Ethan Hawke studied for months to portray jazz musician Chet Baker in the drama “Born to Be Blue,” which opens today. He took lessons in playing the trumpet and singing, talked to some of Baker’s 1950s band mates and watched hours of YouTube videos. But this isn’t just another conventional biopic. The film, directed by Robert Budreau, takes liberties from its source — including a fictionalization of the time Baker almost played himself in a movie — to reimagine the struggles of a celebrated performer and drug addict. Hawke spoke to Variety about the project.
People are calling this one of your best performances.
It’s definitely one of the most challenging.
You have an incredibly mysterious and enigmatic person that’s very difficult to make sense out of. Then you have to try to capture somebody who has a unique relationship to music. And then there’s the music.
Had you played the trumpet before?
No. People in my family had, so I’d been around it. I’d played guitar my whole life. I spent my life around creative artist types, so the inner workings of his brain were very familiar to me. Phil Seymour Hoffman had just died when I got the script. It felt ripe to visit the crisis that can happen inside somebody in middle age. Particularly, there’s a unique conundrum that happens to people who have early success. There’s a certain “Is that all there is?” and depression can set in.
Is that why fame is sometimes followed by addiction?
It’s life and addiction. In truth, if you pick far into any family in America, you can find issues of addiction. I think addiction is prevalent everywhere. My first movie was with River Phoenix and Phil was one of the greatest heroes. If you were interested in New York theater, Phil is a pillar in our community. There’s a reason so many people struggle with drugs and alcohol. They are in pain. People are trying to figure out how not to be in pain. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the immense confidence it takes to perform in the public eye, that’s quickly followed by a crippling insecurity. The coin keeps spinning around.
In the ’90s, you were originally were supposed to play a young Chet for a movie directed by Richard Linklater.
The ground was fertile. I already had a good base knowledge. We had worked hard with the other script and did workshops. It’s not that no one would finance it in a boo-hoo way. It was a very dangerous and weird film we wanted to make. We wanted to make “On the Road,” then we started thinking maybe we could make a beat movie using Chet Baker as Jack Kerouac. It was incredibly unconventional.
Did you watch a lot of Chet’s performances?
I was really grateful for that. I could go down that rabbit hole with the Internet. I would find obscure interviews. I could see his voice, see him play in all the different periods in his life and watch how he changed. As I did that, I got less and less interested in imitating.
What scared you the most?
You’ve sung before onscreen.
Yeah, but it’s different. I had to sing in “Boyhood,” for example. My character wasn’t supposed to be a great musician — he’s just a dad who likes music. And that’s very different from playing someone who has a recording contract. There’s a magic to Chet’s singing that doesn’t have to do with him being a great singer. A jazz critic once said of him, that when he sings, it’s like the memory of someone singing. I thought I could act that. There’s one thing that I couldn’t achieve, though. He did have this thing when you watch him sing live, you actually think he might not live through the performance.
What do you mean?
I’ve seen actors have it onstage. They are absolutely translucent. You feel the flame of life might go out. But what I could get is the melancholy. That was actable. That sad, lonely vibe.
Did you feel like you started to inhabit Chet?
I felt much more like I wanted to be true to the spirit and ethos, and I tried to bring myself to it. I thought as much about River and Phil as I thought about Chet. I thought about them all. It’s a movie about the intersection of professional triumph and personal failure. This happens all the time — watching someone get trumped up, while their personal life is spiraling out of control. The world is mysterious.