Ethan Hawke on His Darkest Performance Yet: ‘My Two Greatest Influences… Were Lost to Heroin’

The actor opens up about his powerful turn as Chet Baker in ‘Born to Be Blue,’ in theaters March 25, losing two close friends to drugs, and his new graphic novel.

Born to Be Blue, a film about the life of the late jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, opens on a tight shot of his face. It seems bloodless, fleshless, each line and crevice a curse. As his eyes fixate on his glistening instrument, a tarantula slowly emerges from the bell and crawls towards him. That Baker’s hollow-eyed, heroin-haunted face belongs to the actor Ethan Hawke, a former matinee idol playing the “James Dean of jazz” in his twilight years, lends the portrayal an added dose of despair.

“My two greatest influences of my generation, as actors, were River Phoenix and Phil,” says a somber Hawke, referring to his late pal Philip Seymour Hoffman. “Both were lost to heroin. That was certainly on my mind throughout the making of this movie.

“I’ve spent my life around people like that,” he adds. “Having intense, brilliant confidence matched with crippling insecurity—they seem incongruous, but they often go hand-in-hand, and create a person who’s severely out of balance, who’s stumbling left, and stumbling right. I’ve always had a love and interest in those kinds of people.”

Hawke befriended Hoffman through their work in the New York theater scene, and the two later shared the screen as warring brothers in Sidney Lumet’s underrated drama Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The 45-year-old actor met Phoenix much earlier on, when they starred opposite one another in Hawke’s film debut, 1985’s Explorers. At just 18 years young, Hawke became a household name with his standout turn as a troubled student in Dead Poets Society, before achieving heartthrob status five years later as a slacker Gen Xer in Reality Bites.

“I was the grunge rocker,” says a chuckling Hawke of Reality Bites, his last onscreen musician. “But in a lot of ways, Chet might speak to me more than he speaks to others by virtue of knowing what it’s like to experience that kind of early success. One of the downsides of early success is it doesn’t leave you far to go. An ordinary temperature starts to feel ice cold once you’ve felt the spotlight, and it’s really hard on your self-esteem. So I understand that aspect, and Chet Baker had it to the extreme.”

Indeed, by his early twenties, Baker had been hand-picked to play alongside Charlie Parker, released a number of hit albums, and was even ranked by magazines as the No. 1 jazz trumpeter in the world, over (the far more talented) Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. He looked like a combo of Dean and Kerouac, and became the face of West Coast jazz. But his life soon fell apart due to a crippling heroin addiction. He was regularly in and out of jail for drug charges—including a one-year stint in an Italian prison—and in 1968, was brutally beaten during a heroin buy, resulting in the loss of his two front teeth, and a damaged embouchure, which would take years to heal. These later years are vividly captured by director Robert Budreau and Hawke, as well as the excellent Carmen Ejogo, who plays his lover, Jane.

To say that Born to Be Blue is a passion project for Hawke would be an understatement. As a young man, he found himself inspired by Bruce Weber’s Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost, an avant-garde exploration of the artist’s dark later years juxtaposed with the halcyon younger ones. “Bruce’s fascination with Chet was contagious, and then I started buying Chet Baker records,” he recalls. A narrative film project began to take shape with screenwriter Stephen Belber and longtime collaborator Richard Linklater after the trio worked on 2001’s Tape. They had what Hawke calls a “great script” on the ready, but failed to raise money for it. Then, he says he “got too old,” and ended up shooting Before Sunset with Linklater instead. Fast forward 14 years, and another Chet Baker script shows up at his hotel room while he’s filming a movie in Canada.“I felt like I had played him in my head already, and it almost felt like a sequel to a film I hadn’t made,” says Hawke. “It was meant to be.”

He took vocal lessons and practiced the trumpet for six months to prepare, since, he says, the trumpet is a pretty tough instrument to fake, though he wishes he had the luxury of at least four years of prep time.

“I made this documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, last year about a piano player, and the most important thing was capturing a love and a relationship to music, and an ethos where music is where he lives—and that I could act,” Hawke says.

Born to Be Blue made its U.S. premiere at SXSW in Hawke’s home turf of Austin, Texas—the same fest his buddy Richard Linklater’s long-gestating Dazed and Confused sequel, Everybody Wants Some!!, made its debut. The two met way back in 1993, while Hawke was serving as the artistic director of the New York theater company Malaparte. Anthony Rapp, who’d just shot Dazed with Linklater, was in one of the company’s plays, so the filmmaker came to see him. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and creative partnership that’s spanned eight films, including the Before Trilogy and his 12-year masterpiece, Boyhood.

As for whether there will be more Before films, Hawke remains cautiously optimistic. “That door will never be closed,” he says. “You watch the characters age, and time becomes this character—as it is in our own lives. And people have a relationship to it. They remember when they saw Before Sunrise, and when they saw the third. It would be fun to make another one, but my secret thought about it is that if we did another one, it would have to be part of a new trilogy. This one is complete. It would have to be Jesse and Céline embarking on a second-half-of-life story. It would be the After trilogy.”

He’s also got a pair of western projects on the horizon. The first is The Magnificent Seven remake, which reunites him with his Training Day director and co-star, Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington, as well as perhaps the biggest movie star in the world right not named Jennifer Lawrence in Chris Pratt.

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“We’re all bad guys, and seven misfits pulled together to fight,” says Hawke. “The story’s a retelling. Obviously, in the original, the bad guy is Eli Wallach playing a Mexican, but in this one, the enemy is corporate greed as metaphor—a Rockefeller-type person. And Antoine’s directing it, so it’s a lot more racially diverse. In the original, James Coburn played the knife specialist, whereas in ours, the knife specialist is a Korean, and we have a Native American in the gang, and a Latino, and Denzel is leading us, and there’s a couple white guys in the mix.”

The other western is a graphic novel, Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars, with artist Greg Ruth, that’s set to hit stores in June.

“It’s the story of the Apache Wars—Cochise, Geronimo, and their battles with General Howard, General Crook, and Lt. Gatewood, and all those guys,” says a jazzed-up Hawke. “I’ve been working on it for five or six years as a side project and I’m really excited about it. I had an idea about making a movie about Geronimo and I felt it would better lend itself to the graphic novel form. A lot of people think they know about this period of history, but in truth they don’t know much. And it’s hard not to attach a ton of white guilt to it, or the Hallmark version of the Native American chief crying on the hilltop, but we tried to get inside of it and tell it from all points of view, and from a very human point of view.”

He pauses, reflecting on his eclectic array of upcoming projects we’ve discussed: a biopic, a western, a graphic novel, and a small role in Luc Besson’s space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

“My thesis is that there are some actors who truly excel at shape-changing and being different people, and one of the ways that I’ve pushed myself to be different is to work inside different genres and to do different kinds of performances,” he says with a shrug. “It’s hard to work for 30-something years. You just want to keep it different, and keep it interesting.”