Ethan Hawke plays famed abolitionist John Brown, but the Oscar-nominee says the Showtime limited series belongs to his 15-year-old costar.

By Derek Lawrence
October 02, 2020 at 10:45 AM EDT
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Ethan Hawke is a four-time Oscar nominee and widely-considered one of the best actors of his generation, but, despite taking on the powerful and colorful role of famed abolitionist John Brown, he insists that the true star of The Good Lord Bird is 15-year-old Joshua Caleb Johnson.

Based on James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award winner, the limited series from Showtime and Blumhouse Television follows Brown's failed attempt to initiate a slave revolt. Set up in each episode's opening credits with the declaration, "All of this is true...most of it happened," Good Lord Bird is told from the POV of Onion (Johnson), a fictional young boy pretending to be a girl in order to survive on the road with Brown in the lead up to the 1859 raid on the Army depot at Harpers Ferry, which became an instigating event in the start of the Civil War.

MICHAEL TRAN/AFP via Getty Images

"What really jumped out to me about Onion was going through all this, having to really take care of himself, and figure out the ways of becoming a man, he truly found himself," says Johnson. "And I could relate to Onion in a lot of ways. Being light-skinned, you don't really fit into a category; you don't fit with white people [or] with darker-skinned Black people."

To prepare for the crucial role, Johnson threw himself into the brutal history of the South, visiting the Civil Rights Memorial, the home of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis, and slave trails in Virginia. "When I went to the slave trail, it really hurt my heart to see how my ancestors were treated," he shares. "Just the cruelty and brutality and all the punishment they went through just because their skin color was different."

Going into Good Lord Bird, Johnson's most high-profile acting experiences were two-episode arcs on Animal Kingdom and black-ish, so with the series seemingly on his shoulders at times, he understandably admits to feeling "a bit of pressure." "I had a lot of confidence in myself and confidence that all of the preparation I did wasn't for nothing," he explains. "But it was my first big thing; I was a little nervous, little anxious, but, after the first day of filming, I was like, 'Yep, this is exactly where I want to be.'"

Describing Good Lord Bird as "a love story and buddy picture" between Brown and Onion, Hawke raved to EW about his partner-in-crime. "For me, the event of the series was getting to know Joshua," says the veteran actor. "As a fan of acting and as a person who cares about Joshua, it was incredible to watch a young person grow so much. His acting by the end was astonishing."

Johnson believes he began "tapping into my true potential" following the second of seven episodes, and credits much of that improvement to the care and advice of his "uncle figure," saying of Hawke: "I love him to death."

While the duo spent five to six months filming in the woods of Virginia, the wait to drop Good Lord Bird has lasted even longer, as the series was originally aiming for a premiere early in 2020. But Johnson thinks they've stumbled into "perfect timing" considering how recent events have played out in the country. "If you think about it, the same cause John Brown fought for 200 years ago is the same cause we’re fighting for today," he says, "which is the equality and emancipation of all Black Americans."

Now, after the “greatest time of my life,” Johnson is hoping to transition from Bird to Spider…Man. “My dream role is the young Black Spider-Man, Miles Morales,” he reveals of the comic character who Shameik Moore voiced in the animated hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. “I’ve been training for the role since I was, like, 5 years old.”

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