The four-time Oscar nominee is telling the partially true tale of abolitionist John Brown: "If we ignore these stories, we don't know ourselves as a country and as people."

By Derek Lawrence
October 01, 2020 at 10:45 AM EDT
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The Good Lord Bird is set more than 160 years in the past, but creator and star Ethan Hawke believes its story has never been more relevant.

Adapted from James McBride's 2013 National Book Award winner, the Showtime limited series (premiering Sunday) is based on real events but seen from the POV of a fictional enslaved boy named Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), who is forced to pose as a girl upon being thrown into the orbit of fiercely passionate abolitionist John Brown (Hawke) and, as you're about to learn in a comedic twist, eloquent yet ribald activist Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs).

For Hawke, the past several months have transformed his passion project into a timely reflection on America's ″great wound.″

Credit: William Gray/SHOWTIME

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is your history with McBride's book?

ETHAN HAWKE: The book blew me away. I felt like James McBride read [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] and the good Lord said to him, ″Can you top it?″ and he said, ″Yeah, I can.″ [Laughs] It just took my breath away. He's attacking one of the most volatile times and one of the deepest wounds of this country, and he's doing it with so much love, humor, wit, and grace. I was like, ″This story's got to be told."

This is your first major TV project; what made Good Lord Bird ripe for this medium?

For me, the limited series is such a new form, and I was so grateful that we were able to push the shooting and getting to cut the show as kind of one work of art. My whole life making movies and acting, you either made a movie or you were on a TV show or theater. And it used to be if you bought the rights to a novel, you had to reduce this thing to almost a haiku form; it would have to be two hours long, which meant you had to throw out usually 80 percent of the novel. And now the canvas has changed. True Detective was the first one that I saw do this really, really well. Because when I was a kid, the miniseries was always kind of the cheap version of a movie — they didn't have the budget, it wasn't as well photographed. We had the chance to go to Showtime and say, ″Hey, we're in love with this, we want to make the whole book." And we mapped out this plan and they believed in it. It's getting to make a much bigger canvas than I ever have in my life, and it allowed us to not throw any of it out.

How difficult was it to adapt?

We tried to jam a syringe into the novel and remove the essence and put it into cinema language. It was difficult, because what McBride pulls off is close to impossible in the way that he slips from emotion to humor to vileness; he has a tone as unique as [Quentin] Tarantino and the Coen brothers. His tone is very original and mercurial. Keeping that alive was the great challenge. Good Lord Bird ain't Lincoln, it ain't some stodgy history. We're trying to fill it with as much love, piss, and vinegar — the stuff of life — as we can.

You had the book at your disposal, but did you also look elsewhere to help your prepare for the role?

It's not a biopic, but I felt like to step in those boots and grow that beard, I had to do my own research. You immerse yourself in the history of the abolitionist movement and how radical and brave these people were. There's been a lot written, but the best thing I did was go to Harpers Ferry [in West Virginia] and John Brown's grave on his farm up in Lake Placid and try to chase some ghosts.

As John Brown, you're generating this rage and fire that I don't know we've ever seen from you in this way. What was it like tapping into that, and how did you settle on the way you'd play him?

What I tell people is that I'm not playing John Brown, I'm playing James McBride's John Brown, which is a little bit like the story of John Brown as told by Redd Foxx. It's part historical, part imaginative. I just tried to channel the voice of the novel. It's a hard thing to imagine, playing a human being who has that kind of courage of their conviction. What do they talk like? How do they move? What does he sound like? What does he pray like? How does he eat? There's so many different ways to come at it, and I kind of just found a voice and ran with it.

What did you like about exploring the John and Onion relationship?

At its absolute essence, it's a love story and buddy picture between a young man and an older man. For me, the event of the series was getting to know Joshua. He's the lead of series, and John Brown is really a supporting actor in his story. As a fan of acting and as a person who cares about Joshua, it was an incredible experience to watch a young person grow so much. His acting by the end was astonishing.

Credit: William Gray/SHOWTIME

Speaking of watching someone grow, your Boyhood son, Ellar Coltrane, fills the same role here. Why did you want to reunite? This is now almost 20 years of working together.

Isn't it wonderful? I like to be near Ellar, and continuing his tutelage of acting. He's a really deep, old soul. Part of my understanding of Brown was as a parent. He fought with his sons and died with his sons. Before he was hanged, people said, ″You're crazy, don't you feel bad about getting your sons killed?″ And he would say, ″Someday America is going to be deeply ashamed of slavery, but they will never be ashamed of my sons." I remember coming across that and being really moved. I wanted those relationships to be real, and it's such a big, epic tale that I hoped Ellar and I would have a subconscious [bond] on film.

Alongside you, Joshua, and Ellar is such an interesting supporting cast with people like Daveed Diggs, Wyatt Russell, and Rafael Casal. How did you go about building this world of characters?

You said it, it was building a world. Daveed came in with all his power and charisma and playfulness. Daveed and Rafael I'd seen in Blindspotting and just loved. Wyatt Russell, who Richard Linklater turned me onto in Everybody Wants Some, he's an amazing young actor. And it is about world-building and getting people who all believe in the same effort and are willing to go to the crazy end of the pond.

Credit: William Gray/SHOWTIME

Like on Before Sunset and Before Midnight, you're acting as both writer and star on Good Lord Bird. What was it like taking on such a workload?

Absolutely exhausting. I've never worked that hard in my life. It was like making four indies back-to-back. You're working at a ferocious pace and trying to seize each moment. It's difficult to make something worth watching, to get people to spend their hard-earned money, and you have to put a lot of thought into it, and when you don't have a lot of time, it's a lot of pressure. By the end, we all felt like we walked through a fire.

Given all that's going on in the world, do you feel like The Good Lord Bird is arriving at a timely moment in history?

I want the show to come out today; it's a really valuable moment to be studying this story. I believe that telling stories has a healing power. I believe that we make sense out of our lives by telling each other stories. What I've been sensing is people are longing for stories that place the unrest that we're feeling today in the context of history, of where it all comes from. Our inability to look at our nation's past hurts us. If we ignore these stories, we don't know ourselves as a country and as people. And a lot of people don't like to look at this part of history, they don't like to look at what happened to the Native Americans, they don't like to look at the legacy of slavery. But you're trapped by it if you don't look at it, and I think that John Brown allows you an in. Growing up in Texas, they didn't like to teach John Brown because then you're teaching that the Civil War was about slavery, and they like to overlook that piece of history — and that's a big problem. It's a fascinating moment that all the Confederate statues are finally coming down. I find that really beautiful and powerful. I felt that the story of the Good Lord Bird was relevant, but it seems to be an even more opportune time to revisit the story of John Brown than ever before.

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