Ethan Hawke on Chet Baker and Surviving Showbiz

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Photo: IFC Films

Ethan Hawke has lived a lot of Hollywood lives since his acting debut alongside River Phoenix in 1985's Explorers. After three decades of earning acclaim for acting and writing, including Oscar nominations for Training Day and Boyhood, and for co-writing Before Midnight, Hawke has tackled one of the most challenging of roles of his career as the lead in Robert Budreau’s moody Chet Baker biopic, Born to Be Blue. The actor, 45, spoke with Vulture in front of a live audience in Los Angeles, on March 22, for the SAG-AFTRA Foundation's Conversations Series, about his long journey to bring the trumpeter’s tragic life to the big screen, his anomalous career, why Philip Seymour Hoffman is always in his head, and how working with Richard Linklater, his “best friend,” is the “most jazzlike experience you can have as an actor.”

I heard that you and Richard Linklater actually tried to make a Chet Baker movie 15 years ago. What happened with that film?
Brad Pitt was doing the movie, and then I got a call saying, “Brad just dropped out.”

That’s always a good call to get.
Yeah, exactly. “Coach, Coach put me in!” Funny, I remember my agent once telling me, “The only difference between you and Brad Pitt is a gym.” That’s how little they think of actors. [Laughs]

So I call Linklater and say, “They want me to do this biopic of Chet Baker.” And he goes, “Hmmm, okay. What’s interesting about Chet Baker? Well, he is ‘cool.’ What is cool? Cool is detachment. Detachment is both positive and negative. If you’re detached, you’re liberated from desire. But if you’re too detached, you don’t take responsibility for your actions. So it’s going to be a movie about what it means to be cool in America in the 1950s, before Chet tries heroin for the first time. A day in the life.”

It was a great idea, but we just couldn’t get the money to make it. A few years go by and we are sitting together at a hotel pool. Rick says, “I want to talk to you about that project. By the time Chet was 31, which is how old you are now, he was definitely a junkie. Sorry, you don’t look 25 anymore. We have to move on.”

So when did Born to Be Blue come into your hands?
I get sent the script a couple years ago and it’s like, “Chet Baker again? Wow.” I felt like I was reading the sequel to a film I never made. I was hypnotized by it. I already felt really close to the character, having prepped and imagined it for so long. I also found that this later moment in his life was a lot more appealing from an acting point of view. He was so vulnerable and broken. That’s a lot more interesting to explore than the rise to acclaim.

Did anything scare you about the project?
There was one thing — they wanted me to sing. There’s a great jazz critic who once wrote that Chet Baker didn’t actually "sing"; it was more the memory of someone singing. He had this quality in some of his pieces where you weren’t sure whether he’s going to live through the song [Laughs]. So I thought, Okay, I can act these moments instead. He wasn’t a great singer the way Billie Holiday is a great singer, but he did communicate emotion. We even put in the script to have Dizzy Gillespie say to him, “You’ve got to stop the singing.” The jazz guys were always telling him that. But what they didn’t know is how insecure he was about his embouchure; he liked to sing during a performance to give his mouth a break. Even before he got beat up and lost his teeth, he was already missing a tooth.

Also, I was afraid of making a bad jazz movie; you know, beatniks wearing black turtlenecks and smoking cigarettes.

How much of the trumpet-playing we see in the film is actually you?
You know all the parts where he’s playing terribly? I did all those, really great. [Laughs] It was hard. I had to learn about ten songs. What I would do is put a damper on the trumpet and play along with the real music, cranked up really loud. "Summertime" was probably my best song. But mostly it was a great trumpeter from Montreal who did the playing, and it was beautiful. 

After more than 30 years of acting, can you remember when you first knew you wanted to do this for a living?
There was this place called the Paul Robeson Center for Performing Arts in Princeton, New Jersey. When I was 12 or 13, I didn’t have a winter sport so my mother signed me up for acting classes. One day, the head of the McCarter Theater came in to do an improv workshop. When it was over, he asked, “Would you like to be in a play?  We’re doing George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.” I had no idea who George Bernard Shaw was, but I did the play. It was so much fun to listen to the actors rehearse. I’d listen to my parents around the dinner table for years talking about how much they hated their jobs. For them, life started when work ended. And I was in that rehearsal room and I just couldn’t believe acting was a job. So that was the start. And then through a friend of a friend, I found out about some auditions in New York, so I started going on open calls.

How did you get cast in Explorers?
Joe Dante had just directed Gremlins, which was a big hit, and they were doing casting calls throughout the country for Explorers. I was still living in New Jersey, but I would take the train into New York. My mother let me go as long as it didn’t cost her anything. [Laughs] I didn’t have a head shot, so my buddy Brandon would do a Polaroid of me. I got called back for the Explorers screen test and they made me sign a deal memo. It never occurred to my mom that I would actually get a part! I mean, we were nobody, you know? So we flew to Los Angeles.

Was River cast at this point?
No, I met him at the screen test. It was all these young kids, and more than one of whom are deceased now. Be warned about childhood acting. It has to be done just right. It’s really tough. We stayed at the Holiday Inn and I remember eating on the roof with [actor] Peter Billingsley from A Christmas Story. He auditioned too. He was a really nice kid. In my mind, he was a huge star. When he got his tongue stuck to the pole? I was like, “Dude, you were amazing in that! Poor Peter was beat out by River for the role. It’s weird to talk about River now. It’s still hard for me not to think about how great he would’ve been in a role like this one in Born to Be Blue; how wonderful it would’ve been to see more performances; what he would’ve accomplished as an adult. And how tough it is navigating the incredibly rocky terrain of our emotional landscapes.

Why do you think you escaped the pratfalls that have claimed River’s and so many other young actors’ lives? What choices did you make that saved you from being another child-actor casualty?
Well, one of them was to not shoot heroin. If there was a big book full of all the people who wanted to have a substantive life in the arts, and you went through the list of people who didn’t live up to what they wanted for themselves, and then crossed out the names of everyone who ultimately self-destructed, you’d be left with very few people. If you can just tell yourself, “All I’m going to do is not self-destruct,” your chances of achieving what you want to go up exponentially.

It’s also very difficult for some to resist the notion that real artists live in their heads; that being tortured is simply inherent to the artist’s life.
Yes, but it’s not just artists who feel that way; they just tend to do it with a particular flair. Everyone struggles with drugs and alcohol. Everyone is navigating their own insecurities, pain, and disappointment. The use of drugs becomes, “If I can just deal with this thing I’ve put in front of myself so I don’t have to deal with the larger questions like, am I talented? Do I have something to offer?  Does the art have something to offer? Why am I living? Why am I dying?” The questions that cause all of us anxiety. I remember Robin Williams once telling me that he thought cocaine is what made him funny. He didn’t realize that he was funny without the coke.

You channeled a lot of believable angst into the character of Troy in Reality Bites. And on behalf of all women who came of age in the 1990s, thank you for creating the consummate archetype for Every Guy We Should Never Date.
[Laughs] I’m glad to have been able to teach that valuable lesson. Can I tell you a quick Reality Bites story? When I was in high school, for English class I memorized and recited a poem by Gregory Corso called "Marriage." It’s about three and a half pages long. “Should I get married, should I be good, astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and my fastless hood, not take her to movies but to cemeteries, and tell her of werewolf tongues, and four clarinets, and desire her, and kiss her, and all the preliminaries, and she going just so far, and I understand why, not getting angry.  Saying, you must feel, it’s beautiful to feel.” It stuck in my head for years.

In Reality Bites, Winona [Ryder]'s character is making this documentary about her friends. For one scene, I am goofing around on the guitar in the background and reciting the poem. Then I see the final cut of the movie and [director] Ben Stiller had put that part in. I was like, “I didn’t write that. This is a famous poem. We need permission for it! Gregory Corso wrote it.” Years later, I am walking in New York and Gregory Corso comes up to me with tears in his eyes. He’s like, “You are an angel from God.” He’d gotten a check in the mail for $17,000 for his poem having been in Reality Bites. He’s like, “You saved my life.” And I said “Well, thank my high school English teacher.” [Laughs]

You mentioned earlier your agent comparing you to Brad Pitt. Did you find it difficult to manage your team’s very different expectations with what you wanted for your career?
At this point, they’ve gotten used to me, but it was definitely harder when I was younger. For example, I was really moved by the Steppenwolf Theatre, in Chicago, early in my career. When I was a kid, they’d done True West with [John] Malkovich and [Gary] Sinise, and I saw their production of Grapes of Wrath. When I was around 25, they asked me if I would appear in Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child for their 25th anniversary. I said yes, and my agents at the time were like, “You don’t want to go to Chicago for six months and do that play.” And I was like, “Where else would I want to be?”  This is my favorite theater company in America, and they’re inviting me to work with my favorite playwright. Where else should I be? So I think I’m doing great, working hard, but I just couldn’t get a decent review. I got my ass handed to me. Critics loved the play, but it was the worst-case scenario. I always knew my name was coming up in the review when the paragraph started, “Unfortunately …”  Oh, shit. But here’s the funny thing. I did another Shepard play and everybody loved it. So what I’m saying is: I’m not in charge of what anybody else thinks about me.

Is there a role you were offered that you regret passing on?
I was driving cross-country with a buddy of mine while reading the script to Independence Day. I had been offered the part that ultimately catapulted Will Smith to international stardom. I was reading the script out loud to my friend as an example of what a piece of shit sounds like. “Listen to this! Ha! What a stupid line, right?” I literally threw it out the window of the car. I thought I was so cool. Cut to nine months later and I’m going out with this girl who lives in Austin. It’s the Fourth of July and we go see Independence Day. I think, “This’ll be fun.” I see Will Smith do all these lines that I was making fun of and they’re hysterical. The audience is loving it. And I was like, “Ohhh, I’m a moron.” I didn’t get the joke. I simply didn’t get it.

You mean that it was a wink-and-a-smile summer action movie and that it was just supposed to be fun?
Yeah — I didn’t get that. [Laughs] For a long time, I didn’t get the idea that anything was just supposed to be fun. I was also very afraid back then of doing any movie that required me to do an accent. I had this feeling that I wanted to only be “true” onscreen; that a fake voice would make me seem fake. I’d be offered a movie to play an English guy, but I’d think, “There are so many great British actors, why add a phony layer to this movie?”

And now all the British actors are taking American acting jobs.
[Laughs] Exactly. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how almost everything is an artifice. Everything that we use to define ourselves. “I’m a vegetarian. I like steak. I’m the Marlboro Man. I’m gay. I’m straight.” They are all personalities we try on as actors; that the essence of me is a lot more flexible than I first thought. There doesn’t necessarily have to be anything dishonest about, say, using a different voice. And, in fact, in this movie, Chet has a very different voice from mine. He speaks in a higher octave than I do and this changes you as an actor; puts you in a different mood. And it’s not fake, it’s just a different version of me.

Who or what has most inspired you as an actor?
Anytime I did a play, I would play a game with myself that Philip Seymour Hoffman was in the audience: “Okay, Phil’s out there, so you better do your best.” I also used to have this picture of him — I never told him this — on my desk. It was a New York Times profile whose headline was: “Portrait of an actor as an artist” with a close-up shot of his face. I see it now and he looks so unhappy, but at the time I thought he looked so cool, so deep. And when I’d read scripts I’d think, “What would Phil do?”

Denzel is ferocious, too. He has accomplished the impossible. To be a dramatic actor and a movie star in this day and age and perform at the level that he has, and with the obstacle of race? That’s amazing. They really inspire me. By the way, Phil was a character actor for years. We’d had very opposite trajectories. I had been given lead roles since the time I was 18. Phil had to fight for a lead. He was always playing the Second Cop to the Right. But he would still try to figure out who that cop was; how that cop could contribute to the larger story. He would never leave a line unmined. In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, we had this scene where we were sitting next to each other. [Director] Sidney [Lumet] wanted to get the scene in one take. We had these lines back and forth, back and forth. All of a sudden there’s a pause, and Sidney says, “Whose line is it? What’s happening?” And I was like, “Phil it’s yours.” He says, “No, it’s not my line. Ethan gave me the wrong cue.” I’m like, “What?” He’s like, “I have an idea, and if you give me the wrong cue, I can’t do it.” My line was, “Well, it’s a good day, isn’t it?” But I said, “Well, it’s a good day.” I didn’t say “isn’t it?" And he had this idea of shouting, “No, it is not!” He goes, “You’re leaving out the ‘isn’t it.’ If you give me the wrong cue, I won’t get to do what I want to do.” I was like, “All right, ‘It’s a good day, isn’t it?’” Then he yells, “It is not!” [Laughs] People who are merciless like that inspire me.

He was at once merciless and tragically averse to fame.
We are all seduced by fame, though. Even he wasn’t perfect on that front. When you work hard, you want to connect with people. It doesn’t make you a bad person. The dream is that it’s all in service of something larger than any one of us. But fame wasn’t lost on him. He thought he was pretty good. [Laughs] You have to have confidence.

For Born to Be Blue, what I’d bring to set with me every day is the question of: How can somebody so confident as an artist also be this insecure? You have to throw yourself way out on a limb; play something that doesn’t make any sense at all and then try to make sense of it. How can you find the melody with two incongruous notes? That’s the joy of improvisational jazz; finding order in chaos. When somebody does it well, it’s really beautiful.

How much of that ethos have you infused into your acting?
In a large way, the Linklater projects are these kind of disciplined improvs within a very severe architecture. Take Boyhood: We decided we were going to make a movie about the graph of youth and high school. Twelve years. But inside that ridiculous structure I can talk about whatever I want. There is order to the whimsy. Working with Richard is the most jazzlike experience you could have as an actor. 

What most attracts you to a role at this point in your career? How do you know when to say yes to a project?
It can be just a single moment in the script. I recently did this crazy spaghetti Western — a little half-cocked and out of its mind — and in it I had to do these monologues to a dog. One of my first movies was White Fang. I loved acting with that dog. Dogs don’t know they are acting, so if you start “acting,” they get suspect of you. We’ve all had this experience as actors, too; you’re acting with somebody and you can feel how self-conscious they are. They’re only thinking about the camera. But if you do that with the dog, the dog goes, like, “What are you looking at?” It’s a wonderful exercise.

I’ve never been a great shape-changer, but I find that I can push myself if I’m inside other genres. “Okay, let’s make a scary movie! Let’s make a Western! Let’s do an action-adventure! Let’s do a romance!” Definitely keep pressing out the edges of the box. But if you push yourself too far out of your comfortability, the audience is going to struggle with that choice. Jump all the way out of the box and you kind of fall on your ass.