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Playing Chet Baker in ‘Born to be Blue’ was an unexpected second chance for Ethan Hawke

Ethan Hawke in “Born to Be Blue”
Ethan Hawke stars in “Born to Be Blue,” about jazz artist Chet Baker.
(Caitlin Cronenberg)

There was some symmetry at work in this year’s release schedule, which included two movies drawn from the storied history of jazz. One, “Miles Ahead,” centered on Miles Davis as a genius fallen into dark seclusion in the late ’70s and the other, “Born to Be Blue,” looked at fellow trumpeter Chet Baker and his battle with a heroin addiction. A bit unfairly for such a rare cinematic subject, both films were released only a week apart this spring.

Both offer snapshots in time for two revered musicians, and both toy with facts to upend biopic conventions. And both hinge upon their central performances in Cheadle, who inhabits the gruff, laconic mystique of Davis and Ethan Hawke, who imbues the trumpeter’s struggle to come back from his addiction with a delicate, desperate vulnerability. Here Hawke discusses his work.

How did you come to work on “Born to Be Blue”?

[Years ago] Richard Linklater and I developed this idea of a movie about playing Chet Baker, and I really researched it. We worked really hard on trying to get it made for a couple years. It centered around Chet’s rise to fame – it was a cool story but we couldn’t get the money for it, and eventually I just got too old. So I put it aside as one of the inevitable heartbreaks.

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But 15 years later Robert Budreau sent me this script, it was about a month or so after Philip Seymour Hoffman died. I was really thinking about this kind of subject matter – artists and insecurity and depression and talent and where they all mix, and he sent me this script and it really felt like I was being offered a sequel to the movie I never got to play the first time around.

Do you think there is something to the artistic personality that can unfortunately lend itself to getting lost like this?

I would say yes, but I would make the addendum that most of us – all of us – are creative in some way and have creativity inside of us. There’s an aspect to the most sensitive parts of ourselves that if you really are in touch with them and aware of them, they can heal and transform and they can also be very damaging.

I always felt when I looked at Chet Baker and saw all the posturing and kind of the persona of “cool” that I kind of could see the insecurity in someone who would position themselves like that. A man who can’t read music, a man whose teeth are terrible and wants to be perceived constantly as cool -- I just read all the insecurity and felt like, you know, a lot of times when people struggle with addiction what they’re really struggling with is their confidence and their belief in themselves.

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Superficially the movie’s structure is a comeback story, but it’s a pretty unsparing comeback. Is it a tragedy or a triumph for you that Baker gets back onstage?

To me, that’s where the magic of the movie lives, that’s the thing I’m most proud of. The movie really ends with a question mark because he has an immense professional triumph at the same moment that he has the crippling mortal personal failure. And that is not an uncommon situation.

It’s not a conventional biopic in other ways as well, such as with the movie within a movie it breaks into.

I know, I love that -- the whole idea that I get to open the movie playing Chet Baker playing himself. You can’t take someone’s whole life and turn it into a meaningful narrative. You have to take an aspect of their life, a moment, a transition, and dramatize it.

You sing in this film. How daunting was that?

It’s good to be scared and it’s good to put yourself in situations that are petrifying because I learned a lot from it. I had this amazing vocal teacher. The thing about Chet’s singing is it was exactly like his playing. A little flat, without emotion, but so detached that it becomes melancholy and instantly nostalgic.

There’s an experience one has with dealing with addicts where patterns get repeated. Much like in this movie, it does seem a choice gets made between their life and their addiction.

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Sometimes people make a permanent decision for an impermanent problem. I’ve seen that happen. It definitely interests me, there’s a thing that happens a lot of times in movies when people talk about drug addiction. They act like the person is choosing the dark side in some way. In truth, often times people are looking to subdue their pain and they take a path that’s ultimately destructive to them, but at the moment it feels like it’s helping.

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ALSO:

For Ethan Hawke, upending the biopic, and a few other saws with it

For choreographer Mandy Moore, ‘La La Land’ was ‘the Super Bowl of my career’

Don Cheadle makes his Miles Davis film ‘feel like Miles and not just be about Miles’


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