Ethan Hawke has been an indie film icon ever since 1989's Dead Poets Society, which was filmed when he was all of 18. Since then, he's gone to star in enough cult landmarks to ensure his stature among several generations of cinema-goers, whether their formative emotional investment is in Dead Poets Society, Reality Bites, Before Sunrise, or Boyhood, an Oscar-nominated film 12 years in the making. Along the way, he's written and directed his own projects, as well as numerous collaborations with his longtime friend, the director Richard Linklater. Tireless as ever, Hawke is still showing his range in 2016: as the famed jazz musician Chet Baker in the recent biopic Born to Be Blue, and as a gunslinging cowboy in the upcoming blockbuster shoot'em up The Magnificent Seven. For our Royals portfolio, we paired Hawke with another Texan actor, Tye Sheridan, who is still 19 but might go on to eclipse Hawke eventually, having already worked with Terrence Malick, Jeff Nichols, and David Gordon Green to great acclaim.
How did Born to Be Blue come about?
It came about in a very mysterious way in that about 15 years earlier, Richard Linklater and I were going to make a movie about Chet Baker. I’d been workshopping it, we were working on the script and we’d go to jazz clubs. I was reading all about Chet. We kept thinking we were going to make the movie, but we never did; we couldn’t get the money together and the ship sailed. It was a day in the life of Chet Baker the day before he tries heroine, so it’s really early Chet. When we started developing it, I was already 28. I was already too old when we started it, and by 32, you know, I’d just grown too old for it. And so a decade and change went by, and all of the sudden I got handed this script of Chet in his 40’s. There’s a whole aspect to that moment in a person’s life, you know, in the middle years where the straight way is lost, you know? It’s a lot more interesting as a performer, actually. The story of somebody’s rise to stardom is pretty much always the same story, but the middle years are always very different.
That character seemed to be overwhelming. The movie is very intense. Was it hard for you to shake it, or was it easy to just go in and out of it?
It certainly was not easy, and it certainly was not usual. I remember I got the number of somebody who had played with Chet. I spent like an hour and a half talking to this guy. When you have an opportunity to do a jazz film, there're so many ways to go wrong, and when music means a lot to you and that world means a lot to you, it’s a scary thing to bite off because if you fall on your ass, it will be so embarrassing and disrespectful to something you believe in.
And I think biopics are really hard.
Well, they’re really hard. You know, biopics in general are an opportunity for an actor to give a really showy performance in an otherwise forgettable film. That’s often what happens, because the subject matter is always really interesting, but usually they bite off more than they can chew. And there was something in the DNA of Born to Be Blue that I was excited by. When it opens, I’m playing Chet Baker playing himself, because Chet Baker is acting in a movie about his own life, and that little unraveling dispels the whole biopic in general. I love that because biopics are all fake. It is completely fake. Even documentaries are fake. I interviewed friends of Chet’s who would talk about Bruce Weber’s glorious film [1988's Let's Get Lost] and say, "Oh, you know, that wasn’t really Chet. Chet was acting for Bruce." And I’m not saying that’s even true, but friends of his had that opinion.
There are many truths, and everybody knows that. One of the things I liked about our movie is that we weren’t trying to tell you the truth; we were trying to deal in the legend of Chet Baker and kind of riff on that legend the same way a jazz musician might riff on a song. There're lots of different Chet Baker movies you could make — that was the genius of that movie I’m Not There. It was like 15 biopics of [Bob] Dylan, and they were all with a different actor. That was a cool way to go about trying to find the essence of somebody.
And anyone who’s an artist in that way, whether it’s you or Chet Baker, has a bit of a chameleon in them.
Yeah. For me, I wasn’t interested in doing an imitation of Chet Baker. I was more interested in trying to find out what it is about this story that speaks to me so that I could personalize it. Imitation is one thing, but what I was interested in is getting into the experience of a real prodigy in his mid-life crisis. It was something that I could relate to. You don’t know it when it happens, but when Dead Poets Society comes out and you’re 18, it doesn’t leave you very far to go. There are immense places to go inside, obviously, to grow and develop and be better, but as far as the external perception of success...
We all like to feel like every year of our life we’re growing better and stronger and improving. That’s why people care about money, like, "Last year, I had $1,000 in the bank and this year I have $3,000 and that proves that I’m doing well." It gives us some kind of math to hold onto whether or not we’re growing. And one of the problems in the arts is that, you know, Chet Baker auditioned for Charlie Parker, and right in the heart of the bebop revolution, he’s this white cat playing with the greatest saxophonist ever at that moment. It doesn’t get any better than that, which is strange when you’re only 24, 25. It creates a possibility for a very confusing mid-life; are you constantly going to try to repeat the same success? It leaves you a long way to fall. And so I was very interested in personalizing that.
Do you feel lucky that you met Rick [Linklater] when you did? In terms of growing and progressing, you and Rick are sort of teammates.
I feel incredibly lucky to have Richard Linklater as a friend, and I do know that when I think back on River Phoenix and some people of my generation who have now been passed a long time, and I think back when people ask me how I am still here, I really do think about my friendships and the friendships within my generation. It's wonderful to have mentors, but your peers are who you compete with, who you’re kind of vying with, who you’re sparking off ideas about what’s happening right now. And they know you and they can challenge you, and I feel that in a lot of ways friendships have really been an inspiration in my life.
I’m very romantic about the idea of creating art, and the fact that you and Rick have created so many amazing things together is just a beautiful thing. It’s very rare. If you look at Scorsese and De Niro even, they don’t do it anymore. That was a beautiful, romantic relationship, and now it doesn’t exist. You guys still exist, you’re still intertwined. I mean I felt a little sad that I recently went to see a Rick Linklater movie and you weren’t in it. It was weird.
I was in it secretly. And then, you know, in Everybody Wants Some! I got a couple lines in there.
Let’s talk about your Western, The Magnificent Seven.
Getting to remake The Magnificent Seven this year was kind of like a boyhood fantasy. And to get to do it with Denzel Washington...
Training Day is one of my favorite Ethan Hawke performances.
Well, thanks. I love that movie, and to work with [director] Antoine Fuqua and Denzel again... but this time we’re out in the 104 degree heat, riding horses, guns blazing. It’s a lot of fun, and it really does scratch an itch in me. It’s the kind of movie I’ve wanted to make my whole life.
Did you know how to ride a horse?
I learned to ride a horse working for Linklater actually, on [1998's] The Newton Boys. Vincent D’Onofrio and I were both in Newton Boys and now we’re both in The Magnificent Seven. We got to reprise our horseback riding days.
The Newton Boys was supposed to be your mainstream Rick Linklater movie.
Yeah, that’s what everybody — Rick never thought that, but people wanted that movie to be mainstream. But in a lot of ways The Newton Boys is just a [Robert] Altman comedy. The movie is so gentle and quiet. Everybody was pushing it like it was going to be Rick making a Hollywood movie, and really he was just taking Hollywood money to make a Richard Linklater film.
Now you’re on a horse again, many years later.
Yeah, this is very different. If Newton Boys was an Altman comedy, then Mag Seven is full blown [Sam] Peckinpah. Antoine loves Westerns so much that they all kind of fused inside of him. There are aspects of Butch and Sundance in the movie, there are aspects of Mag Seven, there are aspects of The Wild Bunch, there are aspects of John Ford. But unlike most modern Westerns, it’s not tongue-in-cheek. It’s a real cowboy movie — it just isn’t boring. People say they love Westerns but the truth is they’re all a little boring. This one is so much fun.
When you’re making a movie like Magnificent Seven, does it put you in a different headspace when you’re on a horse with a gun in the West?
It's a lot different than playing jazz in a little club, yeah. One of the nice things for me about getting older has been the opportunity to do more character work, and take my acting to a different place. Vocally, with Chet, I did the whole thing in a different octave. I’d never done anything like that before, and the whole body language of that world is different. And in Mag Seven I’m playing a New Orleans ex-Rebel soldier and I have a whole different vocal thing happening, and it’s fun to start to play with things that I call third-person work. Like, I grew a big beard. My whole life I’ve been really just trying to make everything as personal as possible and trying to blur the line between performer and character. I like performances where you can’t see the person working at all, and it just seems like, "Well that’s just them obviously."