'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Ethan Hawke ('Born to Be Blue')

Ethan Hawke - H Getty 2016
Brent N. Clarke/FilmMagic/Getty Images

"I often feel like a cat, and I know other actors must feel that way, too," says actor-writer-director Ethan Hawke as we sit down to record an episode of the Awards Chatter podcast. "We're all just staying alive. People imbue as if we have all this agency, as if I get to do everything I wanna do." Hawke, who has been in the business since he was a kid, hasn’t always gotten to do what he wants to do. But in Robert Budreau's Born to Be Blue — a biopic, now in select theaters, in which he plays jazz legend Chet Baker — he is getting to do something he has wanted to do for many years. And his performance has generated more Oscar chatter than any other in 2016, thus far.

(Click below to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Amy Schumer, Harvey Weinstein, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Kristen Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Ridley Scott, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore and Lily Tomlin.)

Hawke made his first film, Joe Dante’s Explorers, at the age of 14, after prevailing from a nationwide casting search. The highly anticipated $30 million film ended up flopping, which "was pretty devastating to me,” he recalls. “I just kind of lost my mojo about it all." He went out for only two other roles over the next four years. The first was for the Rob Reiner film that became Stand by Me; he lost the part to his contemporary River Phoenix. The second was for Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society. He figured that if he couldn’t land one of its many parts for young actors, he ought to quit acting. Fortunately, he was cast as Robin Williams’ most precocious student, who ultimately leads the famous cry, “Oh, Captain, my Captain.” Hawke looks back fondly on the project, saying, "Nothing could have possibly prepared me better for the life I was gonna want to lead, especially my work with Richard Linklater."

Following his first grown-up role in Keith Gordon's A Midnight Clear (1992) and a star-making part in Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites (1994), which made him “the poster boy of Gen X,” Hawke met Linklater, who had become a hot director with Slacker (1993). Linklater attended a performance of a theater troupe that Hawke had started, and the two then hit it off and embarked on the first of their nine —and counting — film collaborations, Before Sunrise (1995). Though Hawke and his French co-star Julie Delpy weren’t credited as co-writers of the heart-tugging Brief Encounter-like story of a young man and woman who meet, fall in love and then must separate, they were instrumental in crafting the dialogue of the film’s deep walk-and-talk conversations. For its sequels, Before Sunset ("there's something perfect about that film") and Before Midnight, each nine years apart, they and Linklater shared best adapted screenplay Oscar nominations.

In the years after Before Sunrise, Hawke mostly shunned studio projects in favor of tiny indies that tended to be well-reviewed but little-seen. There was Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997), the success of which he says he was more confident of than any other, but which, in fact, only found a following long after it had come and gone from theaters. "That's the poster most often people want me to sign because it means a lot to people," he says. (He had a similar experience with 2014 recent reunion with Niccol, Good Kill.) And then there was Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000) and Linklater’s Tape (2001), which "were really good for my confidence," he says, and prepared him for the biggest movie he'd ever taken on: Antoine Fuqua's Training Day (2001), in which he played a young cop opposite Denzel Washington. Washington won the best actor Oscar, and Hawke was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar.

More recently, Hawke continued to do excellent work in films ranging from Sidney Lumet's swan song Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman (the loss of those two special collaborators makes it a "heartbreaking movie" for him); to Brian Goodman's underrated What Doesn't Kill You (2008), opposite Mark Ruffalo; to Fuqua's Brooklyn's Finest (2009). All the while, unbeknown to most, he worked for several days of every year from 2002 to 2013 on a truly unique project with Linklater that chronicled the maturation of a young child and the fictional family around him. Boyhood — "a movie that was more like a novel," in Hawke's view — eventually took Sundance and critics by storm, Hawke's onscreen wife Patricia Arquette won the best supporting actress Oscar, and Hawke was again nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar.

Hawke reveals that he and Linklater had considered making a film about Chet Baker — who first crossed Hawke's radar when he saw Bruce Weber's Oscar-nominated documentary Let's Get Lost (1988) — 15 years ago, right after Tape was released and right before Boyhood started filming, but they couldn't raise financing for it, so he long thought the opportunity was lost. Many years later, though, he was presented with the script for Born to Be Blue, which offered Hawke the chance to play Baker a later and more vulnerable moment in his life and in an imagined situation, and he jumped at it. The part was one of the most challenging he's ever played, he says — it required him to change the way he spoke (making his voice an octave higher), perform his own singing (he feared being ridiculed) and physically transform himself (wearing dentures, carrying himself differently, etc.). But he's thrilled with how the movie turned out and has been received since its world premiere at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival. And he hopes it will turn others on to Baker, who he regards as "a great entry-point for people interested in jazz."