesting as a way to debunk the whole idea of a biopic by starting with something that didn’t happen, illuminating how not real any biopic scenario could possibly be, so smart, instead of giving into the cliche beatnik jazz movie, with unfiltered cigarettes.

What was it like shooting “Maggie’s Plan” with Rebecca Miller, Julianne Moore and Greta Gerwig?

It was fun to be on set with three extremely powerful, bright, funny women. Greta, Julianne and Rebecca are all so different beasts, with senses of humor, I felt very much the way women often feel in movies which is normally a male universe, with a guy director and three guys. The real reason to do it: I remember loving “Personal Velocity” when it came out, and Greta and Julianne are the best out there working.

Why make this Ti West spaghetti western, so revisionist, like “Unforgiven”?

Very much so. That movie came out in a funny way, I’d done several genre movies with Jason Blum, I told him I was done doing scary movies. We were both obsessed with bringing back the cheap spaghetti western, not a big swashbuckling thing, but Sergio Leone. So he had a meeting with Ti West, who was also done with scary movies and wanted to do a western. “Why don’t you two get together?” I was doing “Macbeth” at Lincoln Center, and Ti came to see it, called Jason and he wrote a script, showed it to us three weeks later. When he writes it’s fast and hard, I have never had anything go from idea to completion of photography so fast, in six months. I grew up watching that stuff, my horseback riding is better now that I did “Magnificent Seven,” the combination of the two, I spent more time last year on a horse than since I was 13.

You seem to have changed the way you choose projects.

Life keeps moving. The industry is changing, and I do feel like a cat trying to stay alive and stay on top of it. I love my work more than I have before. That’s affected it, there’s weird things in play. When I was starting, the average movie took 12-14 weeks to shoot, and to do three movies a year from prep to finish was a lot. Now movies pay a lot less. First of all they shoot 5-6 weeks average. It’s creating a lot more opportunity to work, perhaps it’s harder to get films released, harder for indie films to find an audience and to make a living doing it. It’s forcing me to read a lot more, so there’s a lot of things in play. I’m more interested in acting, I’m playing different kinds of artists, more character work that I was not interested in as a young man, or did not have confidence in.

You were experienced enough to play Chet Baker; it was a plum role.

A plum is both hard to reach and really ripe. I felt ready for it. I don’t know if I would have felt ready for it, before.

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