Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to interview actor and occasional director Ethan Hawke four of five times, and without fail he continues to be one of the most thoughtful and articulate people I’ve ever spoken to about the craft of acting. He doesn’t hide the thoughts that collect in his head for each character that he plays, and he’s eager to share those puzzle pieces if you’re willing to hear him out. Each time we speak, it’s a completely different conversation, and he brings to both his performances and interviews a layer of intelligence and consideration that are rare.
In just the last few years, Hawke has not only been busier than ever, but he’s been making some of his most interesting work, in films such as BEFORE MIDNIGHT, SINISTER, THE PURGE, BOYHOOD, PREDESTINATION, 10,000 SAINTS, GOOD KILL, and two films that I’ve seen recently that have yet to be released: writer-director Rebecca Miller’s MAGGIE’S PLAN, in which Hawke co-stars with Greta Gerwig and Julianne Moore; and writer-director Ti West’s fantastic IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, a bloody Western that I just saw at SXSW Film Festival. And speaking of Westerns, let's not forget that Hawke will also be a part of Antoine Fuqua's THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN remake coming out in September.
But it’s Hawke’s work in writer-director Robert (THAT BEAUTIFUL SOMEWHERE) Budreau’s Chet Baker biopic BORN TO BE BLUE that affords us the opportunity to see Hawke do what is arguably his best acting work to date, and that’s saying a lot. The film covers only a small period in the life of the jazz trumpeter and singer (Hawke does all his own singing in the film) during the 1960s, a time in which he struggled with drug addiction, began a fiery romance with Jane (Carmen Ejogo), and after a devastating injury is forced to relearn the trumpet and comeback into the music scene shaken but not broken.
I sat down with Hawke and Budreau recently at SXSW Film Festival, where we compared notes on our love for Baker and what is involved in capturing an artist’s life by narrowing in on a pivotal period in his life rather than attempt a cradle-to-grave biography. With that, please enjoy my talk with Ethan Hawke and Robert Budreau…
Capone: I was so excited to see this film, because when I was in college, I saw Bruce Weber’s  documentary about Chet Baker, LET’S GET LOST. I didn’t know anything about Chet at that time, but I became fascinated with him, especially the images of him as a younger man. He was the handsomest guy. It wasn’t fair that he was that good looking and that talented.
Ethan Hawke: Yeah, those William Claxton photos are so haunting.
Capone: Agreed. There are certainly many ways to go about talking about an artist’s life— the standard-issue way, which you thankfully avoided, where you pick 10 or 12 highlights and just go through them. But you focus on this period. Why did you decide that was the best way to tell his story?
Robert Budreau: I think Bruce Weber did the last part of his life in LET’S GET LOST already, so that had been taken care of. The ’50s, when he was the Prince of Cool, were interesting, but that was the highlight that everybody knows. To me, that wasn’t that interesting of a period.
EH: It’s interesting for the music, because the music is great, but there’s no real story there except a rise-to-fame story.
RB: There’s a story of celebrity, and Ethan and [Richard] Linklater looked at that era a little bit more when they were looking at that [Hawke and Linklater began the process of making a film about Baker’s life many years ago but couldn’t pull together financing], but for me it was interesting because I love the comeback story aspect of it. I love the idea of this guy having everything and having to start from scratch. And I love the idea of doing a movie about addiction and drugs that focuses on a sober period of his life. It was only one or two years that he was semi-sober. This is the frame that we chose. I think Dino de Laurentiis offering Chet to do a movie about his own life, which is at the start of our period, that was what triggered me to do this movie in the first place really.
EH: [laughs] Seeing it last night, I was so amused. It’s such a funny way to meet a character, shivering in jail with some Hollywood guy like, “I want to make a movie about you.”
Capone: That movie doesn’t exist, does it?
EH: No, they never made it. They just prepped it, and Chet screwed it up before it even happened. They didn’t even shoot anything.
RB: I just took the idea and pretended.
Capone: It’s an amazing idea. Because you’re watching this dark, ugly moment in his life and then you realize, “Oh wait, this isn’t even real. This is bullshit.” Ethan, was Baker a guy that you obsessed over when you were younger?
EH: I was just like you. I saw LET’S GET LOST when it came out. It was right around the time I was graduating high school. I was incredibly impressionable, and that made a big impression on me, and I bought all his records. He’s such an enigmatic person. In that movie, he seems like a ghost of a person, and when you match that older man with that beauty of who that young person was, it’s hypnotizing.
So my story is, right around the time I was turning 30, Linklater and I had an idea of doing a Beat movie about Chet Baker, a kind of PULL MY DAISY take on Chet becoming famous. I prepped this whole movie that didn’t happen. So when Robert came to me, I told him, “I feel like I played the young Chet, even through I didn’t actually get to do it. In my imagination, I did it.” So I felt pretty knowledgable, or at least in a good place to begin, because I found him a very hypnotizing character. He’s so many things in one. What I like about him is, he’s this blank slate that people just project onto. You project meaning. He sings and plays with almost no emotion, and you project all this emotion onto it, which is amazing. It’s like Matisse, he’s just so simple, and it’s hard to be that simple. There’s a lot of artistry that goes into being that simple.
Capone: That’s what I always thought about his singing style. There’s no inflections, but it’s still very powerful.
EH: It’s powerful. There’s nothing fake in it, nothing fake in it at all, and that’s really interesting. I happen to love Branford Marsalis, and he has a great quote about when he was cutting down Chet. And somebody told Chet, and Chet said, “Well, if I could play like Branford Marsalis, I wouldn’t.” [Everybody laughs] It’s one of my favorite quotes. Meaning Branford played too much. He was too fancy, too showy.
Capone: I literally saw this and Don Cheadle’s film about Miles Davis [MILES AHEAD] within a couple of days of each other back in Chicago…
EH: How is it?
Capone: It’s tremendous. It also takes a look at a narrow part of his life, actually two parts of his life. I saw your film first, and Miles Davis is a character in it, and he’s so mean and judgmental toward Chet.
EH: We make him a lot nicer [laughs].
RB: That’s nice Miles.
EH: And nice Chet, too.
RB: And nice Chet. Yeah.
Capone: I got to say, the ending of the film, that last glimpse in the dressing room of the drugs having been spent, it just killed me. At some point early on, everyone just accepted that heroin was what he needed to do to keep going and to play. You certainly don’t glorify that or make light of that decision, but how do you balance that and say “Look, something wasn’t working without it”?
RB: Even though we were free with facts and fiction and imagining, we did have to be true to the spirit of him and also what became of him. So much of the movie was about that choice. We worked really hard to set up that ending and make it work. If I had shot an alternative ending—let’s say I’d shot one where he doesn’t do the drugs, he gets the girl, she comes back to the dressing room, he kisses her, and they walk off down Broadway and he’s happy, and then we cut—what would people say about that? That’s bullshit. That doesn’t send us to where we know Chet really went. It also doesn’t capture the bittersweet quality, which is what we wanted. It’s a trade off. In order to get that, he had to lose something. I think any great hero has to have that. I always love those endings if you can achieve them. The bittersweet endings are always the best. I think we had to remain true to that and try to capture that.
Capone: That is the classic jazz sstory: you can’t have it all. It seems to be the model.
RB: There are a few of them [who aren’t like that], people like Dizzy [Gillespie] and others.
EH: Dizzy is a family man. He supported a lot of people.
Capone: He’s the exception.
EH: He is the exception. I think he comes off really well in the movie, his character.
Capone: So what was the secret of you getting into Chet’s head and letting us get into it with you?
EH: I’ve spent my life around people who have a little war happening inside them, of having immense confidence and bravado and really something to say, met with an equal amount of insecurity, neurosis, and self doubt. It’s all at play in one psychology. It was strange, just here last night was the first time my mother had seen the film. She was so wrecked after she had seen the movie. All she kept talking about was River [Phoenix] and Phil [Seymour Hoffman], because she knew what they meant to me, and what she was grateful for about it, which I thought was interesting—It’s what you were saying—ot doesn’t glorify it, but it also doesn’t judge it in a way. The movie is without judgement about it. The bittersweet moment Robert’s talking about that I find so interesting is he has a professional triumph at the same time he has a personal failure. He couldn’t have them both. That person was struggling with finding them both.
The key for me is, I don’t think it only happens in the arts. Every family is wracked with addiction issues. You can’t go to any core group of friends of guys or women where that doesn’t come up. A lot of people are in pain, and how they handle painkillers is an interesting part of our culture. And how romance plays into that. I find that very interesting. Adults always talk about what they do for love and what love means for them. Push comes to shove, a lot of them end up making very self-serving decisions.
Which is what I love about Callum Keith Rennie’s character, it’s a very beautiful thing that he says: “It’s not the drugs. It’s you that plays so beautifully. That’s you. What are you doing it for? I don’t want you to be empty out there. It would mean so much more if you could get out of your own way and do this.” He really doesn’t have to play that night. “Take your time until you’re ready to do it.” But I find the ending of the movie is the most interesting part of it.
Capone: We haven't even talked about the relationship at the core of this work. You don’t set it up—and it obviously didn’t play out this way—that she did not ultimately save him in a way some films might portray it—the way that De Laurentis film might have portrayed it. Carmen is such a gift in this film. She’s so good.
EH: She’s so magical in that final moment actually. Watching it last night with an audience. She really communicates a joy in seeing him perform well. So happy to be there. So excited he sees her. And then you just watch her clock in [when she realizes he’s performing high], “Oh, my god.” You cut it really beautifully, and I love the way you cut it with the black and white, with her looking at the wedding ring. That’s really beautiful. She’s doing so many things at one time in that final 10-second closeup.
Capone: How did you want the relationship to play and figure in his life?
RB: We certainly didn’t want her to be the typical, passive savior female that you see in a lot of these types of biopics. We wanted her to be stronger. But in order to have that decision at the end that we’ve been talking about, I think you need a really strong love story and you need the audience to believe he had found that as an option, because otherwise that choice isn’t the wrong choice. So we had to lay the foundation and sell that and make it believable and real. I think Carmen did a great job walking that line, because quite a few times her character says, “I’m not going to be your nurse. I’m not going to do this.”
EH: But she still acts like his nurse.
RB: “I’m not giving up my life for you.” Cut to her, she’s giving up her life. She’s struggling to not be those women that she’s played, those past women that she’s seen. But ultimately, I think the power of someone like Chet Baker and his charisma does draw in women and people around him, and they do want to save him to a certain degree.
EH: And talent is a magnet. People put up with impossible behavior. The one thing I love about NASHVILLE is Keith Carradine is such a jerk. He’s such a nerd, asshole, and then he plays in the end, and everybody just loves him.
Capone: Just put a guitar in his hands, with a nice voice, and that’s it.
EH:“Yeah, you’re okay.” [laughs]
Capone: I didn’t realize you did the singing in this.
Capone: And I assume you took lessons to get the fingering to look right at least. Talk to me about your preparation from a purely technical perspective.
EH: The singing, I did my best. I’m really grateful to Robert for being patient and believing I could do it. Funnily enough, I just had a really good experience in BOYHOOD, where I was playing a guy, who for the first few years, was an aspiring singer/songwriter. Charlie Sexton recorded a couple of songs for that movie when it was finished, which was right before Robert and I met. And I had such a good time, that I felt a slight inkling of confidence about doing it, which was utterly decimated by trying to do it, but I did have enough confidence to say I would try.
The more you study Chet Baker singing, the more you come to admire it, and you realize how difficult it is to be that simple, and it was really, really fun. But what I ultimately felt is, what’s beautiful about his singing is you feel something true coming from him, and that is something you can act. You can act something true. It would be much harder if I was trying to play Nina Simone or Louis Armstrong or someone who was an incredible jazz vocalist. Chet’s singing is effortless; it’s the opposite of showy.
Capone: I don’t know how the purists in the jazz community have responded to the film. Has there been any reaction?
EH: They’ve seen it in Canada [the film premiered at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival]. They’ve been super supportive.
RB: We showed it to quite a few of the top jazz people. I think what they appreciated was the same thing they appreciated is the same thing they appreciated in ’ROUND MIDNIGHT. ’ROUND MIDNIGHT was populated with real jazz cats, but what they did in ’ROUND MIDNIGHT was they celebrated the fact that it’s improvisational, and you don’t have to match it. We, in our own way as part of this whole reimagined idea even with the music, we weren’t trying to mimic some Chet Baker master. We were doing our own versions. The jazz band I hired and my composer did their own versions. Ethan’s vocals are his own thing.
EH: We’re not replicating. We’re doing a version of it.
RB: I think jazz people will appreciate that, because that’s what jazz is about, you know what I mean?
Capone: It’s about putting your own spin on something and creating your own version.
EH: Yeah. That’s what they do. They spinoff standards. They take the old Gershwin things. We’re just taking the legend of Chet Baker and spinning off of it a little bit.
Capone: You’re making a period film too. Were there any issues with just making this an authentic period film?
RB: The biggest issue is that, on a limited budget, we were shooting up in Northern Canada trying to replicate California and New York. That was one of the biggest challenges I had as a director was creating a vision that felt authentic to that period.
EH: The hardest thing in independent film is to have a budget. Money really helps in a period film.
Capone: Even the smallest-scale film, if you set it in another time period…
EH: …the budget just cranks up.
Capone: I saw Richard [Linklater]’s film [EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!] the other day and I’m looking at all the cars on the street and thinking “Those cost money.”
EH: That’s why it was so hard for him to get that movie made for years. It’s a college comedy. How hard is that? Well, it’s a college comedy set in 1980? So all of a sudden it’s more expensive.
RB: You forget that’s period too. But I think what it means is you have to be really well prepared. You have to keep a really tight vision. You can’t afford to open things up too much. But I think sometimes with those creative limitations, it’s an advantage because it forces you to focus. It kept things tighter.
EH: I always think DANGEROUS LIAISONS is a great example of that. It was a relatively inexpensive movie. They just kept it so contained. It actually made the performances shine. Do you remember that movie?
Capone: Of course. I saw it a half-dozen times in the theater. I was obsessed with it when it was out.
EH: I remember loving that movie.
Capone: I saw MAGGIE’S PLAN at Sundance, and then I saw Ti West’s film here yesterday. I know you’ve got MAGNIFICENT SEVEN coming out later this year. As you always have, you are doing a great job of not repeating yourself in any way. MAGGIE’S PLAN is probably the closest to a romantic comedy you’ve ever done.
EH: Yeah, definitely. It’s the first since REALITY BITES.
Capone: That’s true.
EH: And Ti’s movie and Antoine’s movie couldn’t be more different. In a way, one is the comic spaghetti Western, and the other is Howard Hawks or John Ford. Actually, Antoine’s doing a weird…It’s almost as if Peckinpah remade MAG SEVEN.
Capone: We probably have no clue how badass that’s going to be, do we?
EH: I know people are feeling pretty confident about it.
Capone: And IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE is so good.
EH: I’m glad you think so.
Capone: I just go sentimental with Ti for about 20 minutes before I came here about how we watched Westerns with our dads. It’s part of our DNA.
EH: Yeah, of course. My dad was really embarrassed because I had to tell this story because somebody asked me how I know about Westerns. I said, “Well, because on Sunday mornings, I had grown up in Fort Worth, they would have all Westerns, all day. It would start with the TV shows then it would get to the movies, and my dad always slept so late that I would usually be watching TV till 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I would just watch Westerns all day Sunday.” My dad’s like, “Stop with that story. If you were 9 or 10, I was only 28. So yeah, I was a little hungover.” [laughs] But that was responsible for my whole Western education, which proved to be really helpful in my life. So I was glad he slept late.
Capone: Best of luck with this. Thank you so much.