Maya Hawke on what makes The Good Lord Bird so important to her family
"I've never met a girl like Annie Brown."
In the first four episodes of Showtime's limited series The Good Lord Bird, Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) goes through hell. He watches his father be killed and is then saved by famed abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke), who believes Onion to be a girl. The young boy keeps the charade going, believing it to be his best chance at survival as he, Brown, and the rest of their crew travel the country in hopes of freeing slaves. But Sunday's episode, "Hiving the Bees," brings up a new feeling for Onion: love.
Played by Hawke's own daughter, Stranger Things star Maya Hawke, Annie arrives to reunite with her father and brothers. Onion is immediately in awe of this woman who may or may not realize his true nature (more on that later). Following some sweet moments of them bonding over singing and performing, Brown's historic attack at Harper's Ferry is moved up, prompting Annie and Onion to be sent off to safety. Despite being with Annie and the chance at a future with her, Onion realizes he can't leave his captain's side and decides to head back — but not before confessing his manhood and love for Annie and sealing it with a kiss. As she calls him name, he runs off, likely to never see her again.
To break down the episode, EW chatted with Maya Hawke about Good Lord Bird's importance to her family, getting to work with her father for the first time, and why this was exactly what she needed.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I had no idea you were in Good Lord Bird until you popped up in episode 5, so that was a nice surprise.
MAYA HAWKE: It's such a special project and so important to my family, and it means the world to have been a part of it. I'm grateful to talk to you about it. I really believe in it and I'm so, so, so proud of what it is. And I don't mean proud like I had anything do with it, I really don't, but I'm just in awe of the work everybody did.
Your dad told us how blown away he was by James McBride's novel, and that he instantly knew this story needed to be further told. Had you read the book already, or did you do so on his recommendation?
My dad recommended it to me endless amounts of times. I hadn't read it until there was the idea about the show happening and me playing Annie. My dad reads a lot and is a very enthusiastic person and makes a lot of recommendations, and if I read everything he told me to read then I wouldn't be able to have a job or feed myself. [Laughs] But the sense of humor in the book and the way [McBride] tells the story so painful to our nation's history in this incredibly moving and powerful way that also has this lightness and love and intelligence strung through the backbone of the story moved me so deeply. It felt like exactly the medicine that our nation needs, that television needs, and that I need.
Once you dove into the novel, was there anything specific about Annie that you connected to?
Probably the thing about Annie that spoke to me is that she kind of has this beginner's mind. And the idea of beginner's mind sounds like she's a baby or she's stupid, and she's not stupid, she's highly optimistic. Because she was brought up under the guise of this very passionate and righteous and complicated human being in John Brown, she has a different version of the world, a different way of seeing things. And her way of seeing things is one of possibility, one of unity, dreams, Shakespeare, poetry, nature, and togetherness. She sees a tremendous hope for her nation. She sees a time for where this is over. She sees a time where Onion will be free. Not everyone can be that optimistic, there are people who need to see the hard truth and the difficult reality that we're living in, but we also need some voices who see the silver lining and possibility and who can dream. Because if we don't have a goal or a dream that we're aiming for, then we're all just fighting in the dark. So she inspired me in that way.
Between what was in the book and then what was on the page here, how did you read Annie and Onion's relationship?
The thing that jumped out to me as a difference in the script and the book, as a sort of little secret that I had for Annie, was the idea that she would know Onion was not a girl. Though the white men around her just saw this young person in a dress and assumed it was a girl, that as a young girl herself she would be able to sniff that out and see it and flirt with Onion about it. In that bathtub scene, I think she knows he's a boy and that's why he doesn't want to get into the bath. And when he tells her at the end that "I'm a boy" and runs away, I did a take where I yelled after him, "I know! Onion, I know!" Because I think it is a love affair brewing between the two of them, or at least a crush. And that seed in the show really excited me as a secret for my character to have, which is always a fun thing as an actor.
Talking with your father, he emphasized that despite John Brown's big shadow and historical significance, this is Onion's story. And Annie plays a big role in that with this episode, so what do you think the presence of her and that relationship does for Onion?
A lot of the ways we discover our own manhood and womanhood is in the moment in which another young man or woman sparks our interest and our desire to be a grown-up and do grown-up things. You want to be intelligent, cool, and dreamy for that person, and have hope and desire. And I think part of Onion's journey to becoming a man is his fascination with a young woman and part of Onion's journey to being free, and having ideas and dreams and fantasies about his future. People who have no freedom have no hope, have no future, and hope and dreams and a fantasy of future is a luxury that everyone deserves.
Most our your scenes are with Joshua, who your dad took quite a liking to and raved about his growth as an actor throughout the series. Was it a similar experience for you with him?
Let me say, working with Josh was amazing. I mean, meeting that young boy and watching him blossom into this extraordinary actor and performer throughout the filming of the show, both from a backseat perspective as my father's daughter and then from a fellow actor in the mix. It was just amazing to watch him grow and change and learn from the other actors around him and become the best person in the room. I found him truly inspiring and brilliant to work with.
Working with young people is really amazing because they're not stuck. You can try different things with Joshua and do the scene different ways, and I got to play and provoke him and see how he would respond differently. All of that was really, really fun. My favorite part was probably rehearsing that song together, and we got to work on the harmonies and pick the verses we liked. And my favorite scene is actually when we're in the roof doing Shakespeare. That was somehow the most fun I'd ever had. In that super-crowded attic with all those boys and just reading this Shakespeare scene from As You Like It, a play I've always loved. All of those moments were really intimate and special and felt really creative and spontaneous.
We've mentioned your father a few times, so what was it like getting to work with him for the first time?
Working with my dad was great. I hope to work with my dad my whole life. He's my greatest teacher and my greatest adviser, and it's an honor to get to work alongside him. I think it's Meryl Streep who once said that working with someone who you have history with is like cheating, because you look across the room and you make eye contact and there's just all this history, love, anger, joy, or whatever it is built into your connection on screen. You don't have to do the extra work to make that feel like it's true, it just is true.
That goes to what he told us about casting his Boyhood son, Ellar Coltrane, as one of John Brown's sons. He said part of it was wanting these relationships to be real and hoping this established bond would help add something to this big, epic tale. And it feels like that is what happened here, especially considering Annie and John don't share many moments, and yet that bond still immediately comes across.
We didn't have to do any extra work to build intimacy. We didn't have to add an extra scene — it was just there. It was there from the first scene I shot when I got out of the carriage and kiss Onion and walk into the house and we nod hello at each other. It's very easy. Maybe people who aren't father and daughter would think they'd have to hug or embrace or a do a big hullabaloo, but because we know each other and live with each other and greet each other every day, there's an ease there and the knowledge that a little bit goes a long way.
Your dad has given so many incredible performances, but he's doing something with John Brown that I've never seen from him in capturing this rage and fire. It's so strange and hilarious and weird. Even though I'd say it was probably slightly scaled back in the scenes you're around for, what was it like watching that up close?
The thing that I think is so amazing about it is the way from the get-go it was about my dad somehow understanding John Brown and James McBride and the way in which they intersect in this story, and that's really through humor. James McBride has this wonderful sense of humor, and my dad got it when he read the book and he loved it and he infused the character of John Brown that he was performing with that sense of humor. That wouldn't be everyone's instinct, to have that silliness and that play and to look at such a radical and important historical figure and allow him to have colors and shades and such humor. I hadn't really seen my dad do that before, and I hadn't really seen it on screen, period, before. I found it so breathtaking and exciting to watch play out in real time.
This episode mostly takes place in this small, cramped cabin, and in addition to all the other cast, it's you, your dad, Ellar, who I'm sure you've kind of grown up with, and Joshua, who seems to have become close to you and your dad. Did it feel a bit like a family affair?
It was pre-COVID, so there was a lot of hanging out. Beau [Knapp] and Rafael [Casal], who are so amazing on the show, were both around too, and it was really special. It did feel homey and like family. It was a stressful project, and it required a lot of work and effort and attention and time, and every moment was precious and everything had to be right, so it wasn't laissez-faire or relaxed; it was really actively creative and very focused. But in that, at least for me, there was a lot of comfort and a lot of familial feelings and bonding.
You said how important this show became to your family as a whole, so having now filmed your episode and getting ready for it to air, how do you reflect back on what it personally meant to you?
It was a week of my life, but it was a really important week. For one reason or another I was really in need to get back in touch with the thing I love, acting. And I got to come to this set in which the first priority was the words and the performances, and there was this real focus and these wonderful scenes and this opportunity to really play a scene from the beginning to the end with a clear motivation and a clear change, these kind of old-fashioned scenes. And I needed that, I needed that deep dive, I needed that scene work. It confirmed my faith in myself, in my father's taste, and the brilliance of James McBride's novel. I needed a dose of feeling lucky, and I felt so lucky and so grateful to be in that room. And that is the thing I try to walk through every day with, a sense of gratitude and luck for my life, because it's extraordinary lucky, and to get to be in that room and watch dreams come true and those stories be told was incredibly important to me. And now that to have it gone so well and to be so proud of the final product and so proud of Joshua and so proud of my father's hilarious and brilliant performance and have made some lifelong friends in the process, I feel very lucky.