Reborn To Be Blue

Ethan Hawke talks about the new, more adventurous direction of his career, his more reserved artistic past, and his new Chet Baker biopic

“An actor’s life really works in chapters,” says Ethan Hawke on a breezy afternoon in his hometown of Austin, Texas, during the South By Southwest festival. When you’ve been a movie star since you were a teenager, later on some of those chapters can feel silly. Like when Hawke was 22 and about to become the poster boy of Gen X, and swore cigarettes were his identity. Not just smoking — he obsessed about the brand. “I couldn’t smoke Parliament,” chuckles Hawke. “I’m a Marlboro guy.”

He grew past that. Then came Hawke’s fixation on authenticity, an odd contradiction when your career is playing make-believe.

“I did not want to be fake,” says Hawke. Imitate a British accent? No way. He was American and he’d sound like it. Otherwise, he worried that audiences would focus on him, that Teen Beat heartthrob, and not his character. “Take someone brilliant like Meryl Streep,” he explains. “Now that I know that you aren’t actually German, I am now watching you act — which is always antithetical to what I like about acting: to try and make people think that you are not acting.”

His friends tried to give him advice. “When I was a little kid and doing my first movie with River Phoenix, he was obsessed with how every person walks differently,” says Hawke. Phoenix would start with the shoes and then construct a character by changing his gait. “I was so scared about lying that I just did not want to do that,” says Hawke. He didn’t have to. Just by channeling himself — a sensitive, somewhat immature intellectual — he was doing great work in memorable movies. Fiction writers love sensitive, somewhat immature intellectuals, in everything from Reality Bites and Before Sunrise to Hamlet and Great Expectations.

Finally, 10 years ago Hawke decided it was time to shake up his style. It was time for a new chapter — or, as he puts it, “a whole other room of acting opening up to me.” Take his last couple of years: He spent four months in the mind of the Scottish murderer Macbeth for a play at New York’s Lincoln Center, then, two weeks after that wrapped, he was in Las Vegas talking to Air Force pilots for Good Kill, a drama about a depressive drone pilot. Then he jumped into a Western, In the Valley of Violence, where he spent every day riding horses and bonding with a border collie named Jumpy, whose owner claims she’s the best-trained dog in the world. (Seriously, look on YouTube — I’m convinced.) And when Valley wrapped, Hawke plunged into Born to Be Blue, a biopic of heroin-addicted jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, in theaters now.

In his weeks off, Hawke directed a documentary about his favorite pianist, Seymour: An Introduction; shot the quickie box office horror hit The Purge; and raced around the awards circuit championing Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which won him his first Best Supporting Actor nomination.

After 31 years in Hollywood, how is Hawke more energetic than ever? “I’m happier in my life,” says Hawke. “When your job is such an identity crisis, it’s constantly spinning. That’s why my relationship with my wife is so important — it creates consistency and balance.”

Also, frankly, the film business has changed. “Movies don’t pay like they used to,” says Hawke. Indie films are cheaper and faster. “When I was younger, your average film shoot would be 12 weeks,” says Hawke. An actor used to feel busy making two films a year. Today, he continues, “they shoot half as long, like six weeks.” Now he can squeeze in four.

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