Ethan Hawke

‘People love trauma,’ says Ethan Hawke. ‘Amy Winehouse, Hank Williams, Jim Morrison… It’s the trauma that gets our attention. It makes for better stories.’

Casualties of fame have been on the Hollywood actor’s mind a lot since he was cast as Chet Baker, the brilliantly gifted, fiercely self-destructive jazz legend, in the fine new film Born to be Blue. Weaving fact with fiction, Robert Budreau’s loose, impressionistic biopic follows Baker’s fight to re-build his life and career after a savage beating by drug dealers left his mouth and teeth so damaged, he was told he’d never play the trumpet again.

‘It’s catching Chet at the most interesting time of his life, certainly for me as an actor,’ Hawke tells Weekend. ‘He’s incredibly busted open and vulnerable, and kind of at his most likeable.’

Baker’s lifelong heroin addiction saw him in and out of jail and, in the film, has devastating consequences for his wife Jane (a composite of several of the women in his life, played by British actress Carmen Ejogo). Yet, amidst the carnage, Hawke succeeds in making him almost sweetly endearing. ‘I don’t know who I’m quoting, but someone once said, “You kind of have to be your character’s lawyer,”’ he says.  ‘You have to see everything from their point of view. Because everybody has their reasons.’

The 45-year-old actor, writer and director – who made his screen debut aged 15 – claims to have ‘spent my life around Chet Bakers’. Does he think artists are, by their nature, drawn to such self-immolation?

‘I think mankind is drawn to being self-destructive,’ he says. ‘I think we all have within us the capability to make a situation much worse. People are thrill seekers, and Chet was a thrill seeker. He was an adventure hound – he liked to feel the pulse of life. Which I think a lot of creative people do. We’re all trying to find a path to survive, and some of us get some pretty bad habits along the way.

‘I met River Phoenix when I was 13,’ he adds of his late friend, who was 23 when he died of a drug overdose in 1993. ‘River was young and brilliant and a prodigy: a complete and total, fully-formed artist by his early 20s. And drugs and alcohol took his life, right? I’ve seen it happen over and over again with wonderful people. I don’t know anybody who had a stronger ethical centre than River Phoenix, yet he couldn’t take care of himself, you know?’

Is it true that another friend he lost to drugs, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was weighing heavily on his mind as he went into Born to be Blue? ‘Well I got the script a couple of days after his funeral,’ he says. ‘So yes.’

And yet, despite being a global star since the age of 17, when he made his breakthrough as a shy prep school student in Dead Poets Society, Hawke appears to have successfully navigated the bear-traps of fame himself. In person, meanwhile, he is charming, courteous, thoughtful, engaged. So what’s his secret?

‘I don’t know how to answer that question,’ he says, after some consideration. ‘I’m grateful to still be here. Sometimes I think it’s my family, sometimes I think it’s my friendships. Sometimes I think it’s in our DNA. And sometimes it’s being exposed to the right kind of ideology – things that can carry you through the darker nights.

‘I never know what it is about somebody that will make them willingly press the self-destruct button. Some of us think about and flirt with it. But most of us do want to see the sun rise tomorrow.’

In the decade that followed Dead Poets Society, Hawke became a Generation X poster boy thanks to Ben Stiller’s slacker classic Reality Bites, launched his own theatre company, published his first novel and met and married Uma Thurman. They had a daughter and son, Maya and Levon, before divorcing in 2005; three years later, he married Ryan Shawhughes, who had briefly been nanny to his and Thurman’s children. They have two daughters, Clementine and Indiana.

He has described himself as ‘a parent of divorce and a child of it’ – a theme he explored on screen as a weekend father in Boyhood, regular collaborator Richard Linklater’s award-winning film that was 12 years in the making. Born in Austin, Texas, Hawke was four when his own high school sweetheart parents divorced, after which he and his mother settled in in New York, where he began taking acting classes.

Unlike Chet Baker, Hawke – whose four Oscar nominations are split between acting (Training Day, Boyhood) and screenwriting (Before Sunset, Before Midnight) – has never suffered a major career setback. ‘I’ve never had my teeth bashed in and been strung out on heroin, no,’ he says, drily.

But it seems he’s rarely even been out of work? ‘One of the great things about my life – and some of it’s luck and some of it’s me – is, because I’ve always had the theatre, and always had writing, I’ve avoid the sort of mania that comes with being a performer, where you’re only as good as your last film,’ he reflects. ‘I’ve always tried to push myself into terrain where I’m uncomfortable, so when dry periods have come, I’ve enjoyed them. It makes me think more and more that life is just about the attitude we have about things.’

That said, he does admit to a slight wobble when he reached 40 a few years ago, fearing – against all the evidence – he might be washed up. ‘You hate to find yourself having such average thoughts, don’t you?’ he laughs. ‘Turning 40 and having a mid-life crisis – it really couldn’t be any more boring. But youth is all about possibilities, and how you’re not going to be average. How you’re going to be unique. And then you realise just how average we really all are.

‘I think for me it was hard because I’d always been the youngest at everything I did. One of the problems with tremendous early success is it leaves you nowhere to go. Here I was at 18 at the Cannes Film Festival with Dead Poets Society – there’s no bigger film festival. Then you go to the Oscars, and there’s nowhere bigger than that. And I think I related to Chet Baker because of this. Chet was 23, 24 playing with Charlie Parker and changing the world. So where do you go the next year? 10 years from there?

‘It’s really hard,’ he says. ‘You have to really dig deep and ask yourself what you love about what you do. And then just do that.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, July 21, 2016

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