It’s been 35 years since Ethan Hawke made his screen debut as a rogue teenage space engineer in the movie Explorers. He’s played a vast number of roles in the years since: a shy boarding-school student in Dead Poets Society, a jaded Gen-X musician in Reality Bites, a writer who falls for a beguiling Frenchwoman in Before Sunrise and its subsequent sequels, an anxious narcotics officer in Training Day, a flawed pastor whose faith is challenged in First Reformed. But in Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird, Hawke gives what may be the most powerful performance of his career so far.
In the limited series, based on the novel by James McBride, who also is an executive producer, Hawke plays famed abolitionist John Brown, whose attempt to free Black Americans from slavery by staging the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry is often cited as the catalyst for the Civil War. It’s a part that calls for seething fury one moment, a grasp of situational comedy the next, and tenderness or heartbreak the moment after that. That toggling between emotional states is on full display during the depiction of the Harpers Ferry raid and its aftermath, which play out in the final two episodes of The Good Lord Bird. (The finale aired Sunday night.)
During a phone call from his home in Connecticut, Hawke, who co-created the series, discussed the all-consuming process of becoming Brown; what Brown’s relationship with Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), the Black boy he takes under his wing and who acts as the story’s narrator, says about acceptance; the perils of believing that a person has been chosen by God; and the connections between this role and one of his earliest films, Dead Poets Society.
I’ve admired your work for a very long time, and I’m especially knocked out by what you did in Good Lord Bird.
Thanks for saying that. I loved doing it, so I’m glad to be talking to you about it.
I’m curious: How did you settle on the voice for John Brown? Did you try on different voices until you found the right one?
I really did. It was a riddle to me to find it. The older I’ve gotten, the more interested I’ve become in all the strange nuances available to the actor, from body, to look, to movement, to voice, to costume. When I was younger, none of that stuff interested me. I was interested in some kind of simplicity and trying to be honest, whatever that word means.
McBride says in his books that John Brown sounded like high timber, like a high pine. I went up to Lake Placid, New York, and I went to John Brown’s farm, where he lived. I looked at all these pine trees, and I was like, What did they talk like? I would try to do these different speeches in different voices. I finally called [McBride] up, and I said, “This high pine, I don’t hear it. I don’t know how —” and he was so funny. He goes, “I’m so glad you called. I think I got that wrong. I said high pine because it looked good as a written word, but I don’t think you can talk like that. I hear it much lower.”
When he said that, it really freed me up, and I really just started emulating my grandfather. My grandfather used to talk about how he would learn to speak by climbing up a pecan tree and memorizing the Declaration of Independence and shouting it at the top of his lungs. At least as a kid, probably because his hearing was bad, he always shouted at me. He just always yelled. I thought, What if I just base it on my grandfather? Granted, my grandfather is not as old as John Brown was, but I think he was closer to that generation when people spoke in full paragraphs with correct sentence structure.
I have to tell you, there’s no part I’ve ever had that chewed me up and spit me out the way that this one did. Sometimes you run up to the wall of your gift. There wasn’t anything that I could throw at this part that it couldn’t handle. I felt a lot as if I were the first person to get to play King Lear or something. The part was that rich, it was that dynamic. It needed that many layers. And also, nobody had done it before, so there was no map. I can tell you when we completed it, just the absolute exhaustion that I felt was unlike anything I’ve ever been through.
This was at the end of last year?
Yeah, it was the end of last year, around Thanksgiving, if I remember correctly. It was amazing, because our second-to-last day we did the hanging, and it was just amazing. It just snowed. It was the first snow of the year, and it was so beautiful. When we’d started, it was full tilt summertime, and it just felt like Joshua [Caleb Johnson] and I had been on such a journey.
Why do you think John feels so strongly about Onion? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that John feels more strongly about him than he does his own children, but he certainly feels equally as strongly.
I might say he feels more strongly toward him.
It’s strange, I had that thought, yeah. Only because sometimes we have a freedom with other people’s children to be our complete selves. We stop putting up a mask that we put up for our own kids. We don’t have the same projections that we have. There’s a long history of wonderful stepparents and guardians in this world, who have been amazing mentors for children and for young people. I think that there’s something about their relationship that is special and that provokes John Brown to learn more than he does with his own kids.
Although as much as he learns from him and gets to know him, it takes him forever to realize he’s not a girl.
[Laughs.] I have my own theories about that, but yes. I think what McBride is illustrating there is how hard it is for us all to see each other as we really are.
What are your theories? I’m curious.
My theory is that, in my experience, some of these people who live outside the box of society and are capable of really being freethinkers are dancing on the line between sanity and insanity. If you’re willing to live outside of society’s laws, you think a little differently.
My theory, in playing him anyway, was that he’s known for a while. I think he just forgets that he’s the one who gave him a dress and starts to think that Onion wants to be a girl. So he just kind of goes along with it. The point is, John Brown doesn’t care if he’s a boy or a girl. He loves him for whoever he wants to be.
John Brown doesn’t care whether he wears pants or a dress. Doesn’t matter. Whatever you want to wear. It was so important to Onion that he be seen as a man, but John Brown always saw him as a human being. He didn’t really care if he was a girl or a boy, and there’s something really beautiful about that. You know that great line he says at the end: “Whoever you are, just be it in full.”
During the raid, there’s a moment where John yells, “I am the sanest man you’ve ever seen.” You were talking earlier about the line between sanity and insanity. I mean, certainly in terms of a lot of his values, I think he is far saner than the other white men around him.
Exactly, I do, too. When he was in prison, when he was on trial and everything, part of their proof that he was insane was that he believed Black people and women were equal to the white male. That’s what they used as proof of insanity. And his answer to that was, “I live in a society that’s insane. Anyone that thinks he can buy and sell a child is insane. Anybody that’s okay with that is insane. I’m not okay with that.” That’s why he’s a hero to me.
This is a weird observation, but before I got on the phone with you, I was thinking about John Brown and how to describe him. The phrase that suddenly popped into my head was “sweaty-toothed madman,” which is something you say in Dead Poets Society.
Oh, wow. Wow.
I went back and I watched that sequence in the movie with you and Robin Williams. Some of the things that your character says — “Sweaty-toothed madman, with a stare that pounds my brain, keeps mumbling about the truth” — this could describe John Brown. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about that.
The hairs on my arm are standing up. I know that in the background of that scene is a photograph of Walt Whitman, right?
With his big, crazy beard and his hollowed-out eyes. I know that Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson, after my experience with Dead Poets Society, really pushed me to read the transcendentalists. There is a history of white America that has a lot more to offer than we’re often told. There are people that were on the right side of history, these abolitionists, these people who were fighting for women’s rights, fighting for animal rights, fighting for the environment, and who understood the darkness at play and were willing to do something about it. There probably is some connection to how I came to this book and that sweaty-toothed madman.
That poem, “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,” that’s about Abe Lincoln. The history of this country is dangerous and difficult to talk about because who we are and who we want to be, or who we claim we are, have always been at odds, because they’re in a constant struggle with fear and greed. Some poets have really understood that, and James McBride is one of them. He falls in this line. Mark Twain, in his own way, tried to write a comic tale about race in his time. McBride took it and one-upped him. He didn’t talk about it in veiled comments and symbolism; he faced it head-on. There are these siblinglike relationships in art and literature. So, I don’t know, there’s something really beautiful about what you just said to me. I’m making sense out of it, as I spin here, talking to you.
I also see sibling relationships between some of the things in The Good Lord Bird and what we’re dealing with now. Certainly the racial issues have not gone away even though slavery has. But also John Brown is progressive in many ways, but as you well know, he is very steeped in his faith. He thinks he’s been chosen to do what he’s doing. To me that echoes the way that a lot of Evangelicals talk about Trump as being chosen, which is a dangerous thing. But I think it is a dangerous thing for anyone to feel that they’re chosen by God.
I mean, it’s completely dangerous. It’s called megalomania, right? John Brown happens to fall on the right side of history, but the megalomania is — that’s why we’re talking about sanity or insanity. There are ways in which he’s very sane and understands the way the country has been built to hurt other people. And we kind of admire that he was willing to put his life and his children’s lives on the line for his brothers and sisters. But it’s a lot to think that God picked you to do it.
Right. As an actor, it’s not necessarily your job to interrogate that, it’s just to reflect what he thought.
It’s funny that you say that. I heard this expression, I don’t know if it was from a Pacino interview years ago, or something I read, that you’re your character’s lawyer. You don’t have opinions about whether they’re good or bad. You have to see the world from their point of view and justify their behavior and make sense out of why it made sense for them.
When I’m playing a character, I just go all-in and try to see it from his point of view. From his point of view, he’s a Calvinist. This makes sense to him. This all makes sense. His heroes are Samson. His hero is David who defeated Goliath. He saw slavery as a Goliath that must be defeated. If God wanted to use him as David, he was happy to oblige.
But as Frederick Douglass says, “I wanted to live for freedom. John Brown wanted to die for it.” Frederick Douglass said, “I don’t want to be a martyr. That’s just not my thing.”
Another thing that really struck me was your last line in the series, right before John is about to be hung. He says, “What a beautiful country.” Talk to me about that line.
I had a pretty powerful experience with Darnell Martin, who directed episode three. She is an extremely knowledgeable woman about history in our country. Darnell really knew a lot about John Brown, and she really knew a lot about the abolitionist movement. We had a lot of deep conversations, with her, with McBride, with Daveed [Diggs, who played Frederick Douglass], and we got to know each other really well. She continued to champion the show after she left. She would call me and check in with me.
She called me up one day and said, “I think I know how the show ends.” She started talking about how much John Brown believed in the possibility of America, a government for the people, of the people, by the people. “What a beautiful country that appeared.” He says that a lot in his life.
She was like, “Imagine if those were his final words.” I called Mark Richard, who’s my partner on the show. We just started talking about it, and we started visualizing this as an opening and closing of the show, of just belief in that whatever we are, it’s worth fighting for.
One of the things that’s fun about the show is it’s partly a Western. But as you get older and you start to read more books, you start to realize what a lie the American Western is. They never deal with slavery. They never deal with the real issues of the Native American community, and that’s really the story that’s happening. That’s the one that they don’t tell.
So this idea of Onion, our hero, riding away to tell the real Western story, the real American story, a biracial kid, who was a girl and is now a boy — it’s like he was neither North nor South, male nor female, Black nor white. And he’s America. This idea of him imagining what he would take from John Brown — he didn’t get to hear his last words. What would he imagine they would be? This idea happened to us, and we were like, “That’s it.”
In a recent profile in The New Yorker, you said that after you wrapped The Good Lord Bird, you felt like you were still talking to John Brown in your head for a while. Do you still feel that way? Is that conversation still happening?
No, I guess that antenna went down. Thank God. This was a huge challenge. It was a challenge on every front. Having this conversation [about slavery] right now is very fraught, and it stirs up a lot of feelings in a lot of people that are very real. I always said if it were easy to tell John Brown’s story, it would have been done before. It’s a hard story to look at and to talk about, and it’s going to make all kinds of people uncomfortable from every direction.
I really invited him in. As an actor, you build this antenna to try to be a receiver for these ideas. You put on the clothes; you ride the horses; you carry the pistols. There’s a certain shamanistic quality to it at its best, in figuring out how to let that flow through you and try to stay, to repeat the word, sane.
I’m really grateful to have the opportunity. This show allows us to have a really interesting conversation about America and about time, and who are our heroes, and what is our history. That’s a conversation that I’m grateful to be having with you.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.