For Ethan Hawke, playing late jazz trumpeter-singer Chet Baker is a dream decades in the making. The actor, 44, was “hypnotized” by the 1988 Bruce Weber film Let’s Get Lost about Baker and his drug issues; he developed a script with Richard Linklater 20 years ago, but the movie never came out. Now, in Born to Be Blue, which was written and directed by Robert Budreau and debuted Sept. 13 at the Toronto International Film Festival, Hawke finally gets his chance to take on the fallen legend.
You have experience singing, with two songs on the Boyhood soundtrack. How did you channel Baker’s voice?
Chet’s tone is higher than mine, but mostly what’s beautiful about his music, which made it in a way easier as an actor, is he’s not a good singer. What he is is an emotional singer. There’s something emotionally true about how detached and lonely he feels, and it’s actable. If you’re playing Whitney Houston or something, you got to be able to sing. Chet Baker wasn’t a particularly good singer. A lot of people didn’t think he had a nice voice. But what’s cool about him is something so personal about it, so I liked that.
Baker isn’t as revered as other biopic subjects like Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix. Why him?
He wasn’t a revolutionary the way that they were, musically. Chet wasn’t on that level, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something really beautiful and valuable about his art. And he was cool — the definition of cool.
You learned trumpet for this role. Will you keep playing?
I would love to have an excuse. I wish I’d started playing trumpet when I was much younger!
Between this and Boyhood, do you enjoy releasing your own music?
Well, the two songs I did for the Boyhood soundtrack I got to do with [Austin musician] Charlie Sexton. He’s awesome. He’s just brilliant. He was so good to me and to be in a recording studio with Charlie is like, you know, just a career high point. It was so exciting, to get to record my songs, songs I wrote.
After Boyhood and now Blue, would you consider releasing an album?
I might, if I could do it with Charlie. And I would do it anonymously, just for fun — because I’m not a good enough musician. I don’t think I have anything to offer music that way. I can do a lot of it through my acting, to be honest. Boyhood I got to be a musician, and I’ve played a musician in Shakespeare plays, and I got this movie — I hope to play other musicians.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of Billboard.