Ethan Hawke tackles the role of legendary and enigmatic West Coast jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Robert Budreau’s moody biographical film, Born To Be Blue.
Friday evening Hawke and Budreau turned up at the Lincoln Plaza Theater in Manhattan for a lively Q&A with an enthusiastic audience who had just seen the film.
In the 1950’s, Baker was a beautiful man with a cool sound who was often referred to as the James Dean of jazz. But rather than focusing on that period of his phenomenal success, the movie is set during the late 1960’s, when Baker was in his 40’s (about the same age Hawke is now), and on a downward slide.
After a savage beating by drug dealers who knocked out his teeth, Baker had to relearn how to play the trumpet despite slipping dentures and blood streaming from his mouth.
Ethan Hawke Stars as Chet Baker in ‘Born To Be Blue’
With the help of his lover Jane (Carmen Ejogo), he kicked his heroin habit (briefly) and struggled to regain his career. As soon as he played at a high level again, Baker went back to heroin, which he claimed he needed to play.
During the Q&A, Hawke and Budreau discussed their fascination with Chet Baker and what drew them to make the film.
Ethan Hawke gets into Chet Baker’s skin, with the emotions, voice, trumpet playing and singing. What was key to getting into the role in “Born To Be Blue”?
Ethan Hawke: The starting point might have been the voice … Coincidentally, I was filming in Toronto and Robert lives there. He gave me the script, so we talked and talked and talked. We’d meet for coffee. We didn’t know each other. We were thinking about the scene, what to do, and all of a sudden I realized that I should probably play the full part an octave higher than I thought. I couldn’t tell what Robert thought, “Like is this guy out of his mind?”
And then he started really digging it. And every time we’d be in rehearsal he’d go, “The voice, the voice. Don’t forget.” Oh right, right, right. And it became kind of the key to a mood and a tone. For me on this movie, the voice was that weird physical thing that let me be not Ethan.
Then we had to get certain dental appliances (Baker wore dentures). It’s such a major part of this. The teeth actually did slightly affect the diction and the pacing and the way he spoke.
In 2009 Robert Budreau made a short film entitled, “The Deaths of Chet Baker” that explored the mysteries surrounding Baker’s death. (It starred Stephen McHattie, who plays Baker’s dad in “Born to Be Blue.”) What is the fascination?
Robert Budreau: His music is the start of everything. I think my love of jazz and that ethereal, romantic, kind of mysterious West Coast sound he had, that’s the starting point. Then I think just his life because he was such a fascinating character and his story set in this time in America, which I’ve always loved, the 60’s… Knowing that I could set a story about a great musical artist at that time exploding in that scene really fascinated me.
Many artists of that period had problems with drug addiction. In the film, one of the haunting lines has to do with Baker’s heroin addiction, where he says, “It’s the thing that I need. I gotta play the jazz, but I need the heroin in order to play the jazz.”
EH: That kind of sounds like junkie talk, doesn’t it? It’s my job to say it like it makes sense, but the way people give themselves obstacles, like an addiction talks to you… I remember quitting smoking. There’s this funny thing that happens, where you’re just convinced that you should quit smoking. ‘You know it’s bad for you. It’s true. I should quit smoking. Yeah you should. Okay, it’s a great idea.’ And then you go like five or six hours and you start to think, ‘Why?’ I don’t want to.’ You know? Your brain starts playing these weird tricks and you say to yourself, “What’s so bad about smoking? I enjoy it.”
Chet Baker came of age in a time period, in the 50’s, in the bebop scene, where that is the world that he wanted. He loved Billie Holliday. He loved Charlie Parker. He wanted to be an outlaw. He didn’t covet another life. His really only period of being on methadone, once he was hooked, was to learn to play the trumpet again. And as soon as he could play at a high level again, he was back to heroin.
On the special relationship between Charlie Parker and Chet Baker:
EH: Charlie Parker really did give Chet his break. It was a really exciting moment in Chet Baker’s life auditioning for Charlie Parker, being selected as a young, white man totally in love with black culture and totally in love with bebop. Chet, like Charlie Parker, couldn’t read music. It’s because he couldn’t’ read it he had an incredible aptitude for listening and playing back even a crazy Charlie Parker solo. He understood the math of it. He heard the math of it and he could play it back. I think that’s why he was such a huge role model to Chet. They had a lot of similarities.
Did Hawke play the trumpet before this movie?
EH: I’m a world-class trumpet player. (Laughter). You may not know this about me… When you’re playing a gunslinger in a cowboy movie you’re not really a gunslinger. You just have to kind of love the attitude. I had trumpet lessons and I just started out by trying to learn ‘My Funny Valentine.’ And then went to ‘I’ve Never Been in Love Before,’ ‘Summertime,’ ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ I could never play them at a level that you would pay money to hear it, you wouldn’t even stay in the room, but I could play it and I know the fingering. I knew the breath and we’d crank up the music. I just kind of put it all together and tried to forget it and just try to be, just try to love the music.
About the chemistry between Hawke and his co-star, Carmen Ejogo (“Selma”):
EH: Robert was asking her to really create a fictional character, whereas I would go home at night, read about Chet Baker and watch interviews. She had to kind of help make sense of his many relationships, which was a big challenge. She was wonderful to work with, really wonderful.
RB: What was challenging for her is just not to be the typical passive female lover of the star, but to have some goals of her own. That’s why I think her being a struggling actress and a woman of color in America at the time, and her final choice at the end of the movie. She makes a strong choice. Chet makes a strong choice, but giving her some of that strength was really important. And it was something that I think Carmen grabbed onto.
Richard Linklater and Hawke talked about making a film about Chet Baker 15 to 20 years ago. Was the director aware of that before he decided to make Born to Be Blue?
RB: I’d certainly heard about it because there’d been a lot of Chet Baker projects floating around. I’d been told Richard Linklater had tried to do one in the past, but I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. That could be a bad thing because Ethan could have been through with that. It turned out to be the opposite, but you don’t know at the time.
On what the Linklater project was like and how it informed Hawke’s performance in this film:
EH: I was about 28 or 29 when Richard Linklater and I had an idea about making a movie about a jazzman. It was more of a beat movie, inspired by ‘Pull My Daisy,’ Robert Frank’s film, and the idea was to have a kind of movie that felt like jazz. It would be black and white, set in 1954. It was a very different thing, but it’s where my education about Chet started, where my education about jazz got serious. It was a huge help to me. I felt like Robert was offering me the sequel to a movie I never got to make, so it was wonderful to revisit this character. I was really grateful for that.
For more on Chet Baker, read Jeffrey St. Clair’s fascinating portrait of the jazz trumpeter over at Counterpunch.