Ethan Hawke was on the set of Antoine Fuqua's 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven when a camera operator planted the seed for what would become the Showtime limited series The Good Lord Bird.
"He said to me, 'Do you know that you look like John Brown?'" the actor relates. "And I said, 'What makes you say that?' He goes, 'I just read this book called The Good Lord Bird. I keep picturing you as John Brown.'"
At the time, Hawke hadn't read James McBride's award-winning novel, which is inspired by the life of the white abolitionist who led a calamitous 1859 raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with a ragtag group of followers. Historically, Brown has been viewed as a half-crazed sermonizing zealot as often as he's been called an American hero who went all-out to end slavery.
But in McBride's seriocomic retelling — a coming-of-age tale told from the point of view of Onion, a 14 -year-old slave boy who's passing as a girl — Brown is both pre–Civil War crusader and violent, off-the-wall bloviator. On the night Hawke crawled into bed and cracked open McBride's book, he found himself laughing so hard that his wife, Ryan, finally asked, "What in the hell are you reading?"
During production, when he was trying to communicate the tone of the project, he'd say, "Imagine if you took Huckleberry Finn and Huck is now a cross-dressing African-American kid and crazy Jim is now crazy John Brown."
But The Good Lord Bird — premiering October 4, with Hawke as its star and also an executive producer — spoke to him on a deeper level, as well.
" The legacy of John Brown is tied up in the fact that a large portion of this country doesn't want to talk about the Civil War being about slavery," Hawke says.
"We don't want to talk about this period in U.S. history because it's so hurtful, so upsetting. We don't want to think about it, look hard at it. [The Good Lord Bird] deals with such an important subject, such a serious American conversation, but with so much love and wit."
Hawke is speaking by phone from a friend's country house in Connecticut. When he first decamped there a few months ago from his Brooklyn residence with his wife, their children Clementine and Indiana, as well as Maya and Levon, his kids with ex-wife Uma Thurman, they'd expected a vacation. In mid-March, the visit became a pandemic Plan B.
"I've never done so much housework," Hawke reports as he wanders around the 20-acre property in an oversized Bed-Stuy baseball jersey and a baseball cap.
"Georgia! Georgia! Don't do that!" he occasionally interrupts himself to holler, before reporting, with alarm in his voice, that one of his two rescue dogs has trapped a skunk in a tree. "I'm just going to make the decision that I'm not seeing this because I can't do anything about it right now."
Versatile actor, dedicated dad and laissez-faire canine wrangler — Hawke is all that. But talk to his friends and, at some point, they all say there's more.
"He's a renaissance man. He doesn't just dabble. He goes hardcore," says Steve Zahn, who appears as a pro-slavery Southerner in The Good Lord Bird. They met in the early '90s when both were cast in Jonathan Marc Sherman's off-Broadway play, Sophistry.
"I don't know if I've ever met anyone like him," Zahn adds. "He really inspires me." Indeed, Hawke has written novels and Oscar-nominated screenplays. He's directed three off-Broadway plays, an equal number of independent films, and a documentary. He's a musician and has been keeping a quarantine journal illustrated with his daily watercolor paintings.
Television, however, is not Hawke's strongest subject. After his wife tore through The Good Lord Bird and suggested it might be a good project for them to produce, he told her, "It can't be a two-hour movie. It's too big." She replied, "You've got to get into this century. You need to start watching some television. We could do this whole thing as a limited series."
While his filmography teems with acclaimed movies — Dead Poets Society, Reality Bites, Training Da, First Reformed and Richard Linklater's Before trilogy and Boyhood — Hawke's TV appearances can be counted on one hand. But Ryan's suggestion made sense to him. He told her, "Oh, that's a cool idea." ...
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This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2020