- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
When Ethan Hawke first read James McBride’s bestselling book The Good Lord Bird about the radical abolitionist John Brown, he was so taken with it that he wanted to give everyone he knew a copy for Christmas.
But then his real-life partner and producer Ryan Hawke had a better idea: Why not adapt it? “My wife said, ‘Well, shit, the real way to do that is to make a movie out of it,’” the actor recalls in Q&A with THR Presents, powered by Vision Media, about the fact-based drama. “I mean, let’s put it in their homes, damnit, and make it real easy to unwrap this gift.”
By fall of 2020, Hawke had managed to turn the National Book Award-winning novel into a Showtime limited series, which he headlined opposite newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson as the fictional narrator “Onion.” The TV adaptation, which Hawke penned alongside co-writer Mark Richard and which Blumhouse produced, was quickly praised by critics for the way it struck a delicate balance between historical narrative and absurdist humor.
“Sometimes you want to do things really badly and you just get closed doors everywhere you go,” says Hawke, who was eager to start a conversation with the project. “But we started marching with this story and doors opened. Finding opportunities to talk about the history of race in this country and to do it in a way that you think might be able to be accomplished with love and have some kind of healing power, which is what I long for from art, you’re hungry for that as a storyteller.”
Hawke has joked that he’d initially pictured Jeff Bridges playing the role of John Brown—until he looked in the mirror and remembered he was old enough to play the man himself. “The more I stared at the piece, the more I realized that this is one of the great characters in U.S. history and I thought I’d be a fool to turn it down,” he says.
The miniseries wasn’t a hard sell for the other cast members either. Hawke had one person in mind for Douglass and that was Daveed Diggs. “Ethan said, ‘I want you to play Frederick Douglass but I want you to read the book and make sure you understand what kind of Frederick Douglass you’d be playing,’” remembers Diggs, who says he’s never read a book as fast as he did this one. “I told him I would be Frederick Douglass or a tree in the background. If you’re making this, I want to be in it so whatever you need me to do.”
Johnson devoured the book after his second callback for Onion, a free slave who pretends he’s female after John Brown mistakes him for a girl. One of his favorite episodes of the series was the third one, which Darnell Martin directed and Daveed figured prominently in. Johnson remembers Martin making him do a set of burpees ahead of certain scenes so that he’d be sufficiently worked up for them. “The crazy part is my costumer was like, ‘Ok, Josh, I get that you have to do the burpees but you keep ripping the dress,’” he says.
Martin, for her part, didn’t even need to read a script to know she was in. Just knowing the show was about John Brown was enough. “Literally my son says, ‘The only white guy that you respect in history, mom, is John Brown,’” says Martin. “He didn’t just sacrifice himself; he sacrificed the lives of his children because he understood that Onion was also his child.”
Speaking of kin, Hawke cast his own daughter, Maya Hawke, as his onscreen daughter in the series. He always wanted her to play the part but he was scared to suggest it, fearing he’d be accused of nepotism. But then her season of Stranger Things came out and the Showtime executives told Hawke they had an idea for who could play the role. “I was like, ‘Oh really? Who?’” he jokes. Of course, he’d already talked to her about it.
This edition of THR Presents was brought to you by Showtime.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day