Ethan Hawke's love of music runs deep. In 1994 he directed a Lisa Loeb music video; and more recently he directed Seymour: An Introduction (2015), a documentary about a classical pianist who gave up performing to become a teacher. Now, he's stepping into the shoes of jazz legend Chet Baker in Robert Budreau's biopic—or rather, "anti-biopic"—Born to Be Blue.
Born to Be Blue is an "anti-biopic" because many of the stories and characters in it are fictitious, and director Budreau doesn't try to sell you on its reality. It ultimately is about Chet Baker, but the film is focused more on honoring the spirit of Baker rather than accuracy. It's also incredibly striking visually, as Budreau mixes beautiful landscape shots with '60s outfits and moments of bluish black-and-white. It's further elevated by Hawke's performance—a standout even for someone who always delivers—as he navigates the complex character of a tormented genius who has so much passion and love but is also selfish, naive, and tends to make wrong life decisions.
After an overwhelming reception at SXSW we sat down with star Ethan Hawke and director Robert Budreau to talk about the meta-ness of the film, Hawke's cheekbones, and a possible jazz cinematic universe.
Why is this film one to see, especially if you didn't grow up loving Chet Baker?
Robert Budreau: The themes we explore in this—addiction, race, the state of music in America—are all really relevant to people now. I think a lot of older folks will know Chet Baker and know the music and the times, and they'll love it. But I think for younger people these are still really important issues, and at the heart of this movie is a love story, and the choice that an artist has to make, and I think that's very universal.
I like that it was also not a straight biopic either. In the film Chet falls in love with an actress who plays his wife in a movie, but I couldn't find info on that in his real life. Did you make that up?
Budreau: Yeah, she was fiction. Most biopics completely imagine events, but they still present it in a way as if this is exactly what happened. We took an approach where we wanted to be upfront and actually celebrate the fact that it's a jazz movie, and we're going to riff off that. So we present her as fictitious because it's the actress who is playing his past wife, and she even complains about it. And Chet's character is like, "This isn't what fucking happened!"
Ethan Hawke: It hopes to have some kind of meta thing underneath it. And I think that's the thing I'm most proud of. If you want to know about Chet Baker, you can go online and read Wikipedia and watch YouTube. But I find I really love to see a great romance of an adult relationship, and to see one set in this setting, in this milieu, the jazz period in the late '60s.
What emotional, mental, or physical preparation did you do for this role?
Hawke: It just couldn't have been more challenging. Vocally—the way he talked—is so different from the way that I speak, and is a key to his character, to the period, to his relationship to his instrument and to his talent is so unique. The level jazz musicians have to practice and the level of the obsession that they usually enter is so specific. I've played characters that had to sing before, but they didn't have to sing well. They didn't actually have to be good. I sang in Boyhood, but he's just a dad singing to his kids. When you're playing a person who has a recording contract, it's different.
What does ego mean in this film?
Hawke: That's interesting. How ego manifests in somebody who's dealing with somebody who is being wildly celebrated, and also how it manifests when they are being celebrated to a huge extent and then fall from grace. I mean, most people can't even understand what it's like to be celebrated on the level that he was celebrated, and then be imprisoned, incarcerated, and forgotten. It's just such a rollercoaster ride of a life that he had. He was an outlaw in a lot of ways.
I'm sure you're aware the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead is also coming out. I was kind of hoping that Don Cheadle would make an appearance in the movie. Like a Jazz Cinematic Universe.
Budreau: Like an Avengers for Jazz.
Hawke: That would be fun. We thought about asking him.
Both this film and that film focus on the time in the musician's life where they're a little past their prime, and there's some trauma they're struggling with. Why do you think that is?
Hawke: Well, people in their prime aren't very interesting. They're usually having fun. Getting everything you want isn't interesting. What's interesting is the story before it happened, or the story after it happened.
This is such a great city to show a music-related film.
Budreau: It's perfect for us.
Hawke: I should have brought Charlie Sexton last night. He's excited to see it. But I'm a little nervous because I think he would play Chet Baker so well. He looks more like him than I do.
Budreau: Yeah, he's got the cheekbones.
That question about Chet Baker's cheekbones from last night's Q&A was hilarious.
Hawke: I was thinking about that question, when somebody said, "Why is it in some shots, Ethan looks so much like Chet Baker?" Have you ever noticed you look so much more like yourself? This is getting pretty existential, but you see pictures from your own wedding, and you're like, "God I don't look like myself there." And then in another shot, you're like, "Oh that's vintage me." Sometimes, I'll be hanging out with Denzel Washington all day, and he doesn't really look like Denzel Washington. And then you see him walk out, and it's like "Oh, there's Denzel."
To read more on SXSW 2016, click here.