“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.
In Born to Be Blue, this new shape-shifting Hawke is on full display. To play Baker, a skeletal, charismatic addict who eventually overdosed in Amsterdam, Hawke quit exercising (“I thought it would be kind of lame to look like a dude who goes to the gym”) and devoted himself to learning how to play the trumpet, or, at least, to looking convincing breathing and pressing buttons. He even — gasp! — changed his voice. Baker spoke with a high-pitched, ghostly whisper — fitting, says Hawke, as “by the end of his life, he was kind of a ghost of a person. That is what heroin does.”
Hawke had “goofed around” with music ever since Robert Sean Leonard taught him guitar on the set of Dead Poets Society. But the funny thing about playing a jazz legend is that the actual scenes are the opposite of jazz. There’s no room for improvisation when you have to copy every note Baker did on his biggest hits, even if Baker himself couldn’t have played it the same way twice. Says Hawke, “I need to stay on rhythm.”
Weirdly, he found more moment-to-moment freedom channeling 500-year-old Macbeth. Like Baker performing “My Funny Valentine” for a crowd that already knows the words, Hawke tinkered with Macbeth’s big speeches, playing with their tempo and mood. “There’s a feeling in the room that’s different every time,” says Hawke of live theater. “That can be more jazz.”
Hawke loves Baker. He’s been trying to make a film about him for 15 years. On the set of Before Sunset, he and Linklater mapped out a different, earlier biopic about Chet at 25, but Hawke aged out of the role before the film came together. Back then, Baker was jazz’s James Dean. He was cool. And, problematically, he was white, which (according to the movie) meant his own idols Miles Davis and Charlie Parker resented his massive album sales among people who preferred to buy a record with a pretty white boy on the cover. The older Baker that Hawke is playing now is still trying to win their respect. How well does it go? Just watch Don Cheadle’s Davis biopic, Miles Ahead, which opens on April 1. “Chet Baker’s name doesn’t come up in the slightest,” notes Hawke, “and in the Chet Baker movie, Miles’s name comes up maybe nine times.”
Likes Davis, Hawke doesn’t admire everything Baker represents. Baker’s whiteness was “an unfair advantage.” Plus, like James Dean, Baker is an icon of doomed genius. “He had a huge self-sabotaging streak.”
“We have a little hero worship with the people who pour gasoline over themselves and light themselves on fire. It creates this feeling in young people that to be a great artist you have to do that,” says Hawke. “I struggle with this as someone who wants to work and to live a long time. It’s much harder to make your best film at 83. To fight the long fight is not dramatic — and people tend to not make movies about that.”
So maybe happy, hardworking Hawke will spend his life making biopics about tragic artists instead of anyone making a biopic about him. He seems fine with that. After all, with his new delight in fakery, there’s a lifetime of characters left to play.