Ethan Hawke on Playing a Real-Life Abolitionist in 'Good Lord Bird': "You Can't Underplay John Brown"

Joshua Caleb Johnson and Ethan Hawke in GOOD LORD BIRD.
William Gray/SHOWTIME

The co-creator and star of Showtime's limited series reveals that both he and his young co-star, Joshua Caleb Johnson, had to embrace extremes for their roles in the historical drama: "When someone meets a challenge, it's so exciting to watch."

Ethan Hawke has earned Oscar noms for both his acting (Training Day, Boyhood) and writing (Before Sunset, Before Midnight), and as a director has helmed three features and a documentary. Hawke used that experience in front of and behind the camera to take on three roles at once — co-creator, executive producer and series lead — for his latest passion project, Showtime's The Good Lord Bird, an adaptation of James McBride's award-winning novel. The limited series stars Hawke as the infamous abolitionist John Brown, whose 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, fueled the flames of the Civil War.

Narrated by Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), an enslaved teenager who disguises himself as a girl and joins Brown's roving army (and whom Brown affectionately calls Onion), the show blends historical drama with absurdist humor as Brown leads a bombastic fight against slavery across the United States — and encounters such figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and J.E.B. Stuart. Hawke spoke to THR about honoring McBride's words, watching his co-star develop as an actor and embracing the kind of performance he has avoided until now.

How did you first come across the novel by James McBride?

When I was shooting [the 2016 remake of] The Magnificent Seven, a camera operator told me he was reading the most amazing book. I got obsessed with the title — it just rang a chord in me. I kept asking, "What's the name of that book? What does that mean?" And he said, "That's when you see a bird so beautiful, you say, 'Good Lord.' " I later found it in a bookshop, and it was one of those great reading experiences you have a couple of times in your life. I just devoured it. I couldn't believe the accomplishment — that you could write such a politically charged novel that would be so funny and so human. I mean, James McBride gave Mark Twain a run for his money. I had that feeling you have where you just want to give everyone the book for Christmas. And then I thought we should make this into a movie and give it to the whole world.

You've written films before, but was it a challenge to write something that would launch a seven-episode series?

Because it was a limited series, it wasn't as difficult as it would have been as a movie. If you're making a movie out of a book, you basically have seven-eighths of the novel. You invariably take the main character, a couple of your favorite scenes, and you get rid of the rest. Or you're taking a short story and turning it into a longer piece. You're either adding water to the beer or cutting it down and serving such small doses. What we were able to do is maintain the integrity of the novel's architecture and tell the story in the exact same way — which was so important, because what McBride had done was so radically original. I kept saying to [co-creator] Mark Richard, "What we really want to do is take a syringe and jam it in the novel and suck out the essence, and then shoot it right into the celluloid."

That the series followed the novel so faithfully made it feel like it wasn't following a TV formula.

I just called it the movie. And in the process, I kind of looked at it like chapters as opposed to episodes. The trouble with TV is that a lot of times you have to manufacture a cliff-hanger or something. This book lent itself to film really well, because Onion is just constantly hopping from the frying pan into the fire — the stakes just keep going up and up and up. We didn't have to generate fake endings.

The biggest challenge was maintaining Onion's point of view through the whole story. We could get away with the humor because it's told from a 14-year-old's perspective. You see Frederick Douglass [Daveed Diggs] the way a 14-year-old sees him — not the way he really was. When he first sees John Brown, he's a crazy old white guy yelling. The deeper we get into the series, Onion gets to know John Brown better, and he starts to seem less comic.

John Brown is unlike any character you've played before. What was it like playing someone so larger-than-life?

I've spent my whole career underplaying. I'm generally allergic to when you can see people acting — any kind of bombast or shouting or tears and all that stuff. But there's something to the tone of this story that demanded that from me. You can't underplay John Brown in James McBride's universe. It was liberating for me in a way because I realized I wasn't playing John Brown; I was playing James McBride's John Brown, and I was playing him as perceived by this 14-year-old boy dressed up as a girl. It's comic already. I think it was hard for some of my collaborators. I think some of the producers were like, "What the hell is Ethan doing?"

Joshua Caleb Johnson's character is a weighty role for any actor, but especially for someone so young. What were your first impressions of him, and what was it like working alongside him?

The event of the shoot was watching him develop. I knew when we were casting that we would only go as far as Joshua could take us. It's all set against Joshua's performance. I thought of this as a movie, but we shot for five months — it's like doing three indie movies back to back. And in episode five, he has a scene with Daveed [Diggs] that's, like, 15 pages long. It was trial by fire. There was so much being asked of him. When someone meets a challenge, it's so exciting to watch — it's like watching the quarterback make a touchdown drive in the final two minutes.

The cast includes a lot of people you've worked with before, like Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane and Reality Bites' Steve Zahn. And of course your daughter, Maya Hawke, appears in two episodes. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to have familiar faces working alongside you?

This job was really important to me, and we had a big canvas. There were a lot of different people who needed to carry the baton and keep the energy moving on an epic tale like this. For example, you mentioned Steve: That's a section of the movie that John Brown is not in. We needed other actors to be able to push the story forward and help Joshua. We needed people like Zainab Jah, who plays Harriet Tubman; I'd seen her in a play here in New York, and I'm always watching people and saying, "This person's got it." David Morse is my partner in the first scene. If that scene isn't great, everybody's going to stop watching right away. If Frederick Douglass doesn't hit a home run, it's not going to work. I found that people with theater experience — people who genuinely love language, and playing with it — were the ones who would be the most successful. I knew I needed that, and I wanted to get them in every position.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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Finding the Abolitionist's Voice 

Ethan Hawke had to summon the sound of a man who left his mark on American history. 

There were no recordings of John Brown's electrifying tirades against the evils of slavery for Ethan Hawke to listen to while preparing for the role. "It was a riddle to me," he says. "His voice needed to have opinion and volume. I couldn't underplay this character." To find that sound, Hawke visited Brown's grave site in upstate New York, where he hoped he could "pick up the sin" of Brown's violent anti-slavery battles in American history.

Author James McBride described Brown's voice as sounding like "high timber," which Hawke admits wasn't especially helpful. "I called McBride from Brown's house," Hawke says. "I said to him, 'High pine trees? Do you mean it sounds scratchy, or what?' " McBride offered a confession of his own. "He said, 'I'm so glad you called me. I think I got it wrong. I liked the way those words look on the page, but I don't think you can talk like that for seven hours.' "

Hawke turned to the familiar, conjuring memories of his grandfather — "He was always shouting at me" — to muster up all the bellowing. The result is an original creation, which earned McBride's approval. "I didn't care if the show didn't work, as long as he liked it. And he's still speaking to me, so I think he did."

This story first appeared in a January standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.