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Ethan Hawke: This movie is not a biopic about Chet ... it's a story of two people madly in love

If action-packed blockblusters aren’t your thing, Ethan Hawke’s stylish new film about the late trumpeter Chet Baker might fit the bill. The actor talks to Susan Griffin about capturing the ‘real’ spirit of the troubled musician

Published 22/07/2016

My funny Valentine: Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo in Born to Be Blue
My funny Valentine: Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo in Born to Be Blue
Ethan Hawke
Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker

Summer marks blockbuster season, so it's a brave move for a small, melancholic movie about a legendary jazz trumpeter to go up against the studio Titans.

Unless you don't deem it a big-screen battle, that is.

"I reject the whole idea of everybody turning art into a competition," says Ethan Hawke, who plays the late Chet Baker in Born To Be Blue.

"When I was younger, you never knew how much a movie made, and all of a sudden they started printing in the newspaper as if it were a competition.

"Now they've even started grading your reviews. There are people in the world that want to see a superhero movie and they should go see one, and there are people that want to see a romance and they should come see our movie."

Hawke, who came to prominence in 1989's Dead Poets Society and was hailed a Nineties heart-throb alongside the likes of Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, was 28 when the idea of playing Baker in a movie was first put to him, at that time by film-maker Richard Linklater.

"Richard and I were exploring it. We had a script, were workshopping it, but we could never get the money to make it," says Hawke, now 45, who's worked with Linklater numerous times over the years, including on 1998's The Newton Boys, the Before trilogy alongside Julie Delpy and 2014's Boyhood, which was filmed over 12 years.

Those ideas didn't come to fruition; though the actor still got his chance to play Baker.

"When Robert (Budreau, Born To Be Blue's writer and director) approached me, I really didn't want to let this ship sail away again," Hawke explains.

"What was strange when this movie came around 15 years later, was that I felt like I was being offered the sequel to the movie that I never got to make."

Does he believe in everything happening for a reason?

"It sure seems they do sometimes," remarks Hawke, dressed in a white shirt and muted green suit.

"I feel that, as an actor, this was a really exciting moment in his (Baker's) life. If I had played him when I was younger, it was the shallow, callous kid; it's a less interesting moment for a performer to explore. Whereas in this moment, he is a person who's completely ripped apart and has to be rebuilt."

The trumpeter was languishing in an Italian jail on drug convictions in the early-Sixties when he was reportedly approached about starring in a movie about his own life.

The film never materialised but Budreau used this as the inspiration for Born To Be Blue - the film's been described as remaining true to the spirit of Baker, while not being dictated by facts.

"It's hard to describe, but I always imagine if you laid down in your room and put on a Chet Baker record, this is the movie that you would imagine," says Hawke, who made his directorial debut with his 2001 drama Chelsea Walls and wrote his first novel, The Hottest State, in 1996, which he adapted for the screen and directed a decade later.

"There's an expression, 'Don't trust the teller, trust the tale'," he adds.

"Robert's imagining does a really powerful thing to the whole idea of a biopic, which is (to highlight) the fraudulence of it. You can't capture a human being. Our lives don't work in a narrative, they don't have a beginning, middle and end."

As part of this re-imagining, the script takes Baker's most influential relationships with women and combines them into one, with Jane, played by Carmen Ejogo, who stars in the upcoming Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them.

"Getting to do a love story makes it not a biopic. It really functions as a simple grown-up love story, whether you've heard of Chet Baker or not," notes Hawke, who has four children, two from his former marriage to Uma Thurman and two with his second wife, Ryan Shawhughes.

The character's contradictions, an Oklahoma farm boy who became an acclaimed and charismatic yet troubled jazz star, was part of the appeal for the actor.

"I always thought that 'too cool for school', depressed, drug fiend story didn't seem true," Hawke remarks of Baker, who died in 1988 aged 58.

"I've lost friends to heroin, I've had family members addicted to heroin, and there's always this kind of mask you put on drug addicts, where the drugs are 'bad'. Of course, they are bad, they ruin people. But I wanted to do a portrait of the person underneath that 'bad' person.

"I wouldn't want to do a portrait of Chet Baker if it didn't have compassion. And you don't want to do an airbrushed version.

"The guy had a lot of problems. I find it (the film) captures the mystery of addictive behaviour, of addiction, and the sadness around it."

Hawke and Ejogo, whose children go to the same school in Brooklyn, would meet up with Budreau in the months prior to the cameras rolling.

"He'd sit down with us at a cafe and we'd pitch about the script, what we liked about it and what we didn't. He'd go away for 10 days and come back with some new pages. It was a really fun process." Preparing to play one of the world's greatest musicians is no small undertaking.

"You know, I asked my trumpet teacher how much prep I really needed, because I had a couple of months," reveals Hawke, laughing. "He said, 'I'd ask for eight years'."

Of course, being an actor, "you don't have to be a world class trumpet player, you just have to look like one", reasons Hawke, whose next movie is a remake of The Magnificent Seven, directed by Antoine Fuqua and co-starring Denzel Washington.

"It was great to get to work with Antoine and Denzel again, that was pretty awesome," notes the star, who collaborated with them on 2001's Training Day, which earned Hawke one of his four Academy Award nominations (the other three were for best adapted screenplay for Before Sunset and Before Midnight, and one for best supporting actor for Boyhood).

"There are some movies that are really hard. Born To Be Blue was challenging because it lives and dies on its humanity and what it has to offer," says Hawke.

"Then there's another kind of movie, like The Magnificent Seven, where it feels like you've won a lottery to get to be in it, because I was riding horses, shooting guns...

"That's what's interesting about our job, it's always changing."

Born To Be Blue is at cinemas on Monday

Belfast Telegraph

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