Ethan Hawke is a self-professed jazz lover, but the actor has never had the chance to pay tribute to the music genre in his own films until now.
For his latest project "Born to Be Blue," the actor plays the lead role of real-life jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. The film, written and directed by Robert Budreau, tells the story of Baker, who soared to fame in the 1950s but publicly struggled throughout his life with a heroin addiction. In the film, viewers meet Baker in the late sixties as he's trying to make a comeback into the music scene.
Hawke talked with CBS News ahead of the film's release about bringing the famed musician to life.
This isn't the first time you wanted to tell Chet Baker's story. What makes it so compelling for you?
Well I don't know. Maybe it's the fact that when I was a kid and I saw "Let's Get Lost," the documentary on Chet Baker, I found it and him kind of hypnotizing and enigmatic at the same time. There is something just seductive about that world and him and his energy. And I always thought it was right for a good story. And if you love jazz, there aren't that many white guys to play.
This role focuses on such a specific time in his life - what did you learn about who Chet Baker this time around that you didn't know prior?
I don't think I really understood how big of a deal it was for him to learn to play again. As not being a trumpet player, I didn't really know what having all your teeth knocked out would do to a trumpet player. You know, losing your embouchure, having to build another one and having to play with dentures is an extremely difficult thing to undergo. And I didn't realize how hard he worked to be able to play again; I found it kind of moving.
Is it any more difficult to play a real person as opposed to a character created for you?
It's both easier and a lot harder. It's easier because you have this rich dynamic person from which to draw ideas. When you are creating a character on your own, you have to make that stuff up in your head and it's hard to find a rhyme or reason to it. The difficulty is figuring out how to be respectful to the iconography and respectful to the real person, without being too respectful, because if you're too respectful you are not really telling a story.
I feel like it was my job to give you something more, to give you what my personal connection to it is. For me, Chet lives more as a myth and a legend of a jazz musician and we were really way more interested in the legend than in any factual accuracy. I think for example if you get into imitation, there is something cheap about that.
How do you connect to someone you are playing them without actually imitating them?
I knew we weren't trying to do a factually accurate imitation, and so I decided not to reach out to his wife and kids because in a way I knew if I did, I would lose interest in seeing him as a myth. It would become all too real. I spent my whole life around artists and people who struggle with depression and insecurity and I really wanted to create a real person who is struggling to get over that midlife crisis.
In making this film, did you find that the public (or you) had any misconceptions about who Chet Baker really was?
When people become icons they become a deity of sorts, and they cease to be human. And my goal as an actor was to humanize the guy. If you think of Chet Baker, you might think of those William Claxton photos, when he was young and so picturesque and beautiful. You might think of the washed up ghost-face like person that you see in "Let's Get Lost." I tried to imagine a more three- dimensional person; who is the guy that lives in between you know.
Various films about legendary artists are coming out all within the same time frame. Do you think this is a moment for music in film?
I think it's exciting because I love Miles Davis and I love Chet Baker and I love that people are interested. You know jazz music is a part of our country and national identity so it will always be revisited, I think.
"Born to be Blue" is in theaters now.
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