Ethan Hawke (‘The Good Lord Bird’): ‘Making sense of this moment in history when the tinderbox got lit’

It’s tough for Ethan Hawke to remember his relationship to John Brown prior to playing him in Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird” because he fell so hard for the project. His understanding of Brown came from differing perspectives. “My dad was living in Texas and my mom was living in Vermont and you’d hear very different stories about the Civil War about what it was and what it wasn’t,” Hawke tells us in our recent webchat (watch the exclusive video above). In one area Brown would be considered a lunatic and a terrorist but in the another he’d be recognized as part of the abolitionist movement. It wasn’t until a camera operator on the set of “The Magnificent Seven” introduced him to James McBride’s novel that a clearer picture formed in his head. “I was so moved, touched, in love with and grateful for someone making sense of this moment in history when the tinderbox got lit.”

“The Good Lord Bird” examines Brown’s fight against slavery that culminated in the 1859 raid on the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, which Brown had hoped would lead to a massive slave revolt. While it didn’t succeed and Brown was executed for murder and treason, the raid was viewed as a key catalyst that led to the American Civil War. The story is told through the eyes of a teenage slave, Henry “Onion” Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), whose father is killed by Brown’s army in Kansas. With nowhere else to turn, he becomes a part of Brown’s army, though everyone in the outfit believes him to actually be a woman. Hawke, who also served as a co-writer and executive producer of the limited series, has already garnered awards recognition for this performance by scoring nominations at both the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards.

Brown’s story has an slight parallel to the riots that occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Hawke admits that playing Brown gave him an understanding of what motivated some of the rioters. “For me the difference is he was a Christian before he was an American, so he was willing to look at the ugly elements of the foundation of this country in a way that a lot of privileged white people were not willing to look at.” But he also says that there’s a touch of megalomania in both of them that ends up taking over. “We could talk about all kinds of people who start to think that they’re talking to God. It’s a very dangerous conversation to have. You might be able to talk to him but it doesn’t mean you’re prepared to handle it.”

While Hawke had a lot of fun shooting the raid scenes, he holds a special place for the scene between Brown and Shackleford in the jail cell the night before Brown is executed. “I came to really love Joshua. I watched a young actor develop and remembering who he had been five or six months earlier in his first scene. Now he’s come in with these ideas and this confidence and this beauty—that was very moving to me as an actor and as a friend of his.” Getting to show the friendship that had come about with these two characters alongside the genuine friendship Hawke had with Johnson made for the perfect way to conclude the series. “To me, we’re friends and these characters love each other. They’ve gone beyond the superficiality of labels and they just have an honest friendship. Getting to play those small moments is a grace to that scene that I found very moving.”

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