Ethan Hawke on his difficult road to saying goodbye to John Brown and The Good Lord Bird
"What a beautiful country."
And with that, it's goodbye to Ethan Hawke's John Brown. "Last Words," the fittingly titled finale of The Good Lord Bird, blends the true history of Brown's revolt and death with the fiction created by James McBride, the author of the acclaimed novel that serves as the basis for the Showtime limited series.
The episode picks back up with the standoff at Harpers Ferry, as Brown and his sons go out firing, while hoping that Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) and some of their Black crew members can escape out the back. The plan doesn't work, but Onion, not ready to die before he can learn to live like a man, has dropped the charade of pretending to be a girl and tells a Southern soldier that he's a slave for a local man. He's then returned to Owen (Beau Knapp) and Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour), and the three of them head to stay with friends of the cause. While they learn that Brown survived and will be hanged, Owen and Bob go their separate ways, leaving Onion to work at a Black barbershop.
But Onion is determined to see Brown and travels to the jail, where he finds a man at peace. "I figured I'll do more for the cause in those precious minutes than I have in my whole life," Brown says. "I'm the luckiest man in the whole world." After a shared prayer, they both apologize for their various mistakes. Before Onion departs, he asks Brown why he never asked about his reasoning for dressing like a girl. "Whatever you are, Onion, be it in full," he responds. Onion later watches from afar as Brown is hanged. He says that no one heard Brown's last words, but Onion imagines they were "What a beautiful country."
To break down the final episode and the series as a whole, EW spoke with Hawke about interpreting Brown's last words, being unable to shake the character after filming ended, and hoping the series will make people want to keep learning.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I'll begin by asking you what the episode begins by asking: Did John Brown fail?
ETHAN HAWKE: The deeper I got in with John Brown, the more I had to realize at every turn we're talking about a man whose relationship to his Christianity and to his faith and to Jesus was way more important than any relationship he was having in his daily life. I would liken it to when your dad is watching the Super Bowl: You can kind of talk to him, but he's always slightly irritated. John Brown's Super Bowl is his prayer life. He's in a constant state of prayer, so his heroes are Samson and David, of David and Goliath. He viewed himself as a tool to be used by the divine. So I think he succeeded at exactly what he set out to do, which is to wake the nation up.
I have not yet read James McBride's book, although it's now high on my list after watching the series. Did the endings of the two differ in any notable way, or did you stay pretty faithful to McBride's work?
The thrill of getting to do a limited series and to work on this size canvas is if you were making it a feature film you would have to carve the thing down to three hours or less. We were able to shape the show to fit the same architecture that the book did and tell the story in the same exact way. So the ending of our show is exactly as James McBride scripted it.
When it came to filming Brown's hanging, how did you want to play that? To you, what was he thinking in that moment?
There's a lot of beautiful journals written by people who witnessed the hanging. Some of these people were Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, John Wilkes Booth, Stonewall Jackson. They were all at John Brown's hanging. These are people who were fervent sons of the South, and they all wrote the most beautiful things about how tranquil and very much at peace he seemed. And if you read the letters that he wrote from jail, it's clear that he understood what his assignment was — and so I just tried to channel. One of the fascinating things about pretty much everybody who witnessed John Brown's hanging is they were probably dead within four years. Basically everybody who saw it was killed in two shakes of a dog's ass. God's time is different than our time.
Onion theorizes that Brown's final words were "What a beautiful country." I watched this episode for the first time a few months ago, but now rewatching in preparing for this interview, as we saw how the election shook out and then the resulting celebrations of glee around the country, his message hit me in a new and refreshing way. Did you feel that at all?
I feel the same way. His belief in the possibility of what this country's mission statement is, of what it could be, and his willingness to stare hard at the ways in which we fail to be a government for the people, of the people, by the people, and yet he still believes in how beautiful an idea that is. I find that really moving, and it is almost like a dawn, when you see the sun come up again.
The reveal here that the Black men in Brown's crew clearly had known Onion wasn't a girl was interesting. I chatted with your daughter Maya for the episode in which she guest-starred, and she thought Annie also was aware of Onion's secret. Meanwhile, Owen is surprised by the revelation, so it really appears as though white men were the ones who couldn't see Onion for who he truly was. Did you read it that way too, and what was your approach in playing Brown knowing or not knowing?
Most of us don't really look at each other. We see the label. You see a dress, it's a girl. For Onion's Black friends and people he encounters, they see it clearly. But a lot of white people don't really look very deeply. And the inverse is also true; in the beginning of the series, Onion only sees John Brown as a crazy old white dude. By the end, he sees the person underneath that beard, and by the end, John Brown sees who Onion is. And I think that their love and sense of passion for one another is real and founded in truth. But it doesn't start that way, and it's work to see beyond the labels. I think McBride milks that joke for all it's worth.
I mentioned Maya, so what was it like getting to collaborate with her for the first time in this way? She told me that she hopes to work with you for her entire life, and then like a couple days later it comes out that you're making a movie together.
This show has been a passion project for our family. It's produced by her stepmother and my wife [Ryan Hawke]. We've been working on it for years, and she's been listening to getting it developed and working on it and my friendship with McBride and how it's blossomed. We've all been so grateful to get to make art that has meaning to us, that speaks to this moment in time, and it feels like a real blessing to be used this way. And to get to work with my daughter, and it's not just get to work with her, but to watch her develop into such a wonderful actor, I didn't even realize how much the show needed her spirit. The show needs her energy, that kind of feminine power that she brings. It needs it like water.
Onion says in this episode, "How can I die like a man if I haven't lived like one yet?" And he's told to "Make your own freedom." I don’t know if you've thought about this at all, but what do you imagine, or hope, Onion's future looks like after he rides off on a horse at the end?
For me, Onion becomes this powerful symbol of America. There he is, riding away at the end like John Wayne. It's a classic image of the American art form, the Western. He's riding north, following freedom. Onion is going to go the way America goes, and so we don't know how America is going to go. As John Brown says, "It takes awhile for the bees to hive, and they're still hiving."
The series ends with portrait shots of the Good Lord Bird's Black characters. Why was that the imagery you and the rest of the creative team wanted to sign off on?
The show is very funny and incendiary and playful with history, and I think it was a nice tone to go out on, to remind everyone of the reality of the situation. The infrastructure of this country has been built in such a way that has been really horrible to Black America. It's been a terrible crime, and that infrastructure needs to be rebuilt. Albert Hughes, who directed the first episode, it was his idea to use portraits of everybody who was in bondage. We didn't know how we were going to use it, but we knew that it would be a tool in our cinematic toolkit, and I thought it was powerful to work it into the end.
In the months since you've wrapped, what was it like trying to shake off John Brown? He's such a fiery and animated character, and one you were fully immersed in.
It was very, very difficult, to be honest with you. The combination of a pandemic and the world shutting down, simultaneously, when I was finishing playing this character, who had really kind of come home to roost inside my soul. [Laughs] I was obsessed with this guy: reading his letters, reading about him, talking about him nonstop, and visiting museums. When the show began, I went to his grave, kind of trying to follow the trail so to speak, just to pick up the scent. I went to his grave and saw where he and his boys were buried, and where the rest of his family had lived and were helping teach escaped slaves to farm. It's a very beautiful homestead. That's where I began, then I went to Harpers Ferry, and then I went down to preproduction and I had kind of invited this all into me. And when it was over, I didn't know how to end it. I wound up taking my kids and driving up to where John Brown was born, this very peaceful place in Connecticut, and tried to say goodbye to the character.
I have a secret hope of getting together with McBride and [producer] Jason Blum to try and get a statue erected for the Underground Railroad in Connecticut. That would be a really cool thing to continue this conversation. But it's been the hardest character to shake, because it's kind of like getting to play King Lear if no one else had gotten to play King Lear. It's such a massive and beautiful character. It's never been fully dramatized. There's been a few people who have done little cameos as John Brown here and there, but to really get to tell the story, and it's such an important story for America, and most of us don't know it.
When we talked a few months before the series premiered, you said you wanted the show to come out right then, because of how it seemed to really speak to the moment we were living in. Now that it has been airing, have you found yourself having conversations that maybe you wouldn't previously have had?
I certainly have. I don't know if other people have. I've been promoting the show for a month or so and it's been really rewarding, because a lot of people in this country, particularly journalists, are dying for an opportunity to talk about history or things they've learned or they know or can add to the conversation, and use the show as a jumping-off place for a larger conversation. I'll be really curious to see as the months go on. Now that the final episode is airing, people can binge watch the whole thing, which is how I think it's best revealed.
I watched the first four in a row and then the last three in one sitting. All seven at once might be a bit heavy!
That's exactly how I would recommend it. [Laughs] The four and then three is kind of perfect.
Whenever they do finish, what do you hope viewers takeaway from this story of John Brown, Onion, and our nation?
Just that they feel permission to continue their education. These characters, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, there are so many interesting people that we haven't been taught enough about. And when you understand them, you kind of understand the world we're living in, how our cities have been zoned, what people have been fighting for for the last couple hundred years. You start to understand that we're part of a series of dominoes that have not been being knocked over for a long time. We didn't create these problems, but we are living in them. I find history to be so exciting. As a show, I never wanted it to be a history lesson. Sometimes when you're teaching people, you're boring the hell out of them. But if you can make exciting art that provokes people's interest in learning, that can be something great. You get more bees with honey.