×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Ethan Hawke on Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman and Learning to Sing for Chet Baker Biopic

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.

Why?
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?
Singing.

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.

More Film

  • Captain Marvel

    Box Office: 'Captain Marvel' Shatters $900 Million Milestone

    Brie Larson’s “Captain Marvel” continues to do heroic business. In its latest box office milestone, the female-fronted superhero tentpole zoomed past $900 million in ticket sales worldwide. “Captain Marvel” brought in a mighty $87 million globally this weekend, including $52 million from international territories. It has now generated $589 million overseas for a global haul [...]

  • Us - Lupita Nyong’o - cr:

    Box Office: Jordan Peele's 'Us' Stuns With $70 Million Opening Weekend

    Talk about scary good. Universal’s “Us,” the second directorial effort from Jordan Peele, pulled off a stunning debut, generating $70 million from 3,741 North American locations. That haul is enough to land it the second-best opening weekend of the year behind just Disney’s “Captain Marvel” ($153 million). The psychological thriller about a family confronted by [...]

  • 'Shazam!' Review: Zachary Levi is Pure

    Film Review: 'Shazam!'

    In “Shazam!,” Zachary Levi brings off something so winning it’s irresistible. He plays a square-jawed, rippling-muscled man of might, with a cheesy Day-Glo lighting bolt affixed to his chest, who projects an insanely wholesome and old-fashioned idea of what a superhero can be. But he’s also playing a breathless teenage kid on the inside, and [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Showrunners, Screenwriters Back WGA in Agency Battle, Sides to Meet Again Tuesday

    More than 750 showrunners and screenwriters have backed the WGA’s battle against talent agencies taking packaging fees and other changes to the rules governing the business relationship between agents and writers. The letter of support issued Saturday is significant because of the immense clout showrunners and prominent screenwriters possess in Hollywood. Several showrunners had recently [...]

  • Doppelgänger Red (Lupita Nyong'o) and Adelaide

    Box Office: 'Us' on Track for Second-Highest Debut of 2019 With $67 Million

    Jordan Peele’s “Us” is on its way to scaring up one of the biggest debuts of 2019, with an estimated $67 million from 3,741 North American locations. Should estimates hold, “Us” will be able to claim several milestones: the highest debut for an original horror movie (the biggest launch for any horror pic goes to [...]

  • NF_D_JGN-D6-2160.cr2

    Film Review: 'The Dirt'

    A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content