Ethan Hawke’s new film about musician Chet Baker explores the life rather than the legend of the heroin-addicted jazz great. It’s the small, everyday things that really define us, he tells Alistair Harkness
It’s hard to know what came first: the chicken or the egg,” laughs Ethan Hawke. On the phone from New York, the 45-year-old actor is trying to disentangle his own preoccupation with films that sidestep the big flashpoint moment of our lives from that of frequent collaborator Richard Linklater. “Part of why Richard and I work together so much is that we feel that way passionately. Your wedding is not a very indicative day of the rest of your life. Losing your virginity is not very indicative of what your sex life is going to be like. What happens daily is really where our lives are built.”
That mantra was the heart of their epic collaboration on Boyhood, the success of which still surprises Hawke. But it was also there in the Before… trilogy, Waking Life, Fast Food Nation and what might, had things worked out differently, have been another Hawke-Linklater team-up: a film about jazz musician Chet Baker.
“It was really experimental,” says Hawke of the aborted film, which was set on the day before Chet Baker tried heroin for the first time. “It was modelled after Pull My Daisy, the Robert Frank short film about the Beats. We just never got the money, so it just sort of faded away.”
Hawke was in his late 20s at the time, the perfect age to play the California jazz trumpeter in his 1950s heyday, when his cheekbones, quiff and haunting good looks made him the “James Dean of Jazz”.
In an odd twist of fate, though, another Baker project has now come Hawke’s way. In Born to Be Blue, he plays Baker at a later stage in his life, when those hitherto beatific features had started edging into the ruined, toothless, junkie look familiar from Bruce Weber’s documentary Let’s Get Lost.
“It felt like I was being offered the sequel to a movie I never made,” says Hawke of the new film, which actually opens with a film within a film, a creative conceit of writer/director Robert Budreau that finds Hawke playing Baker playing himself in a soon-to-be-abandoned Chet Baker biopic. “In a lot of ways, I started looking at the movie within the movie as the movie I might have made 15 years ago. But it’s definitely a more interesting role now.”
That’s partly because it allowed Hawke to avoid some of the biopic clichés to which Baker’s artistic life too readily conforms. “The most obvious dramatic points are his rise to fame and his death. This middle period is the most vulnerable moment of his life; it’s more unexpected. It’s also Chet at his most likeable.”
Even so, Born to Be Blue does deal with Baker’s ongoing struggle with heroin addiction. Having been around genius actors who’ve had fatal relationships with drugs, that’s something Hawke felt ready to explore himself. “My first screen partner was River Pheonix and I worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman and was a member of his theatre company, so, you know, I’ve seen a lot of this in my life. I got this script about a month or so after Phil’s funeral. The exploration of how people get lost is interesting, but it seemed all of a sudden vital and relevant to me.”
Hawke’s own career has taken some pretty interesting turns over the years. Because he doesn’t chase validation from Hollywood, it’s easy to forget that he’s a quadruple Oscar nominee (twice for writing, twice for acting). And while he recently re-teamed with his Training Day co-star Denzel Washington for an all-star remake of The Magnificent Seven, he doesn’t really chase big movies either, sticking mostly to indie fare, like the current Maggie’s Plan, or low-budget/highly profitable genre films, such as Sinister and The Purge. Indeed Hawke’s idea of a franchise is really the Before… trilogy with Linklater and Julie Delpy. I ask if they’ll do another. “I feel it’s less likely now than it was,” he says. “It might be done; it might not. I’ll see what Julie has to say.”
But was there a moment when he realised the big Hollywood career wasn’t something he wanted?
He thinks for a second, then brings up Great Expectations. The contemporary version of the Dickens classic was his first big lead, and an early film for Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón. “When you’re on a set with Richard Linklater, or making something like Born to Be Blue, you sink or swim on your own merit and there’s a real adrenaline rush that’s akin to the thrill of live theatre,” he says. “I like making big budget movies, but most of the time the groupthink at studios can be pretty crushing. I know that Alfonso and I really struggled on Great Expectations to make that movie and I walked away thinking I don’t really want to be a movie star.”
It’s ironic that a movie entitled Great Expectations should have revealed stardom’s false allure. I mention that confronting life’s disappointments seems to have been another key theme in his work, even going right back to his debut in Explorers, Joe Dante’s lovely children’s film in which he co-starred with River Phoenix as a shy, sci-fi obsessed suburban kid who goes into space and discovers it’s not what he hoped it would be.
“I can’t believe you just said that. No one has ever said that to me. What I think is so beautiful about Joe Dante and that movie is exactly what you just said. It’s a movie about some kids who build their own spaceship, but even going into outer space is mildly disappointing. So much of what we do in this life is about expectation. If you think prom night is going to be amazing, it’s invariably going to be disappointing; if you think the Oscars is going to be mind-blowing, I can tell you that it’s not. The joys of life are always surprising. What’s beautiful about Explorers is it shows that what’s fun is building the spaceship and being with your friends. The fun wasn’t about getting anywhere. There’s a great human lesson in that.”
• Born to be Blue is in cinemas from 25 July. The Magnificent Seven is out 23 September