In Robert Budreau’s new film Born to Be Blue, Ethan Hawke brings troubled West Coast jazz titan Chet Baker to the silver screen. But rather that focusing on the legendary trumpeter’s meteoric rise in the early ’50s or his late-career revival in the ’80s, Blue tackles a transitionary period in the late ’60s that found Baker kicking his heroin addiction (for a short while) and searching to reclaim his mojo. Hawke, 45, discusses the film’s surreal approach to Baker’s life — and reveals why actors love playing musicians.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to play Chet Baker?
ETHAN HAWKE: I saw Bruce Weber’s [1988 Baker documentary] Let’s Get Lost around the time I graduated high school, and it introduced me to this incredibly mysterious soul. I started buying his records, and a few years later Richard Linklater and I started developing a Chet Baker movie. That fell apart, but I had done all this research about playing the part and was really excited about it. That was a real burning itch that didn’t get satiated. Fifteen years go by, and [director] Robert Budreau sends me this script about Chet in his 40s; it managed to get around a lot of the clichés of your basic biopic. I was hypnotized by it.
The movie zooms in on a brief period of Chet’s life and also distorts some facts. Why?
A lot of biopics get lost in trying to maintain factual accuracy as if they were a documentary. I like the idea of trying to dive into the myth and just play around with it. He is such an enigmatic, mysterious person that the idea of trying to imagine his reality was a really fun exercise. He had this detached coolness about him that allows for people to project onto him whatever they want. It was a unique challenge to make him somebody specific. You can’t just play a cool stud smoking cigarettes and saying tough guy things — that’s probably not accurate.
How did you get into character?
I’d get dressed in these crazy outfits from the period. You could find videos of him playing and of him talking. It was easy to conjure his spirit because I had so much to draw from. To play a part like this, you kind of have to disappear down a rabbit hole a little bit. It’d be hard to go down the rabbit hole to play J. Edgar Hoover, because who the hell wants to be J. Edgar Hoover? [Laughs] Being Chet Baker has its upsides: beautiful women, jazz. If you love jazz and you love this world, it’s difficult to call it work.
Will his story resonate with viewers who aren’t familiar with his music?
Chet has a peculiar celebrity: Some people act like he’s a household name, and other people get him confused with [musician] Chet Atkins. As a filmmaker you have to make it assuming nobody knows anything. You can’t rely on the baggage of the subject matter to carry you through the day. The movie needs to be just as interesting if his name is Chet Baker or Dan McGillicuddy. Chet Baker’s not the only one to really suffer with insecurity and a midlife crisis. He’s not the only one to fight these demons of addiction and that war between really believing in yourself and really hating yourself. He’s not the first to walk that razor’s edge.
What was your favorite period of Baker’s music?
You take somebody like Miles Davis and everything Miles did is a work of staggering genius. Even the one’s you don’t like, you have to admire the artistry of. And that’s not true for Chet: There’s a lot of mediocre work, a lot of water poured into his beer.
There’s two high-water marks for me. One is really close to the end of his life: The  Live From Tokyo performance is just everything he ever wanted to be. Even the most discerning of jazz critics will watch that and say, “This guy is performing at an extremely high level, with the best of the best.”
The other is [the mid-’50s recording] Chet in Paris: You can see this period as really formative. [Bandleader] Gerry Mulligan had gone to prison. Chet was a great trumpeter but not really a bandleader and now, without Gerry around, he was being asked to be a bandleader. He was being asked out of his comfort zone. [Pianist] Dick [Twardzik] was really pushing Chet outside of just doing bebop versions of the standards and really pushing him to do original music — looking at Miles and looking at the future of music. If jazz kept being retro, it was going to die. Dick OD’ed shortly after that album [in 1955]. There are people that blame Chet Baker for Dick’s overdose. I’ve often felt that in playing [Baker] he always expected that death [for himself], it just took a lot longer than he thought and was a lot tougher than others.
Why do actors like to portray musicians in movies?
One thing about studying Shakespeare as an actor is that you start to hear the music in language — Shakespeare and the best rappers have a lot in common. There’s a musicality to language. Music is just about as powerful a unifying force as we have. It’s without language, it’s without race, it’s without so much. It’s no mystery why actors want to tell their stories and why audiences want to see it — it’s because we want to be a little closer to the music. If you closed your eyes and laid on the floor and listened to two Chet Baker albums, it puts you in a trance. I felt like this movie should operate inside of that same trance.