Ethan Hawke was originally supposed to play jazz legend Chet Baker more than a decade ago, but plans to team with his frequent collaborator Richard Linklater fell through.
He picked up Baker’s trumpet again last year to shoot “Born to Be Blue,” which checks in with the musician at a very different point in his life. Whereas the Linklater project would have documented Baker on the cusp of stardom, “Born to Be Blue” finds him down and out, as he tries to kick a heroin addiction and mount a comeback.
“Because of all the research I’d done before, I felt like I’d played him already,” said Hawke. “It was fun to get to know him at lots of different ages. At the beginning period, he was uncomplicated, with a tremendous joy. When we meet him in middle age, he was still a guy who loved jazz, but he was burned out.”
Hawke also does his own singing in the part, offering up a persuasive approximation of Baker’s distinctive, androgynous and reedy voice.
“There’s something about his playing and his singing that were incredibly similar,” said Hawke. “There’s a simplicity that’s hypnotic.”
The film’s director, Robert Budreau, said he felt Hawke was right for the part of Baker because he had a similar artistic temperament. The two also aligned in their aversion to standard biopics that chart great artists and leaders from birth to death. Their approach is less traditional. Part of “Born to Be Blue” unfolds as a film within a film, with Baker re-creating scenes from his career, and the picture is tightly focused on a few important years in his life.
“I didn’t want to do the cliched, archetypal rise and fall,” said Budreau.
As for Baker’s struggles with drugs, a habit he never kicked, Hawke thinks some of it stemmed from a lack of confidence.
“It’s a huge part of all of us,” he said. “The pathology around hurting yourself and not feeling you’re of value. He was deeply insecure and he was hiding and running from himself. Talent is fragile.”
“Born to Be Blue” is one of more than a half-dozen projects that Hawke has lined up in the coming months. It’s a list that includes a remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” which reunites him with the “Training Day” team of Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua; Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan” and the Alejandro Amenabar thriller “Regression.”
He attributes this prolific period to financial necessity, noting that with studios making fewer films, “there are not as many paying jobs and the budgets are smaller so you have to work twice as hard to make the same amount of money.”
But it’s also because after taking a hiatus from film acting a few years ago, during which he performed plays by Shakespeare, Chekov and Brecht, he’s rediscovered his love for acting.
“I enjoy it more than I did when I was younger,” he said. “It’s an uncomplicated relationship. If you don’t enjoy a life in the arts, you should do something else, because it’s a privilege.”