Ethan Hawke might not be the first person you think of to play a firebrand like the famed abolitionist John Brown. In bringing Brown’s story to television, Ethan Hawke had to do something he’s seldom done in his career – go big. Because how else would one play a character as radical and driven as John Brown? In doing so, Hawke had to challenge himself in new ways to bring out the performance that the role requires.
In our conversation, we discuss how he built up to playing Brown and how he, as a producer and writer on the show, helped shape not only the story but also the necessary environment needed to bring James McBride’s very challenging novel to the screen.
AD: You wore a lot of hats on The Good Lord Bird, right? You played John Brown, you were one of the writers and a producer on the show as well, which points to this being a passion project for you. What drew you to this story and your desire to play this character?
Ethan Hawke: Every now and then you read something that just knocks you sideways and this book floored me. It’s so hard for me – I don’t know if it’s being an adult, I don’t know if it’s having kids, I don’t know if it’s being busy or ADD [Laughs] – but the older I get the harder it is for a book to really completely usurp my imagination and I couldn’t put this book down. I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt like it gave you commission to think and talk about the history of this country in a way that was honest, but full of so much love and the healing power of humor that I just couldn’t resist it. I had this feeling, like I said to my wife, ‘I want to buy fifty copies of this book and give it to everybody we know for Christmas.’
She’s like, ‘Why don’t we make it a movie and put it in everybody’s house?’ We met (author) James McBride and he’s just one of those people – just being in the room with him, I just knew that’s how I wanted to spend my life – if I could being in rooms with people like that and learn from people like that. So we just kept putting one foot in front of the other. It seemed when we started like a wild pipedream. It seemed too big of a dream to actually make happen. But we just took it one step at a time and now I’m on the phone with you.
AD: I was stunned by how funny it is and how much I laughed watching it and yet, still caught up in the drama of what was going on as well.
EH: That was the razor’s edge of the whole production. How can you keep the wit alive and not give up on the emotional core of what’s happening? It was just a tightrope walk. I used to tell people it’s not the abolitionist story that your high school librarian would tell you. It’s the one Redd Foxx would tell you. The one Richard Pryor would tell you. It would still be moving. It would still floor you with the truth, but everything had to be seen from a really human point of view.
AD: I have admired you as an actor for a very long time, but I would have never ever thought of you as John Brown. But after seeing you play him, I can’t imagine anybody else doing it. This is a different kind of performance than what I’ve seen you give before. For lack of a better way to put it, it’s so big. Did you feel challenged by what you would have to do to become John Brown?
EH: Absolutely but in so many different ways. One of the things that I think was hard for some of my collaborators (producers, people at Showtime and things like that) is that I’ve been a naturalistic actor for thirty years. I’ve approached when given a choice between going over the top or under, I’ve gone under for thirty years. There was an aspect to this story that I knew had to dance right up to the edge of caricature. It was an old fashioned Mark Twain big fish tale. I used to joke when people said, ‘Are you really going to play it like that’ at some of the rehearsals and I said yeah. I was kind of conjuring my inner Nic Cage. I had to take inspiration from a different style of acting, but it was really fun. I think there was something about the tone, mood and energy of McBride’s writing that I really got. It spoke to me and I just used it as a talisman, as a spirit guide. When you are playing somebody radical…if you played John Brown safely you would disrespect everything that he was about. He was breaking boxes, so the show has to break boxes too, if it is going to capture the revolutionary energy of a person like John Brown.
AD: I thought what was brilliant was the way your character was shown i the first full scene from the barber’s chair without us being able to see your face immediately. You got up and you were roaring and I was like, ‘Holy shit that’s Ethan Hawke’ and then I forgot. I just forgot, and then you were just him. I appreciate the courage it must have taken to really put yourself out there. There were two things in particular in my mind: he’s a little bit crazy (maybe a lot bit crazy) but he’s also absolutely right about his purpose even if some of his methods could be found questionable.
EH: When society is insane, society has to be met with an equal force. You meet the true radicals, the people who refuse to live inside the phony rules that cultures make up for people and for behavior. Society was somehow okay with human bondage, sex trafficking, murder…they were somehow okay with that, and so to combat that, you had to meet it with an equally wild energy. That was kind of my thesis. He’d have to seem insane to others. This was a man who with pride got his own children killed because he wanted to be on the right side of history, and I think more than anything he was a fervent Christian. One of the things that I realized when I was playing this part, one of the big breakthroughs for me, was I was trying to meditate on how he prayed. Was he a silent prayer? Did he raise his hands? Did he sit down? Did he get on his knees? And I slowly realized that he was always praying. His primary relationship was with whatever we might call ‘the divine,’ and if that’s your primary relationship, you cannot accept kids being born and sold. You can’t accept it.
AD: It’s sort of Christianity that actually gets the Christ part. There was a scene that I found both strange and moving at the same time, When you hold the rabbit in that scene, I took that as John Brown taking a moment to take in this creation of God and the uniqueness of it and the beauty of the nature.
EH: Absolutely. That was it exactly. I was on my way to set one day and McBride called me up and he said, ‘You know something I forgot to tell you, is that I really missed an opportunity with the novel. John Brown was in love with creation. In my research, this is a guy who had a pet squirrel for seventeen years. This is a guy who passionately loved his horses. This is a guy who loved to garden. This is a person who had respect for life. If there’s any way that you could get in the movie how much he loved animals.’ And I just started getting on this trip where I went to the propmaster and the people and I was like, ‘Can you get me a bunny? Can you get me a mouse? Can you get me a cricket?’ [Laughs] Anytime I had a scene with a horse – there’s a scene with Russell and I pretty much spent the whole of the scene talking to his horse as much as I talked to him. Somebody had a bunny and I picked that bunny up and started talking to it and it made the movie.
AD: Although I think this has started to change in recent years, historically we’ve seen a lot of productions – whether it be on film or television and whether they are about the civil rights movement or about slavery – that tend to focus on the white character. It’s that white savior trap. Did you have any trepidation about how to avoid that? In my mind, John Brown’s is a story that had to be told, but there is also this sensitivity about making stories about things that happened to people of color come from the perspective of a white person.
EH: Exactly. What elevates McBride’s writing out of that (type of) work is that John Brown is the event of the show, but the show is Onion’s – Henry Shackleford – it’s his story. I used to talk to Joshua (Caleb Johnson) about this. When I did Training Day, Alonzo was the event of Training Day, but it was really Jake’s story. It was my character’s story. I knew I was responsible for the telling of the story. It was seen through my point of view, and that is what Joshua had to do for us. I also think that at his core, John Brown wasn’t trying to save black people. He was trying to save white people from their sin. Seen through the eyes of a Christian, there was one part of the culture that was living in sin and he was trying to save them from this crime. That’s kind of how he looked at it.
He knew that the black community was going to be fine with their maker and in his mind that is all that mattered. It’s the white people that were all going to go to Hell. He had these visions – he didn’t call it the Civil War, but he knew that there was going to be a great war. In one of his letters he said, ‘God is going to take one son for every child stolen from Africa.’ Then you think about the Battle of Gettysburg and think about it through that biblical lens and that’s kind of what John Brown saw coming. He was trying to give people an opportunity to right a crime. I think that’s what saves it from that kind of old fashioned white Christian savior story.
AD: I think you hit on the point that I felt watching it, the fact that so much of the show is seen through Onion’s eyes. I thought that was the key to it. You are right. John Brown is the event, but it is Onion’s story. It is his perspective that informs the audience.
EH: What I find so moving about the end of the show is watching Joshua ride away alone on his horse. It’s the old fashioned image of the western, but one of the problems with the westerns that we all grew up on is that they ignore the major events of that time – slavery and the attempted genocide of the indigenous population. This show is a different kind of western. Onion is John Wayne at the end – a real John Wayne. He’s politically awoken. He’s spiritually awoken. He’s finally wearing his own clothes. He’s riding into the sunset off to a new land.
AD: Where did you find Joshua? He had some fairly minor credits before this. He gave an extraordinary performance. What was it like playing with such a young actor who is really getting what amounts to as his big break?
EH: I could well up with tears thinking about it. I said to Joshua when we cast him, this is a heavy burden, but the truth is the show is only going to go as far as you take us. His discipline, his energy, his willingness to learn, his creativity, his intelligence, his wit…it’s his story. We kind of shot the show in sequence which was such a gift. The first day of shooting was that barber shop scene. He has tremendous presence and he is very capable, but by the time we did the scene where Onion comes to visit me in the jail cell before John Brown gets hung, he was a different actor. In the same way that Onion grew up, Joshua was learning from Daveed. Joshua was learning from (director) Darnell Martin. Joshua was learning from all the other actors. He had scenes with Steve Zahn. He had scenes with Orlando Jones, these great actors. And it wasn’t just one of us. He could pick and steal and watch their ways.
Even the first day I remember him talking about how differently David Morse worked than I did, and how both of us achieved what we were trying to do but in different ways. He started finding his way. So, by the time we’re in that Harper’s Ferry raid, sometimes the action is pitched at such a level and you’re so emotional when the show is really working, you’re just seeing Joshua as a character. But if you watch his work in the last couple of episodes, he’s phenomenal. You just completely forget there is an actor. He is Onion. That’s when something really special is going on and I watched it happen in him. Other people helped me so much on my journey. I did my first movie when I was the same age as he was, and only now do I realize that there were a lot of people that took care of me and watched my back and taught me and that they didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to help me. To be able to provide an experience for a young person to thrive like that was a secret personal thread sewn through this that was really beautiful to me.
AD: You referenced the scene where Onion comes to John Brown in the jail cell and I found that tremendously moving. I think in part because the character of Onion is a boy pretending to be a girl who doesn’t want to pretend to be a girl. I know that’s really reductive but that’s the basic subtext. John Brown never really understood, in my impression, exactly what Onion was in that regard. The fact that John Brown accepted Onion as he is because, from his perspective, he saw into Onion’s soul and that’s what mattered. I thought was beautiful touch that applies to the world we live in right now.
EH: It’s where McBride bounces right up next to genius. Whenever you say you’re doing an abolitionist story, you think you’re talking about race, right? But you tell the story from a young boy’s point of view and you put him in a dress, now all of a sudden you’re talking about gender. But we’re talking about race and gender at the same time. So what happens is you’re really having a dialogue about identity and what is beyond all these labels we put on each other. There is something weirdly moving about the fact that John Brown just doesn’t really seem to care whether he wears a dress or pants. He just doesn’t give a shit. There’s something that elevates it out of a political discourse about whether it’s class warfare or race warfare and it gets it into a spiritual discourse about the nature of identity and who we are and what is the essence of us.
AD: When I look through the cast here, there are particular names that pop out at me just because of your career. For one, your daughter is in the movie and there is a sweet touch about the possibility of interracial relationships that I also thought was forward thinking. And then of course Ellar Coltrane (from Boyhood) is in the show as well. When you were pulling together this group I get the sense that you weren’t just picking people who were fantastic actors and talents. but also you were trying to create an environment that would make this work. Am I making sense?
EH: You are making absolute sense, and that is one of the things you learn from the really great directors that I have worked with. When you are making a movie or television show or whatever it is, what you’re trying to do is harness the power of a collective imagination. I remember (Richard) Linklater once saying to me, ‘If I make a movie right, everybody on it calls it their movie – not my movie. I want Julie Delpy to think this is her movie. I want you to think this is your movie. I want the DP to think it’s his movie’ – meaning there is a piece of them inside of it. Put simply, it sounds kind of corny, but it’s really about love. I think there’s a subconscious to any good artwork and people can feel love. I thought if I’ve got a son in the movie, let’s get Ellar here. There’s a subconscious where you can tell we know each other. Yeah I’ll cast my daughter as my daughter. There was the part of Chase (played by Steve Zahn) where the racist guy is hitting on an underage girl that’s really a boy. McBride challenged me. He said “When you cast the racist parts, try to cast somebody that you love. If the white people have horns, all the crimes aren’t real. Cast somebody you like in that part because that makes it more dangerous and more real.”
Nobody thinks they’re a bad guy, right? This is how that guy Chase was brought up. That’s what he was told the universe was. What happens is you start to create a little family. My wife was producing it so it was like a mom and pop shop. There’s my daughter on set. I really would be lying if I didn’t say one of our biggest collaborators that nobody knows about was Joshua’s mom. She was on set everyday. She was at the monitors. She helped with the costumes. She’ drove Joshua to rehearsal as we’re working on the voiceover for the show. Every step along the way Sandra was there and she became a part of telling the story. That’s why when something good is happening it becomes larger than the sum of the parts.
AD: Looking at this project and the challenges that the source material creates – because tone is everything in something like this – it has to be incredibly gratifying to see the response to it. To hear people speak so highly about such a high degree of difficulty project, that you shepherded and you brought together in this way, I just can’t imagine how pleased you must be.
EH: It means the world. You know, you don’t want to become a blowhard but I’ve been training as an actor for a long time to be ready for a really dangerous part like this. To have it come across, to be ready for it, to find the right collaborators. Kevin Hooks who directed the Pikesville episode and the Harriet Tubman episode, we’re like cut from the same cloth. He was in Sounder and I was in White Fang but he was a huge First Reformed fan. Like me, we both grew up falling in love with movies from the vantage point of a child actor. So we kind of see ourselves as perpetual students. In that we were great partners for Joshua. I found all these allies that were very surprising and the fact that it came together and the fact that it was so dangerous – that combination doesn’t happen very often. So yeah, it feels fucking great.
AD: My wife and I watched it together and we were so moved and entertained by it. I remember at one point, my wife, who is not as locked in to film history as I am – as most people aren’t because they have healthier lives probably [Laughs] – but she said to me at some point during the show, ‘Holy shit that’s the guy from First Reformed,’ and I’m like yeah, and she’s like ‘Oh my God.’ I’m just so glad to hear that you are so proud of it because it seems like something so necessary and so worthwhile and so well done. So thank you.
EH: Literally the hairs on my back are standing up listening to somebody that knows as much as you say that. There were a lot of obstacles to getting this done and it’s just one of those feelings like oh wow people do care, people do notice, it does matter, you can make a difference. Sometimes there’s the darkness where you feel like you’re never going to get anything good done. It’s never going to happen. So it just feels wonderful to hear you say that is what I’m trying to say.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.