It was a suspiciously tranquil Ethan Hawke who appeared on the eighteenth floor of the InterContinental hotel in Toronto. This was lunchtime on Sunday afternoon, day four (of eleven) of the Toronto International Film Festival — the most tempestuous hours of a whirlwind week. Sunday is a maelstrom of press days and photo ops, of red carpets and world premieres; trying to secure any time with a star one-on-one is like trying to high-five a bungee-jumper while skydiving.
The deluge of conferences and Q&As he’d endured that weekend would trounce a man of any resolve — would humble and humiliate him, reducing him to platitudes and weak smiles behind oversized shades. Hawke looked as if he’d just hit the tanning salon or enjoyed a dip in the tub.
Thickly goateed and aloofly baseball-capped, Hawke sat at the far end of his hotel suite’s ten-foot table. “You sit on that end and I’ll sit over here and we can play a game of chess,” he joked by way of introduction. “That would be an interesting interview technique, wouldn’t it? To challenge somebody to a game of chess?”
You would be hard-pressed to find a more gregarious interview subject, it quickly seemed. Almost straight away, he launched into an interview, but one of a different ilk. “You write for the Village Voice?” he asked, seeming genuinely interested. “How cool, man. That’s my favorite paper.” But with interest comes responsibility. Hawke’s demeanor turned serious. “So,” he said. “What do we talk about?”
We were there to talk about Chet Baker. Hawke stars as the esteemed jazz trumpeter in the new film Born to Be Blue, a lovely, unconventional biopic set to screen for the first time later that afternoon. The pressing question regarding the film is fixed on a rumor that’s been floating around for many years: that Hawke was already cast as Baker much earlier — in a film by Richard Linklater. Was it true?
Hawke lit up at once. “Yeah, when I was about 25, Rick and I were developing this idea about Chet Baker,” he said. “We wanted to do a kind of…well, a Beat movie. A little bit like Pull My Daisy or something like that. A jazz film about a jazz group, but it was gonna be different. So I really explored Chet and got to know him a lot then.” Alas, it didn’t work out at the time. “We could never get the money to make the movie. It was always this missed opportunity I had.”
Nearly twenty years later, Hawke was approached by a Canadian director, Robert Budreau, who had a Baker idea of his own. “Robert came at me with this: Here’s Chet in his mid-forties,” Hawke remembered. “And it was interesting, because I almost felt like I had played him already in his twenties. I felt like I really knew the guy. It was a wonderful key into the emotion. I felt connected to this person because I’d been thinking about playing him for twenty years.”
It’s difficult to appreciate how ideally suited Hawke is to the role until you see him perform it. In action it’s astonishing: The man gets the legend down precisely. Most extraordinary is Hawke’s total commitment to nailing Baker’s on- and offstage personas. It was an essential part of Baker, of course, that he sang and played trumpet — so Hawke sings and plays trumpet, too. It’s one thing to beseech an actor to learn an instrument in an everyday capacity. But this is hardly everyday. This is Chet Baker. How do you learn to play like that?
“You can’t do it,” Hawke said, laughing. “That’s what’s nice about it: You just can’t do it.” Instead, Hawke learned to play along convincingly to tracks prerecorded by a session musician — but the vocals are all his. “What made that possible is that he’s not a good singer. What’s moving about his singing is that there’s something personal and private about it — something detached. That’s actable.” It was a shame he wasn’t playing a pianist: They could do the usual movie-magic trick of cutting to someone else’s hands.
“You know what my favorite moment of that is?” Hawke said. “If you ever watch Amadeus, the fact that Tom Hulce could play that piece backwards — remember that? They turned him upside-down and he has to reverse his hands and play. That was amazing! The actor in me watches that scene and thinks, man, that takes hours of practice.”
That’s Hawke for you: always thinking of the fun thing, the ecstatic thing. But Born to Be Blue itself broaches a different sort of difficulty — less a matter of virtuosity than of ideology. This is a jazz film by a white director with a white star about a white musician. It is inescapable that the film contend with race.
“It’s a hard thing to address,” Hawke began, cautiously, “because it’s very complicated.” He thought for another moment. “There’s a great story that I tried to get into the movie, but it didn’t make it: When Chet won all these jazz polls, Chet told Miles Davis that he wanted to write to him and Dizzy and Cliff Brown and Louis Armstrong. He wanted to write them all letters and apologize, you know? And Miles Davis said, ‘Why would you stop there? I can think of 30 musicians that can play the trumpet better than you — and they’re all black.’ ”
That question of appropriation — and of a white audience preferring a white face on black music — lingers through the film, at times provocatively. For Hawke the matter was unavoidable.
“It’s an issue that’s been going on in the U.S. for a long time: white people delivering what black people are doing to white culture. White culture won’t buy the goddamn record until they see a white person doing it. When Elvis first recorded ‘That’s All Right,’ you know, they did ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ as the B side, which was a way of secretly telling all those country bumpkins that it’s OK to buy this record, because he’s white. It was a Bill Monroe song, and only white people liked Bill Monroe.
“It’s a big issue that does loom over the whole jazz world. The same way it looms over the r&b world or the rap world. But ultimately, working together is the answer. I mean, Dr. Dre and Eminem put out some great music, you know? And Chet Baker played with a lot of great black musicians. Charlie Parker gave him his shot. He’s just a white guy who loves black people. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last. It doesn’t mean it has to be reciprocal.”
But in the end, Hawke feels, the music is what matters — and the music is on a different level. It binds rather than divides. “What I love about music,” he said, “is that music itself is beyond language and beyond our parents and where we come from. It’s a meeting place. It lives in the ether. It’s a language without words, so we can meet there. That’s what it should serve as.”