Man at His Best

Ethan Hawke Explains His New Anti-Biopic Born To Be Blue

Playing Chet Baker was one of the toughest acting challenges of Ethan Hawke's career.

BY MATT MILLER | Mar 28, 2016 | Film & TV

Ethan Hawke needed more time. He was prepping to play legendary jazz musician Chet Baker, and Hawke had to learn an instrument he was completely unfamiliar with. "I begged the director to give me another year," Hawke said, laughing over the phone in an interview with Esquire. "But my trumpet teacher said, 'Look you're not going to be that much better in a year.'" Even though music had played an important role in his career—with the documentary he directed last year and after his 12 years playing the role of an aspiring musician in Boyhood—Hawke needed to learn the trumpet, fast. He had about four months, and he did his best. He learned the few songs he needed to perform. He focused on breathing. He focused on getting the fingering right. "I'd put a damper in my horn, and I would play along to this beautiful Canadian trumpet player and we would rock it out," Hawke said. The result is a stunning performance in Born to Be Blue, in which Hawke's portrayal of Baker is one of the few accurate aspects of the movie. And it was meant to be that way.

The film is more of an anti-biopic, taking liberties with Baker's life and very loosely basing the plot around the musician's actual drug addiction and downfall. In the first scene, Hawke plays Baker playing himself in a biopic. This, of course, never happened, and is more of an Inception-like plot device that "is kind of a tip to the hat of how fake any biopic is." Ahead of its release on March 25, Esquire spoke with Hawke about the most difficult moments of his acting career, the power of telling a true story that never happened, and jazz.

Between your documentary Seymour: An Introduction, and Boyhood, I know music has always been important to you, but what specifically drew you to this project and to Chet Baker?

There are a lot of things pulling me toward this job, and one of them, since you mentioned it, was Boyhood. Over the years I was playing this character who was an aspiring musician, and when we finished it, they asked me to record a couple of songs I wrote in the movie. I had this incredibly blessed experience [when] Charlie Sexton—who had a little part in the movie, and who was a guitarist for Bob Dylan— agreed to produce the tracks. I got to go into the studio with Charlie Sexton and record for a couple of days. It was shortly after that that I got the script, and it was one of those things that gave me the confidence that I could do this. And I think without that experience I would have been more terrified of a recording studio than I already was. Years ago, Richard Linklater and I had developed a project about Chet Baker, and I had researched it a lot and was disappointed that I never got to do it. It felt like something left undone.

For you, how does it feel to be singing and playing trumpet as opposed to being on stage acting or in front of a camera?

There are three hardest moments I've ever had as an actor: One was saying "to be or not to be" in front of a camera, another was being on stage and saying "is this a dagger which I see before me," and the other is singing "My Funny Valentine." Whenever you touch these iconic phrases, these words that great artists have tackled before you, and you have the audacity or presumption that you might have something to offer them, it's incredibly daunting. I really love Chet Baker, but I didn't really love his voice. I found his vocal performance really moving, and it communicates beautifully. But I thought that he transmits something that is actable. Then the funny thing is, when I got deeper and deeper into trying to work on him, I realised how much artistry goes into something that simple. Chet always made it look so simple—it's like a memory of someone singing. It's instantly nostalgic the moment it comes out of his mouth.

I think what's an interesting dynamic in the movie is that you're learning to play, and he's re-training himself to play.

It let me play into some of the same fears of being bad. I could sit there and try to crank out "Summertime" in the same way that Chet was trying to crank it out after [getting] his dentures.

What other research did you put into the role? Were you trying to be as accurate as possible, even though the film fictionalises his life?

I wanted to tip my hat to the iconography of it so you could believe it. But I was more interested in making it personal. One of the things I really liked about the script—for those who are very knowledgeable of the Chet Baker lore or his family—the film opens with Chet Baker acting in a movie where he's playing himself, which is something that never happened. What I love about that is I'm playing Chet playing himself and he talks about how fake this is, and it's kind of a tip to the hat of how fake any biopic is. If what you're interested in here is a documentary, there's other things you can go see. What we're trying to do is tell a story about people that you can hopefully relate to. I tried to veer away from imitation. I wanted to explore the myth and legend of him and make it personal.

What do you think the audience has to gain from a biopic that isn't strictly literal?

It's not about whether the guy's named Chet Baker or Stan Getz or Art Pepper, it's about people, and falling in love, and musicians, and what is our relationship to ourselves. What is leading us our friends, our relationships? Is what we care about most our art and our creativity? If you want to know the facts, you can click on Wikipedia and get most of it.

Speaking of art and creativity, what I think is most haunting in this film is the notion of an artist being stripped of his art.

I agree with you completely, and that's what I think is so frightening. For me, I've had these times in my life while doing a play and you're sick and you're losing your voice and your body is out of your control. These talents that people have—they come from somewhere else. It's a gift. And you can either treat this gift with respect, or you can destroy it.

You're right, Chet did destroy it. And you know, what I thought was really interesting about your portrayal is that there's no hero worship.

That was kind of my hope: to come at it like a humanist. We love to make beauties out of people, or we love to turn them into demons. I always just try to see them as a person, to be sometimes funny, sometimes really stupid, sometimes really smart like the rest of us.

From: Esquire US.