Blow By Blow
With Born To Be Blue, Ethan Hawke finally got the chance to play jazz legend Chet Baker. But don’t expect a rise-to-fame story — as he says, “We all become a lot more interesting when we’re failing…”
Ethan hawke Came CLOSE to playing Chet Baker 16 years ago. he’d been hooked on the influential jazz trumpeter’s music since high school, and when his friend and regular collaborator Richard Linklater suggested they give him the biopic treatment together, he naturally jumped at the chance. that it never in the end came together has, all these years later, proved to be a blessing in disguise.
In Born To Be Blue, hawke portrays the ‘James Dean of jazz’ at a later, more fragile stage in his life, when he suffered both from heroin addiction and losing his teeth in an assault. It’s earned the 45 year-old actor rave reviews. (“everything that makes ethan hawke an extraordinary actor... is on view in Born To Be Blue,” wrote Peter travers in Rolling Stone.) while hawke modestly shrugs off the compliments — “It’s just more of a showy performance than I usually give,” he tells Empire — he admits to drawing on what he feels are parallels between himself and Baker. “there’s a lot about this performance that is really personal to me. One is losing several close friends and peers to heroin, and the other is that navigating your way through early success is very difficult.” hawke first appeared on screen in 1985 sci-fi adventure
Explorers — alongside River Phoenix, a close friend he would lose eight years later to a drug-induced cardiac arrest. his breakthrough came with Dead Poets Society in 1989, but the success of that film came at a cost for hawke, who found himself struggling to improve on that performance. Still, in the end it didn’t harm him. he’s worked steadily since, whether on stage (checking off Chekhov, Brecht and
Shakespeare) or on screen, where, despite being pegged as a slacker Generation X icon through films like Reality Bites and Before Sunrise, his work rate only seems to be increasing. hawke’s crammed no fewer than 13 movies into the past two years, including Boyhood (for which he received his fourth Oscar nomination), his third feature as director (documentary
Seymour: An Introduction), and upcoming mega-western The Magnificent Seven.
On top of all that, his first graphic novel, Indeh, will be published on June 7 (“It’s about the life of Geronimo”), and he’s considering movie number four as director: “It’s supposed to be a secret, but I’ve been working on an adaptation of tennessee williams’ Camino Real.”
today, though, on a crisp May afternoon at his home in Brooklyn, Empire finds hawke in a relaxed mood, looking forward to catching up with Game Of Thrones (“It’s awesome. they’re doing a great job”) and “playing soccer with my son”. But not before sharing his passion for the musician with whom he clearly empathises deeply. Reviewers are describing your performance in Born To Be Blue as a career-best. Does that matter to you? I appreciate the compliment. Don’t get me wrong, I really like being complimented — more than I should — but I also know that the opportunity to explore a character so fully is rare. the event of most movies is the plot; the event of Born To Be Blue is slight character alterations that happen to a person. So there’s a lot of energy being pushed towards the performance, which is why I think people say that kind of thing.
Wasn’t there talk of you playing Chet Baker years ago, for a film with Richard Linklater? Yeah. I’ve been passionate about Chet for years. Around the time I was 30, we developed a project about early ’50s Chet Baker 1 . So Born To Be Blue felt like I was being offered the sequel to a film I never got to make, you know? But playing Chet in his forties is actually much more interesting for the actor. Like every rise-to-fame story, people are not that interesting when they’re getting what they want. We all become a lot more interesting when we’re failing. Are you a jazz fan, or is it just Chet Baker who interests you? Strangely I became a jazz fan through Chet Baker. When I was graduating high school, it was right around the time Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost came out, and I was kind of hypnotised by Chet Baker, what a ghost of a person he was. Around the same time I saw Forest Whitaker’s performance in Bird and saw Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser and Round Midnight. Those movies were my introduction to jazz. And with Chet, the way he plays the trumpet is different from hundreds of thousands of other people who play the trumpet. He doesn’t put any lies in his music. It’s very open, and very simple — never trying to impress. Did you learn to play the trumpet for the role? What happened is kind of a funny story. I’ve played guitar my whole life and I’ve goofed around with the trumpet and various instruments, so I felt I’d be able to do it. But when I first started taking lessons I was incredibly discouraged about how difficult it was, and begged the director (Robert Budreau) if he could put filming off to let me practise for a year. And I came back to my trumpet teacher and said, “Look, I’ve just asked him for a year,” and he said, “If you had eight years, you wouldn’t be anywhere near ready.” (Laughs) So what I did was I learned about six to eight songs as well as I could, and I played them badly, but at least I learned the fingering and the embouchure. 2 I’d give myself the sensation I was playing well (laughs). Have you seen Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie, Miles Ahead?
(Laughs) I’ve worked with Don (in Antoine Fuqua’s 2009 cop drama Brooklyn’s Finest) and I think he’s fantastic. I hope people do a double feature of our movies. What I think is so funny is that in Chet’s movie, Miles Davis makes a large appearance, and in Miles’ movie, Chet Baker’s name’s not mentioned! That’s really perfect, you know? (Laughs) That’s as it should be. Miles was a genius. And Chet is a very interesting man and a beautiful musician, but he wasn’t a music revolutionary.
Born To Be Blue deals with how early success affects people. You were really young when you made it big. Did that feed into your performance? Yes. We all like to feel our lives are building, so it’s a difficult thing when you have success too young because it throws the rhythm off. For example, [I was] 17 in Dead Poets Society. It was nominated for Best Picture 3 and people are moved by it, and write you letters about it, and it kind of leaves you nowhere to go. (Laughs) You start thinking, “Oh, my next movie will be H
better,” and it isn’t. It throws off the normal trajectory and I think it makes it really hard for people to grow in the way our culture generally supports. I know it was challenging for me.
How did you cope when others didn’t?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I think for some reason, particularly after River’s death, I had a really healthy disenchantment with the value and power of celebrity. I never equated it with any real purposeful, meaningful success. It’s one of the things I really like about Born To Be Blue: it works towards a moment where a person is having an incredible professional triumph while simultaneously having a personal failure. We like to think that they’re all combined, when oftentimes when people are outwardly failing they’re inwardly growing, and the reverse.
You just mentioned Dead Poets Society. What do you remember about standing on the desk, addressing Robin Williams with, “Oh captain! My captain!”?
I remember so much, I don’t exactly know how to begin. That whole experience, of watching Robin and Peter (Weir) work… The word “genius” is often over-used, but Robin was truly a comic genius. His brain didn’t work like other people’s. And it was really exciting to be around a fully mature artist like that. And then Peter Weir, who is such a serious person, and full of so much love. I don’t think I understood at the time what a huge psychological, electrical jolt to my brain that movie was. Its message has kind of been tattooed on my chest my whole life. But it’s only since Robin’s passing that I realised what a big effect the psychology of that movie had on me.
The notion of “carpe diem”?
Yeah, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…” All that stuff. “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” All that. There are a lot of powerful ideas in that movie. It was exciting for a 17 year-old brain to be near.
With that and then Reality Bites five years later, you were touted as a ‘Generation X’ icon. Did you enjoy that?
I don’t know. I struggled with those kinds of labels at the time. Now I find them fun. I remember when I was doing Before
Sunrise, I was the poster boy for Gen X. Linklater was the director of Slacker, you know? We were working together, going to R.E.M. concerts (laughs)… Oftentimes labels are used to make things smaller, but the truth is, one of the great pleasures of my life has been working with my own generation, whether it’s Antoine Fuqua or Richard Linklater or Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed Gattaca and Lord Of War and Good Kill. Guys of my generation have helped me find a voice and it’s been exciting to be a part of that.
“Dead Poets Society was a huge jolt to my brain.”
The Before films’ Julie Delpy is also one of your contemporaries. What were your first impressions of her?
Well, meeting Julie Delpy is like meeting a character from a Victor Hugo novel. She was bigger than life. The smartest, most beautiful, most passionate, wildest creature I’d ever encountered. At 23 or whatever, she’d already worked with Godard, she’d already worked with Kieślowski... 4 She was literally one of the most beautiful people I’d ever encountered. She had a ferocious intellect and (laughs) she was wildly intimidating.
Are you still intimidated by her?
Um, no, now I love her. It’s different. (Laughs) She certainly can be intimidating if she wants to be. She’s still wild as they come. No-one expected a follow-up to Before Sunrise, but nine years later you made Before Sunset. Was it envisaged at the time as a middle part? You know, the question imagines a grander plan than we’ve ever had. We weren’t sure. A couple of years after we’d finished
Before Sunrise we met and we worked on Waking Life 5 together, and we had a ball doing that, so it seemed kind of obvious when that was over that we should collaborate again. It always occurred to me it would be a fun thing to revisit, but at the time, Before
Sunrise was probably the lowest-grossing movie in history to
have a sequel (laughs). We cared more about that movie than anyone else did. And when we finished the second one I felt very strongly that we needed a third one; that as beautiful as the ending to Before Sunset is, it’s a call that begs for an answer. And what was that answer? Some fans of the series found Before Midnight a difficult watch. That huge fight... I’m more proud of that scene than any other single thing I’ve been a part of. The first two films are all about romantic projection, and we had this idea for the third film to really try to explore what happens when you get everything you want. There are a lot of movies about break-ups, and a lot of movies about people falling in love, but very few made about a couple who’ve been together ten years. It was something really interesting to me, to visit people in the middle of their lives, who still believe in their craving for love, but they’re not kids anymore, and life can’t be about what might be, it has to be about what is happening. That’s much deeper water to swim in. Are their plans for another instalment? You never know. There is this symmetry to these three, there’s something beautiful about the way the third one ends with the couple fighting, and the first one begins with the couple in their forties fighting. There’s something about it that feels done. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a new beginning, a new chapter… And then there’s your other big project with Linklater,
Boyhood. How far did your relationship with your own father influence your performance in that film? A tremendous amount. One of the reasons Rick and I became such good friends was we had a similar background — both from Texas, both children of divorce, our fathers are very similar. I think Rick cast me because he knew the subject matter, coping with divorce, was very interesting to me. I’d experienced it from two vantage points, as a child and as a parent 6 , and that was something I could help him with. I remember when we first talked about it we had this idea of trying to imagine what your father looked like to you at the age of six, and then at your high-school graduation, and if you could dramatise how that change happened. It’s so obvious how kids are growing, but as adults we’re maturing and changing all the time, too. And to try to tell that story, in the background of this other story, would be a unique challenge. One of Linklater’s films that tends to be overlooked is his 1998 crime Western The Newton Boys. I had that poster on my wall. It had a badass campaign but people didn’t really understand it. But we had a lot of fun making it. I became really great friends with Vincent D’onofrio on that movie, and it was where my relationship with Linklater went to a different level. I look back with real nostalgia now. People wanted that movie to be Young Guns, but one of the things I love about Linklater is that while he made a movie about the biggest bank robbers in US history, the only reason they ended up famous was because they didn’t kill anybody. Vincent D’onofrio’s also in The Magnificent Seven. How was it working with him again? It was fun to be back on a horse with Vincent. The Magnificent
Seven is a full-blown hundred-million-dollar action movie. I’ve seen it and can be one of the first to report that it’s a phenomenal movie. It’s about as much fun as a movie should be allowed to be. Antoine (Fuqua) has a love of the Western genre, it kind of seeps out of him. I think he is our generation’s Sam Peckinpah. And to be among people that you admire, riding horses through the desert, I’d just never laughed so hard in my life. Chris Pratt’s the real thing. He’s going to be around a long time. But it was a very different experience, because The Newton Boys, while probably the biggest budget of Rick’s career, was still an independently made movie; Magnificent Seven was the biggest studio movie I’ve ever been involved with. Lots of horses, lots of guns, lots of explosions, lots of danger. So who was the best horseman? God! Good question. (Thinks) It might have been D’onofrio. We were all pretty even though. Nobody was bad, everybody was good. But the stuntmen would ride circles around us. Aside from Born To Be Blue, you have another film out next month, romantic comedy Maggie’s Plan. Why are you so rarely in romcoms? Or comedies generally? I don’t know why. I certainly haven’t gotten to do many comedies, but when I first started acting, it was something I thought I’d do a lot of. In truth, one of my dreams would be to co-star with those guys on Talladega Nights 2 or something. I would love the challenge of that. And I always loved the Warren Beatty comedies when I was younger, you know, Shampoo, and a couple of the early John Cusack comedies. That was the kind of comedy I thought I would do, rooted in character. But one of the things I like most about Maggie’s Plan is it’s an intelligent comedy. In the past there used to be a lot of them but it’s a genre that’s gone missing. Woody Allen is kind of the only person who’s [making] comedies for people who don’t just want fart jokes. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a good fart joke, it’s just that it’s fun to see an intelligent screwball comedy, and that’s the fun of Maggie’s Plan. It’s funny you mention Woody Allen — you’ve lived in New York for most of your life, so it’s kind of strange you’ve not been in one of his films. Would you like to work with him? Yes! Write him a letter, tell him to cast me, for crying out loud.
Ethan Hawke blows his own horn in Born To Be Blue. ! FOOTNOTES 1
Linklater and Hawke workshopped and scripted a treatment about Baker in the early 2000s, which Hawke has described as “dangerous and weird”.
Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke) connect in 1995’s Before Sunrise. And 18 years later, in 2013’s bittersweet Before Midnight.