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.

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