Michael McCarthy Michael McCarthy | September 21, 2020 | People Features culture
As the creator of The Good Lord Bird, a new seven-part series premiering on Showtime this month, Ethan Hawke explores how we all might find a better way forward by taking a look back.
Ethan Hawke is that guy at the party. The one with gravitational pull, the same force that causes us to walk on earth instead of floating off into space. The one whose soul-baring candor flows like water, searching for common ground and revealing how all of our connectedness is real and, in the end, essential.
“Throughout my life, I’ve had this series of obsessive wormholes,” says Hawke, laughing. “When I was younger, I wrote a profile about Kris Kristofferson, and, I swear, for two years, I’d get anyone who’d listen at a party and talk to him about Kris Kristofferson. Another year, I read Go Tell It on the Mountain, and I thought I was the first person who knew James Baldwin. And then I read an Elvis biography, Last Train to Memphis, and the next thing you know I’m going to Graceland. I have this ongoing obsessive relationship with whatever historic [riff] I’m on.”
The latest passion for Hawke is the firebrand abolitionist John Brown, a man so consumed with his hatred for slavery that he blazed through the Kansas and Missouri territories in the years leading up to the Civil War, committing acts of mercy and cruelty. It’s a brutal subject compounded by bloody circumstances. And Hawke thinks it’s also the right story for this moment. “Many don’t know what people mean when they talk about systemic racism,” says Hawke, who stars in The Good Lord Bird, a seven-episode limited series about Brown’s ragtag crusaders, beginning on Showtime this month. “If you want to understand it, you have to understand the history of this country and how it’s been built, how it’s been arranged and how it’s made our minds work. John Brown was really on a mission to wake up white America. He saw everything in the light of the unwavering equality of mankind. And if you weren’t doing something to help change the tide of equality, then you were part of the problem.”
Because Hawke is someone who worships great storytelling, he’d never settle into a subject like Brown by taking the traditional Hollywood route. The Good Lord Bird isn’t a biopic with historically tinted cinematography, languid pacing and a soundtrack laden with antebellum bugles, banjos and wailing violins. Based on James McBride’s award-winning novel of the same name, the show is a visceral romp filled with contradictions of time and space. It’s at once a bellicose drama and a subtle comedy—narrated by a fictional enslaved, cross-dressing boy named Onion. Viewers will shudder at atrocities and laugh out loud at absurdities. During battle scenes, violin dirges are replaced with tunes like “Shake Your Money Maker” by blues god Elmore James.
The series, co-adapted by Hawke and executive produced with Mark Richard, is the versatile actor’s first foray into writing for episodic television. (Hawke was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for Before Sunset and Before Midnight, and has written critically acclaimed novels like Ash Wednesday.) “When you say you’re doing a John Brown piece, people get this really somber face,” he says. “This is a very serious subject, but it has a language to it that hopefully casts a spell. My job as a screenwriter was to protect the novel. There’s a tone and language to what McBride accomplishes that’s really extraordinary. It doesn’t fit into any category. It’s a little Shakespeare, a little Twain, a little Redd Foxx.” There are running jokes about Brown praying entirely too long before simple meals, and in a scene where Brown is lying prone on a battlefield with bullets literally piercing his hat, he swipes a gold pocket watch from a dead man and says, “If you don’t make time for God, God won’t make time for you.”
It would have been easy to fall into the trap of portraying Brown as a raspy-voiced zealot. Hawke, who has won plaudits for everything from his roles in Training Day to Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead to Boyhood, says playing the abolitionist was a challenge. “I often felt like I prepared my whole life for this job,” he explains. “This character required everything I learned in my lifetime about performing and people. A lot of the most radical do-gooders—people who dedicate their lives to change—are very close to what society calls insane because you have to be willing to step outside of the box of the rules that society makes.”
Certainly people considered Brown crazy. Hawke agrees. “People would call him insane, and he would say, ‘If I’m insane, what does it say about a society that would support the buying and selling of children? I refuse to accept your sanity.’ It’s like he was preaching the Sermon on the Mount with a .44-caliber pistol in his hand,” he says, laughing at the image.
Hawke is particularly impressed with the work of Joshua Caleb Johnson, 15, who plays Onion with dignity and poise. The young actor wears a dress for much of the action. “Our relationship to gender and our relationship to race have been connected for a long time,” Hawke says. “I think McBride is knocking you off your knee-jerk reactions to race by putting a boy in a dress—and you’re thinking, ‘Am I talking about race or gender?’ What he’s really going after is a larger comment about humanity.”
The stellar supporting cast includes Daveed Diggs (Hamilton), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood) and even Hawke’s daughter Maya (Stranger Things). Had it not been for the success of Stranger Things, Hawke says people may have thought he was dabbling in Hollywood nepotism. Turns out, they were lucky to land this sought-after actress. “Maya and I have been talking about truth and performance and music since she was a little girl,” he says. “She loves thinking about historic periods, costumes and [the right] voice.” And Hawke says she recently watched Before Sunrise, perhaps one of a handful of 1990s films that fans of a certain age still think wistfully about.
“That movie is so hopeful and so romantic,” he says of the Richard Linklater film starring, of course, Hawke and French actress Julie Delpy. “This generation, I really feel for them,” he says. “They’re experiencing real pain right now. They’ve been denied things [by the pandemic] we were given freely. But this may be one of the most substantive generations in a long time. Like my grandfather who grew up with the Great Depression and lived through World War II—those trials made him a very serious person.”
And maybe those trials made Hawke’s grandfather realize we’re all from some bubbling pot of DNA spawned by two people with affection for each other, fleeting or otherwise. And maybe he realized we can all trace our origins from this human dance across the seas and up and down long hills, and sliding across rivers and continents in search of something, anything, that felt right. “This generation is going to be aware of issues of race, issues of gender and the global nature of the world we live in, including healthcare and climate change,” Hawke says. “We’re going to see people who will turn that pain into a great deal of compassion.” And as the gravitational guy at the party will tell us, across time and history, we’re all from nowhere and everywhere, and we’re all connected.
Photography by: Dennis Golonka/Trunk Archive