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Ethan Hawke is fiddling with a spoon. It’s late afternoon this March 21 and the Oscar-nominated actor (Before Sunrise, Boyhood) has just finished a press junket at the swanky London West Hollywood hotel for Born to Be Blue, in which he plays jazz great Chet Baker.
He’s restless — and who can blame him? He tries to grip the spoon with one eye, then the other eye, and even covers his mouth with it.
But that doesn’t prevent Hawke, 45, from chatting about the character he’s longed to play since he was 18, when Dead Poets Society launched his career. Baker, a heroin addict who sold his musical instruments to pay for his habit and also spent time behind bars, died in 1988 at age 58.
IFC Films opens Born to Be Blue in select theaters March 25.
Did you relate to Chet Baker’s drug problem?
I don’t have a drug problem, yet I’ve been surrounded by people with drug and alcohol problems my whole life, like anyone alive on the planet. It’s a real issue, you know, how people manage their disappointment, their pain, their fear.
Your friend Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose in 2014.
Yes, I got the script shortly after he passed away.
Why Chet Baker?
There’s not that many white guys who are great at jazz, so he was remarkable. And the fact that he played with Charlie Parker and was part of the whole bebop scene is really exciting. People love to talk about the darkness of it, but I find that whole world to be completely fun. It’s incredibly seductive to me, and there’s a romance that’s undeniable.
What do you think when you see yourself onscreen?
You find yourself thinking the stupidest thoughts: “Why do I twitch like this?” “Stop doing that with your face, what’s wrong with you!” Gene Hackman used to say there’s nothing good [that comes] from watching yourself and I think that’s true.
This summer The Magnificent Seven reunites you with Denzel Washington and your Training Day director, Antoine Fuqua. It’s your first studio movie in some time.
I’m a dramatic actor. Studios made a decision not to deal with me or anybody like me. Working inside the studio system as a dramatic actor is very hard. Very few have been able to thread that needle, like Denzel and Russell Crowe. The movies that were my bread and butter — whether Before Sunrise, Gattaca or Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — aren’t getting made at studios anymore. It’s telling that Before Sunrise was made at a studio, while Before Sunset was made by a studio specialty arm. And Before Midnight was self-financed. So that’s the way the industry has moved. It’s not really my choice.
You were shooting Magnificent with Chris Pratt when Jurassic World came out. Did you give him a hard time?
It’s funny, because we had both Chris and Vincent D’Onofrio, the good guy and the bad guy from Jurassic World. There were a lot of dinosaur jokes, for sure. But I won’t say what they were. [Laughs]
Do you have a dream role?
I’d like to play King Lear in my 80s and I would like to do it well. I feel like my whole life is in preparation for such a thing. And I want Richard Linklater to direct.
Describe him in three words.
My friend Richard Linklater is an unmovable force. Wait, that’s only two words, isn’t it? A funny, unmovable force.
Do you have a dream director you’d like to work with?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I would scream for joy if Marty Scorsese called.
He lives in New York, and so do you. Why?
The theater. Theater is the second-class citizen here in Los Angeles, and in New York it’s first class.
How do you get around?
I live in Brooklyn, and Uber is heaven on Earth. The subway’s great and it’s faster, but you can’t make phone calls.
What happens if that other New Yorker, Donald Trump, wins the election?
If Trump wins, our whole lives will become some strange Kurt Vonnegut sci-fi novel. I really just can’t imagine such a scenario.
Bernie or Hillary?
I think they’re both great candidates.
Your great-great uncle was Tennessee Williams. What do you remember?
I was 13 when he died. He was in a different part of the family, but he made me believe that somebody remarkable could be anywhere among us.
Watch the Born to Be Blue trailer below.
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