It’s debatable whether Ethan Hawke has ever given a better performance in his long and impressive career than his turn as abolitionist John Brown in the Showtime miniseries The Good Lord Bird. He’s certainly not given a bigger one.
Brown was a passionate, bordering-on-unhinged opponent of slavery who led the battle through both “bleeding Kansas” and an attempt to rob a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Hawke embodies him underneath a wild, scraggly beard and an even wilder expression in his eyes. This version of Brown — a supporting character in the wild, darkly comic tale, which is narrated by the freed slave Onion (newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson) — would be an entirely ludicrous figure if he weren’t also so dangerous. It is a performance pitched at a very high volume, but also — like so much of the miniseries, which Hawke and Mark Richard adapted from James McBride’s satirical novel — a startlingly funny one. This is itself a pretty big departure for Hawke, who has played some comedic roles over his long career (he’s very funny, for instance, as a washed-up rocker in 2018’s Juliet, Naked) but is better known for either earnestness (see: his sensitive schoolboy in his debut film, Dead Poets Society, or his sensitive American abroad in the trilogy-launching Before Sunrise) or something much darker (Training Day, First Reformed).
Hawke spoke with Rolling Stone about the challenges of translating McBride’s book to the screen, figuring out how to mine humor out of one of our nation’s greatest atrocities, and getting to fill the supporting cast with friends and family — including Steve Zahn (who plays a highwayman who crosses paths with Onion), his Boyhood son Ellar Coltrane (who plays one of Brown’s sons, Salmon), and his real-life daughter, Maya Hawke (who appears in a later episode as Brown’s daughter Annie).
A crew member on The Magnificent Seven remake told you about the book, suggesting you’d make a good John Brown. When you started reading it, did you feel like he was right?
When I was reading the book, I wasn’t thinking about playing him. I got seduced by McBride’s voice. I just couldn’t stop laughing. I would be sitting there reading this book, laughing my ass off, and my wife would say, “What are you laughing at?” I’d say, “This book.” She’d go, “Isn’t it about John Brown? How is that funny?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, but it is!” When I first started thinking about it as a movie, to be honest, I thought Jeff Bridges should play John Brown. I thought about producing it with some of the older actors that I grew up loving. And then slowly, I realized that I’m a lot older than I thought I was. [Laughs.] And I thought, “Wait a second, before I give this part away, It’s kind of like being the first person to play King Lear.” Cinema hasn’t really addressed John Brown yet. You can watch 15 movies about the Alamo, or a handful of movies about Abraham Lincoln. The raid at Harper’s Ferry was so dramatic, when I got there to play it, I couldn’t believe that other actors hadn’t played this part. So I started realizing what a great part it was.
You’ve done comedy before, but it’s not something you’re very well known for. Was that largely by choice, or is it a case where you start out doing one thing, and that’s how the business sees you?
It’s a funny question, because when I started acting, I loved Warren Beatty. And I loved how funny he was. People like to talk about Warren Beatty like a matinee idol or something, but he’s so funny, from Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait; he’s even hysterical in Reds. I always imagined that I would do more comedy, and the fact that I haven’t represents a lot about the way that comedies have been made in my era. The thing about comedy right now is that it’s a little broad. The old-fashioned kind of Preston Sturges comedies, the ones that I could see myself in, weren’t happening — or, I don’t know, maybe I’m not good enough. But I love comedy. Part of the secret sauce of the Before trilogy is how funny Julie Delpy is. You don’t think of those movies as comedies, but they’re very funny. A lot of what I’ve done in my career I’ve felt has used comedy. So I felt really excited by the challenge of playing a comic portrait of John Brown. I thought that was right in my wheelhouse.
You told your wife that you weren’t sure how this was funny. At a certain point, you had to adapt this and reckon with how it worked as a comedy. What did you figure out?
Human hypocrisy is funny. It’s funny to see a guy loading his pistols quoting Jesus of Nazareth. Human beings, people who think they’re racists and then fall in love with a black person — it’s funny. Steve Zahn’s hysterical in the show. The most difficult aspect of the production was finding this tone that McBride strikes, that’s absolutely bonkers, and yet has all this emotion in it. If you tilt too far to the bonkers, it stops having heart. But if you lean too much into the heart, it’s too painful. So finding that weird, strange… it’s a little bit Mark Twain, it’s a little bit Coen brothers, it’s a little bit Redd Foxx. The key was not to play John Brown as he was, but John Brown the way James McBride imagined him.
The book is told from Onion’s point of view, so you only see Brown as Onion sees him. So how did you go about writing and playing him on a level where you could understand him from the inside?
What happened to me, in truth, is I got obsessed with trying to get the show made, and I wasn’t thinking as an actor. Until all of a sudden, we had a start date, and we were packing up the car to go down to Virginia to shoot this thing, and I realized I was going to have to start acting soon. My wife really said to me, “You’ve got to start taking off the producing hat and let other people do it. What do you think Martin Scorsese would ask of you if he were directing this? What would Spike Lee ask of you?” I said, “Well, I would have to go really deep into this guy.” And she said, “Then you have to go deep. What would be the first thing you do?” And I said, “I guess I’d have to drive to his grave. I’d have to tip my hat in some way, and invite him in.” And so I did that. I drove up to Lake Placid. I started reading other books about him besides McBride’s books, and tried to figure out what does a guy like John Brown have in his pocket? How does he pray? Is he the kind of person that prays on his knees? Does he pray silently? Is he a shouter? I had to ask all these kinds of questions. Strangely, when I was first adapting it, I was trying to be so faithful to the book that I would take John Brown’s lines from the script. But the problem is, everything’s told from Onion’s point of view, and I realized, John Brown doesn’t talk like a black person from the South. This guy was living in New York. In the book, everybody talks like Onion. It’s the magic of the book that it’s got this Huck Finn voice to it, where he imagines everybody speaking like him. I had to reorient it in my brain.
Had you ever, either on screen or on stage, been asked to give a performance as big as you have to go certain moments in this series?
I did a play years ago, and there are slight historical parallels. I did a Tom Stoppard play [The Coast of Utopia] where I played Mikhail Bakunin. The play spans about 40 years. I was about 36, and I had to play him from 22 to 60. When I started playing the old Michael Bakunin, I found a character I’d never played before. A bombastic, Falstaff-y figure. And I realized deep into John Brown that my John Brown and my Mikhail Bakunin were definitely spiritual brothers.
Were there times where you worried, “Am I going too big?” or “Am I not going big enough?” What were your conversations with the directors like, particularly for those fire-and-brimstone speeches that you have to give?
I felt really passionate about this book. I knew that I needed to stop forgetting about things like what’s naturalistic or what’s over the top. I needed to go to someplace I hadn’t been before. I have had a lot of great mentors in my life. When Denzel Washington has his talons in a scene, nothing’s gonna stop him. Part of the joy of film acting is you don’t have to think like that. You have to trust your collaborators and give them everything. I wanted to find where the roof of this guy was. There was a funny drawing I found of John Brown on the internet, that looked like he had electricity vibrating through his skin, like rippling with lightning bolts. And I just put that in the front of my script. I realized when I asked that question, “What did he pray like?”, I realized that he prayed all the time. There’s great passages about Sojourner Truth and her relationship to her prayer life, that she was just in constant dialogue with whatever you want to call it: her maker, her source, God, whatever that spirit is. I came to just view that John Brown wasn’t talking to you, he wasn’t talking to his next-door neighbor, he wasn’t talking to the shop clerk. He was always talking to his father in heaven. So I just gave myself permission to be an idiot.
As someone with great affection for Reality Bites , it’s always great to see you and Steve Zahn in the same project again. How did he wind up in this?
I’ve been buddies with Steve Zahn for a long time, and he’s a Civil War fanatic. I mean, he’s a nut for it. I knew he would love this. I think he’s one of the most underrated actors we have. His ability to be funny teeters near genius, and it’s overshadowed, the unbelievable pathos he has as a performer. He’s a deep guy, and he’s a deep thinker. I sent him the book and he said, “I’ll play whoever you want.” That section of the story that John Brown isn’t in, I knew this whole series was a little bit of a baton act. Certain characters have to take Onion through this long journey, and I knew I needed great people to play these small parts to make sure the thing stayed buoyant and vibrant.
There’s another reunion here, in that you got to work with Ellar Coltrane again. How did that come about?
I think that good cinema has a subconscious, and I thought it would be cool that we played a famous father and son. He’s another deeply ethical person that I know. I knew he would love being in this world and being around these abolitionist characters, and that he would really thrive in that setting. And I like being near him.
When Maya went into acting, did you assume you would work with her at some point, or did you want to have some kind of personal/professional boundary?
I’m sure a good psychiatrist might advise otherwise. Maya and I, I feel like we’ve been working together since she was old enough to talk. She’s a born artist. She loves this stuff. It doesn’t matter if it’s rock and roll or jazz or acting or photography. She is as in love with the arts as I’ve ever been. I imagine, in truth, that I’d really like to work with her a lot in my lifetime. I’d like to direct her in Hamlet. It’s hard, because she needs to find her own identity, I know, and find her own way and carve her own path, and she’s doing that. This project was really important to our family. Her stepmother was a producer on the movie. It took us years to get it going, and she knew how much it meant to us. It was wonderful to have her there, and to get to play father and daughter. Every time her face comes on screen, I light up.
The thing about her here, and in Stranger Things and elsewhere, is that she is both incredibly relaxed onscreen, and has a real presence that belies her years. Where does that come from?
She’s had to navigate a lot in her life. She’s spent a lot of time with adults. Our past hasn’t been perfect, and she’s had to absorb a lot. But she’s always been a deep kid. She was as a young person. You’d ask her if she was happy, and she would say, “Why is that an important question? What good did happiness do anybody?” She’d say something like that at seven, and you’d be like, “What?” I don’t know. she’s very un-vain as a performer. It makes her very relaxed. And young people, particularly this generation, are being forced to photograph themselves, and it creates a lot to posturing and posing and acting that I’m allergic to, and she just doesn’t have it. She’s so relaxed. She did a year at Juilliard, and I think they took her natural gifts and really taught her how to operate her own tool kit, so to speak.
What does it mean to be able to tell this story of John Brown right now, at this very fractured moment in American history, where there are literally people clamoring for another Civil War?
it’s a powerful feeling. I mean, it was a powerful feeling to be able to shoot this in Richmond and drive past giant, giant statues of Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson David. I drove past those guys every day to work, and those statues today are being torn down and covered with pictures of George Floyd. The pandemic has put a pressure on the country’s shoulders that’s making all the other wounds burst open. It feels, for me, I have great hope and belief in the power of storytelling. The South suffered a great loss of identity in the Civil War, and they kind of got frozen in the first stage of grief: denial. Those statues kind of represent denial to me. If we tell the truth to each other, if we have a national narrative, if we can start telling the same truth and agreeing on the same narrative, we can heal. Because that’s what it takes for friendship to happen: truth telling. I knew when I read this novel that James had put his finger in a really important conversation. I really wanted to be a part of telling it.
The first of seven episodes of The Good Lord Bird premieres October 4th on Showtime.