Ethan Hawke is working hard these days, in a wide range of roles, from his long-term collaborations with Richard Linklater in the “Before” trilogy (with co-writer-costar Julie Delpy) and “Boyhood,” which explore the complex dynamics between men and women through marriage and parenthood, to his latest film, “Born to Be Blue” (which just hit VOD), writer-director Robert Budreau’s low-key portrait of melancholy jazz junkie Chet Baker.
With a rich performing career behind him, Hawke is finding his stride as a nuanced thespian in his 45-year-old prime. Sometimes maturity is an asset for an actor—experience brings emotional depth and gravitas. And Hawke has enough clout on the foreign finance side to get movies made. Unlike some in his profession, he’s trying to make smart picks, taking some risky bets that have paid off.
In the year since “Boyhood” Hawke has taken on quite a few films in a range of budgets, from Jason Blum horror flicks to Andrew Niccol’s drone pilot drama “A Good Kill” (IFC) and Rebecca Miller’s festival hit “Maggie’s Plan” (SPC, May 20), a delicious relationship triangle comedy co-starring Julianne Moore and Greta Gerwig. Hawke has never been better.
I ran into Hawke on several occasions in the past few weeks, at the opening of Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” in New York, at SXSW, where he promoted two films, “Born to Be Blue” (proudly displaying his custom blue Armani suit at a jazz party), and Ti West’s gritty spaghetti western “In a Valley of Violence,” in which he plays a damaged—and dangerous— ex-soldier with nothing to lose but his horse and beloved dog. He also got to practice his outlaw skills for the upcoming “The Magnificent Seven”(September 23, Sony/MGM).
Hawke has scored four Oscar nominations so far, for supporting roles in “Training Day” (Warner Bros.) and “Boyhood” (IFC Films) and two for co-writing “Before Sunset” (Warner Independent Pictures) and “Before Midnight” (Sony Pictures Classics). His documentary about a musician’s process, “Seymour: An Introduction” (IFC’s Sundance Selects) debuted at the New York Film Festival, and in 2013 the theater veteran starred on Broadway in “Macbeth.”
Carmen Ejogo is a strong counterfoil as the actress he meets in a never-completed black-and-white Baker biopic (in real life it was never shot), who helps him to get back on his feet, supporting him and nursing his wounds, physical and emotional. She also teaches him how to be a better man and lover. So this jazzy movie is also a sexy romance.Hawke and I talked in Beverly Hills, where I used my iPhone to shoot a blue-tinged video snippet of our longer interview, below.
Ethan Hawke: That movie came out right around the time that I graduated high school, and when I was really first paying attention and caring about music. So that movie had a big impact on me. First of all, it looked so cool and made the whole world, that jazz ethos, so seductive and interesting. And “‘Round Midnight” and “Bird” came out around the same time, and those films were my early jazz teachers. And like you, I mean, after Bruce Weber’s film came out, I started buying the records. And there’s something so mysterious. He lures you in, Chet, you feel like you’re hip to a secret or something.
Well, you know, all those drugs and alcohol… Not all of them, but a great many of them are painkillers. And in some way, it’s how people manage the pain that they’re in and there are healthy ways to manage that and unhealthy ways. But my feeling, I remember whenever I would look at those old William Claxton photos and you really see that’s where he was the James Dean of jazz, him and that horn, those images are so powerful. But it’s really two-dimensional. I remember thinking, if you look behind that, I could imagine a tremendous amount of insecurity.
So was Baker insecure about being the West Coast “soft” jazz guy, the one who was white?
He came to me. He had an idea that I thought could make this possible. which was that Dino De Laurentiis had approached Chet to star in his own life story. It’s a great idea, because the movie never happened —Chet screwed it up in prep before it got to production, but it imagines they did get into it. I found it so interesting as a way to debunk the whole idea of a biopic by starting with something that didn’t happen, illuminating how not real any biopic scenario could possibly be, so smart, instead of giving into the cliche beatnik jazz movie, with unfiltered cigarettes.What was it like shooting “Maggie’s Plan” with Rebecca Miller, Julianne Moore and Greta Gerwig?
Very much so. That movie came out in a funny way, I’d done several genre movies with Jason Blum, I told him I was done doing scary movies. We were both obsessed with bringing back the cheap spaghetti western, not a big swashbuckling thing, but Sergio Leone. So he had a meeting with Ti West, who was also done with scary movies and wanted to do a western. “Why don’t you two get together?” I was doing “Macbeth” at Lincoln Center, and Ti came to see it, called Jason and he wrote a script, showed it to us three weeks later. When he writes it’s fast and hard, I have never had anything go from idea to completion of photography so fast, in six months. I grew up watching that stuff, my horseback riding is better now that I did “Magnificent Seven,” the combination of the two, I spent more time last year on a horse than since I was 13.
You seem to have changed the way you choose projects.
You were experienced enough to play Chet Baker; it was a plum role.
A plum is both hard to reach and really ripe. I felt ready for it. I don’t know if I would have felt ready for it, before.