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Ethan Hawke On Playing John Brown, Early Fame, And Making A Friend Of Fear

Ethan Hawke plays abolitionist John Brown in The Good Lord Bird, a new Showtime series based on the novel by James McBride.
Ethan Hawke plays abolitionist John Brown in The Good Lord Bird, a new Showtime series based on the novel by James McBride.

In October 1859, a white abolitionist named John Brown led a three-day siege on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., hoping to spark a rebellion of enslaved people in the Southern states. Ultimately, the abolitionists were defeated by a company of U.S. Marines, and Brown was charged with treason and hanged. But the consequences of the raid were lasting.

"Harpers Ferry, to my mind and a lot of people's mind, is the first battle of the Civil War," actor Ethan Hawke says.

Hawke plays the abolitionist in the seven-part Showtime series, The Good Lord Bird, which Hawke also co-created. The series, which is based on James McBride's novel, tells Brown's story from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy who Brown freed from slavery.


With the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and widespread conversations about racism in America, Hawke says The Good Lord Bird speaks to this moment. Revisiting Brown's story means looking "deep into the ugliest part of America, the foundation of America," he says.

"Throughout this pandemic, we've all heard the word 'systemic racism,' " Hawke says. "To really understand that expression, one has to look at slavery. And there's really no better place to put your microscope than John Brown."

Interview Highlights

On why he wanted to adapt The Good Lord Bird

The magic trick that [author James] McBride does by telling the story through [14-year-old] Onion's point of view is he lets you laugh about it. He [writes] the humanness into it, as opposed to kind of a political angle. It's not self-serious, and yet it's full of tremendous heart. ... McBride finds a way to make it a healing experience to look at [systematic racism], the wit of his writing is so compelling. And so when I finished it, I just felt hellbent on a mission that getting this story into our culture so that it's easier to talk about some of these things.

On finding John Brown's voice


I put a lot of thought into that. I drove up to Lake Placid, N.Y., where he's buried, seemed like the right place to start. And I went to pick up the scent, as it were. I went to his house and I walked those woods. ... McBride says he talked like "a high pine." And so I was really working on a kind of high, screechy voice. And I realized that ... sounds good when you write it down and you're reading a book, but I'm not sure anybody wants to listen to that for seven hours.

I called James and I said, "I can't figure out how this guy talks." And he said, "I'm so glad you called. I've been thinking about that. I think I wrote that wrong." And he said some other things that he'd come across in his research like one time that somebody describes meeting John Brown and it said, "It seemed like he was chewing his mouth out from the inside when he talked." ... He hated our culture so much that when people said things that he didn't want to hear, it was almost like he was eating his own mouth. And I thought that was something to build on.

On becoming famous at a young age

I can't imagine that it's actually a good thing for anybody, particularly a young person. I think that it can bring a lot of gifts, celebrity, the power to do what you want to do and open doors. But if you're too young, you don't really know how to use it in a way that is beneficial to yourself and others. And so it can be really confusing. A lot of young people struggle with not thinking they're good enough, not thinking they're smart enough. And if you throw oil onto that fire, which is by telling a young kid that "You're amazing! You're great," and inside your own chest, you don't believe it. You start drifting off, because it balloons the feeling of being a fraud if you know you haven't earned your place at the table.

On the beginning of his collaboration with filmmaker Richard Linklater (who directed Hawke in Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight and Boyhood)

It was pretty thrilling to meet another young person that had given themself permission not to imitate the generation before them, and was setting about to define who he wanted to be and where and was really looking at the context of the time period we were living in. It might not sound important, but everybody I had met, we were all like, "Oh, I want to be like X, and I want to be like Y," or "I want to be like Jack Nicholson," or "I want to be like August Wilson," or ... whoever it is. And this was a young person who was saying, ... "I don't want to be like anybody. I want to speak to this moment the way that our heroes spoke to their moments." And it was kind of revelatory to give yourself permission to not imitate. And he challenged me and we became friends.

On a period in the late '90s where he had to audition for roles again, after being successful earlier in his career

Life is humbling all the time, and whenever you act like you're too good or deserve better, you're pretty much announcing yourself as an idiot. The life of an actor is constantly up and down. I mean, it's one thing people have this notion that you cross some threshold and you've made it or something. No sooner do people write nice things about you, than it becomes unfashionable to write nice things about you and they have to come up with a negative angle about you. And they're probably both true.

To be frank, I enjoyed it. I hated how easy success came to me. I was embarrassed by it. And I know too many artists that work too hard, too many musicians and people who are brilliant, who can't sell a record, or painters who can't get anything bought. The commercial art world is an extremely unreliable critic. Mediocrity is celebrated constantly, through the history of mankind, not just in our culture. So I tried to not take any of the ups too seriously or any of the downs too seriously and try to orient myself more on, like, what my goals were rather than whether my goals were succeeding.

On how the 2001 film Training Day changed him as an actor and restarted his career

There's been, like, three times I felt washed up in my life — by "times" I mean year spans. Reality Bites had opened and I was supposed to be the poster boy for Gen X. But then all of a sudden that became unfashionable. I was only 29, 30 years old and people thought, "I know him and I don't like him," kind of thing. I went out and auditioned, but largely I was really lucky [with Training Day.] Antoine Fuqua, the director of Training Day, really believed in me, and Denzel [Washington] really believed in me. ... I was fortunate that they saw something in me and it turned into a really unbelievable experience in my life. ...

To see up close how a great artist works, it changes you. You can't unsee it. ... I think I had grown up waiting for directors to give me permission. Like, if only I could work with Scorsese, then I would be as good as DeNiro. And that's a really boring way of looking at life. Why can't I just try to be as good as DeNiro without waiting for somebody to give me permission? But Antoine created an environment to really give Denzel the freedom to play and create the character the way that he wanted. And Antoine showed me the same respect. He treated me like a partner and in that partnership gave me confidence.

On getting terrible stage fright later in his career and how it made him a better actor

I was an extremely confident young man — and then sometime in my late 30s and 40s, right when you're supposed to be a grown up, when you just have to stop being promising and start delivering, I started getting incredibly nervous and had a genuine war with anxiety. ...

The way it manifests me is that I think I'm going to die, literally die ... and that's much more scary than [forgetting] your lines. Lines are really just preparation. I guess it has to do with self-esteem and my only source of self-esteem through much of my life has been through what I do, and if I didn't succeed at that, then I had no self-esteem, which means I hated myself, which means I may as well not be alive. And so I think in some way that's the circle of negative thinking that can get you going. ...

I had an incredible drive to excel at my chosen field. And as I got more educated about what excelling means, it became more difficult to get to the level that I wanted to be at. But that anxiety kept me up all night working and that helped me be better. The trick is to figure out how to make a friend of your fear, and to realize that this fear is helping you rehearse longer, work longer about movement, work longer on voice, work deeper into your inner life. The difference between good and great is this fraction that is everything.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.