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

Oct 5, 2020
Originally published on October 5, 2020 11:42 am

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.

I hated how easy success came to me. I was embarrassed by it. - Ethan Hawke

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 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. - Ethan Hawke

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.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. You probably know our guest, Ethan Hawke, from some of his more than 80 film roles - the young prep school student in "Dead Poets Society," the young rock musician in "Reality Bites," the rookie cop in "Training Day," the divorced father in "Boyhood," the romantic lead in "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight," and more recently, as the troubled priest in "First Reformed." He's also directed films, written screenplays, novels and a children's book, acted in award-winning theater roles and more. Hawke has been nominated for four Academy Awards, two for acting and two for script adaptation.

He's now starring in the seven-part Showtime series "The Good Lord Bird," which he co-produced and co-created. The first episode aired Sunday night. It's based on the novel "The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride, and it tells the story of abolitionist John Brown through the eyes of a 14-year-old slave who was freed by Brown and joins his band of antislavery soldiers. Ethan Hawke plays John Brown, the fanatical opponent of slavery who was hanged in 1859 after seizing an armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to spark a slave rebellion. When the series opens, Brown and his sons and followers are riding through Kansas in the 1850s, seeking to liberate slaves and battling with proslavery militias.

In this scene from the first episode, it's nighttime, and Brown and his sons have burst into the cabin of a farmer who's allied with the proslavery paramilitary group known as the Red Shirts. While the terrified farmer's family looks on, a menacing John Brown, played by Ethan Hawke, addresses the man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD LORD BIRD")

ETHAN HAWKE: (As John Brown) I have come to deliver His Holy Redeemer's justice, free his people and exact his revenge for the murder, rape and kidnapping of the Negro by slavers - those like yourself. All those involved. There are no exceptions.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm just a farmer trying to make a dollar, change pockets. Hey, I know you.

HAWKE: (As John Brown) I'm talking now. I will ask you for a final time, are you for or against slavery?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'll say anything you want to hear.

HAWKE: (As John Brown) Make up your mind.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I can't think straight with that big stick under my chin.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, Ethan Hawke, a very imposing Ethan Hawke in the Showtime series "The Good Lord Bird." Welcome back to FRESH AIR, Ethan Hawke. Before we talk about the project and the role, I want to talk about some of the history here. Explain what happens to this farmer after he has this encounter with John Brown in his cabin.

HAWKE: Well, this is - early in the novel, McBride addresses the Jim Doyle murder, which John Brown is, you know, kind of - legend has it he chops Jim Doyle's head off. And that's largely responsible for why a lot of people say he's insane. Whether or not he actually did that or not is not clear. We just say he did in the show, 'cause a lot of people think he did.

John Brown was a nonviolent abolitionist until his early 50s. And his sons moved to Kansas to stake a claim so that they could vote against slavery 'cause Kansas Territory was about to become a state. And people thought that if that state turned and became another pro-slaver state in the Union, that it would be really bad for the abolitionist movement. So the abolitionists were trying to settle down there whilst the cotton barons had the same idea. And they would pay people from Missouri and Alabama, et cetera, to move there and vote for slavery.

Meanwhile, they were also - anybody who was a pro-slaver - you know, they didn't just hate black people. They hated anybody who was friends with a black person. So the boys, the Brown boys got their crops burnt, and they would be - get in a lot of gunfights, et cetera. John Brown gave up his nonviolent ways. This coincided with the passing of the Dred Scott Act. And he went down there. He was very angry. And he picked up - you know, became a gunfighter for the gospel. And he basically decided that if he just started killing some of these settlers, that they - maybe they wouldn't send anymore settlers.

Now, our story - and that's kind of a basis of the factual historical point of view. McBride's telling the story from the point of view of Onion, this kid, Henry Shackleford, who John Brown thinks he's freed, but the kid thinks he's kidnapped. And he takes him along for this murder. Now, obviously, John Brown doesn't think it's a murder. He thinks he's on a holy mission, and he's going to provoke a war. And he finds out when he gets there that this guy is actually just a farmer who doesn't even own any slaves. But he's so full of the righteousness of Abraham that he decides he's going to go through with the murder anyway.

DAVIES: Right. It's really an intense moment. And, you know, this is a moment when the nation was divided by slavery, but it was nowhere more intense than in Kansas because the issue was these expansion territories - would they be slave states or free states? So it was really a very raw point - a lot of violence. John Brown was said to have actually, I believe, hacked to death five settlers...

HAWKE: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...In a set of incidents. And his - some of his...

HAWKE: ...The accounts vary, yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah, well the - it was said that some of his sons were really traumatized by this, even those who took part. It's really tough stuff, you know, for sure. You know, and I got to say, I mean, looking at the first episode, I just had this feeling that there was something about it that feels like the United States in 2020. I mean, the crazed partisanship and violence, the feeling that there are issues of enormous, you know, political weight and moral import. And it's - there's something that's really a little crazed about the way people are looking at each other.

HAWKE: Well, that's the hope of when you make art - right? - is that you can make meaningful, substantive conversation about what people want to be talking about. And, you know, I've heard all summer throughout this pandemic - we've all heard the word systemic racism. You know, I've heard it more in the last six months than I heard it my whole life. And 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 because he puts his - you know, he started the Civil War. The - Harpers Ferry, to my mind and a lot of people's mind is the first battle of the Civil War.

And it's a moment in history that brings up a lot of conversations - first of all, why we're not taught about John Brown in school. And it's a really good question. When I was I was doing this movie, "The Magnificent Seven" - I think it's 2014. And I have to do a scene that day with Denzel Washington. And in the scene I have to, you know, yell at Denzel, you know, because my character was a Confederate soldier. And he was really burdened with the memory, you know, his PTSD with the memories of all the violence. And he doesn't want to fight anymore. And Denzel was trying to talk me into fighting. And I can't face the war. And Denzel says the war is over. And my character has to shout, the war is not over. It's never over. It goes on and on.

Strangely, I'm on set that day, and I said I'm talking. And the cinematographer says to me, you know, you should play John Brown. I'm like, why? What makes you say that? He said, well, I'm reading this book called "The Good Lord Bird." And I said, what? What does that title even mean? And he's like, you know, when you see a bird, and it's so beautiful, and you just say, good Lord. And it really just - it stuck in my head and my. And I had to read it. And then I started reading it. And I just started laughing my ass off. And my wife said to me, what are you laughing about? And I said, this book. And she's like, isn't that about John Brown? I said, I know. And that's the genius of it.

And see. I do think the show really does speak to today's moment. And the magic trick that McBride does by telling the story through Onion's point of view is he lets you laugh about it. He lets a humanness into it as opposed to kind of a political angle. It's not self-serious. And yet it's full of tremendous heart. So it lets you look at this word systemic racism that's so hard to look at because to look at it, you have to look deep into the ugliest part of America, the foundation of America, this thing that nobody really wants to think about. And all - they're talking about the Constitution, you know, the three-fifths of a human being. It's really ugly and terrible. And the more you study it, the more terrible you feel it is. So most of us decide it's too terrible. I can't look at it. I don't want to see that. But McBride finds a way to make it a kind of - just a healing experience to look at it. 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.

DAVIES: All right. We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Ethan Hawke. He's currently starring as the abolitionist leader John Brown in the Showtime series "The Good Lord Bird," based on a James McBride novel. It airs Sunday nights at 9. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRIBE CALLED RED SONG, "ELECTRIC POW WOW DRUM")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Ethan Hawke. He's currently starring as the abolitionist leader John Brown in the Showtime series "The Good Lord Bird," based on a James McBride novel. It airs Sunday nights at 9.

I want to talk about you getting the voice and the character. And I thought we would listen to another scene. This is also from the first episode. You're on horseback leading some of your sons and followers on a trail. And you are met by federal cavalry coming the other way. The leader of the unit tries to arrest you. There are words, guns are drawn. And you call in one of your sons to read a piece of scripture. Let's listen. And by the way, the cavalry lieutenant, who is Jeb Stuart, later to become a Confederate leader, is played by Wyatt Russell. He speaks first. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD LORD BIRD")

WYATT RUSSELL: (As Jeb Stuart) Who goes there?

HAWKE: (As John Brown) My name is Osawatomie John Brown.

RUSSELL: (As Jeb Stuart) And you are under arrest for violating the laws of Kansas territory.

HAWKE: (As John Brown) We don't abide by any bogus laws of Kansas territory.

RUSSELL: (As Jeb Stuart, laughing) Well, then you will abide by this.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS COCKING)

HAWKE: (As John Brown) Owen, Isaiah 5:22.

BEAU KNAPP: (As Owen Brown) By dawn's early light, the heathen's soul was eaten by ravenous goats.

HAWKE: (As John Brown) I am charged with liberating every Negro in this territory.

RUSSELL: (As Jeb Stuart) On whose authority?

HAWKE: (As John Brown) The Lord of Lords. The King of Kings. The Prince of Peace. Glory, hallelujah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: Amen.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, Ethan Hawke, as John Brown in the series "The Good Lord Bird." Tell us about getting the voice.

HAWKE: You know, 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, you know, to pick up the scent, as it were. I went to his house. And I walked those woods. And I walked through and tried to think, how does this guy talk? And 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 that was - 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.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

HAWKE: And I called James. And I said, I can't figure out how this guy talks. And he said, I'm so glad you called. You know, I've been thinking about that. I think I wrote that wrong. And he cited some other things that he'd come across in his research. Like, one time somebody describes meeting John Brown. And it said it seemed like he was chewing his mouth out from the inside when he talked. And I started thinking about, you know, whenever he - he hated our culture so much that when people said to him 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.

And I started thinking of my grandfather, who, you know, was very proud of his declamation skills. He had excelled in that in school. And he was a Texas state representative and a county judge. And he spent a great bulk of his life working for civil rights. And he always had this thing when I was a kid - anyway, it felt this way - that he was always shouting at me, you know? Ethan, what do you think about Jimmy Carter, you know? And so I kind of thought, oh, you know what? I bet this guy talks like my grandfather. Or at least Onion imagines that he talks like that. And I started finding the voice.

DAVIES: One of the things I noticed often, and you hear it in the clip that we - the first clip we began, is that he goes quickly from a conversational tone to a full-throated roar. Gosh, did you ever damage your voice? I mean, you were really putting some breath into these.

HAWKE: (Laughter) You know, that's where a little bit of training helps, you know? I've had the good fortune of doing a bunch of plays at Lincoln Center, you know, Stoppard's "Coast Of Utopia" or "Macbeth" or "The Henries (ph)." And that's a very tough auditorium, you know, that theater, vocally. And I had a lot of great teachers that in the period that I was working there, about over 10 years, I learned a lot about vocal.

And, you know, there's a thing at Steppenwolf - you know, I worked at Steppenwolf once. And Gary Sinise used to say this great thing about sharp turns. The characters in life, they don't let you know they're going to lose their temper in life. People just lose their temper. And so you don't want to telegraph emotions then. I want - and I thought John Brown should be feral. He should be like an animal. And you should not really know when he's going to go gentle or when he's going to go up. And, you know, this is a person who didn't play by society's rules. So I just felt permission to leave it all on the field, so to speak.

DAVIES: He's always quoting scripture, barking scripture a lot of the time. And he's also really funny. Was it hard to integrate the humor with this - kind of this fanatical commitment to this cause?

HAWKE: This is where I had to just trust James McBride and try to preserve what I love. The genius that he gets at is making you laugh at subject matters you're not allowed to laugh at. And so this thing needed to be just incorrigible. And there is something deeply hypocritical about John Brown. His religion is such a big part of his life. His faith and his dedication to Jesus Christ of Nazareth is complete and educated. And he loads his pistols. You know, he's got five pistols on him. And so there's a little hypocrisy right in that. It's like, well, did you read the Sermon on the Mount?

But in that hypocrisy - or, you know, quote-unquote, "hypocrisy" - is you find the man. Both are true. You know, we live in this country. Right now, everybody is into dualistic thinking. It's either this, or it's either that. Nobody wants any kind of nuance or - you're either on this team or you're on that team. You can't actually have a discussion about ideas. It's just this polarization one way or the other. And the truth always is more complicated than any kind of dualistic way of looking at things.

DAVIES: Did you improvise much on the set?

HAWKE: You know, much to every director that's ever worked with me's frustration, it's very difficult to shut me up. I love this character. I read his letters. I found - you know, I was constantly hunting for that little detail, you know, the detail that he had a pet squirrel for 17 years. I was like, this guy had a pet squirrel for - and he cried when it died. I mean, and they - you know, somebody once in one of the - his letters was asking him about, you know, losing his wife and his children - wasn't it hard? And he goes, well, you know, I had already lost Jesus. So, I mean, he took the death of Jesus like a death of a friend, you know?

And so I was - when I would find out these little - there are little windows into the man, you know, these eccentricities. And so I always try to keep a collection of my character's inner life and let it spill out whenever anybody takes too long of a pause (laughter).

DAVIES: There's one moment - maybe it's Episode 2 - where you're standing, and Jeb Stuart, the federal cavalry officer, is talking to you. He's on his horse. And you're sort of, like, petting the horse and kind of kissing him (laughter) and playing with him. And Stuart says, will you please stop that?

HAWKE: Well, that was a complete improvisation. Wyatt Russell is a great actor, and it was really annoying him the way I kept kissing his horse. And he just - he rolled with it. But, you know, that comes from this collaboration I was having with McBride that was so exciting 'cause McBride called me early and said, hey, you know what I never got into the book that drove me crazy that I didn't get? And I was like, what? He goes, John Brown loved animals. He's like, if there's any chance you can to be tactile with animals, it's really a part of who he is.

You know, he was a farmer. He was a man of the earth. And he loved - you know, he loved men and women and his children and animals, and he loved them with a passion. And so I kind of - if there was a turtle on set, I picked it up and talked to it. If there was a bunny on set, I picked it up and talked to it. If somebody rides a horse, I'm going to kiss it.

DAVIES: I also just have to talk a little bit about acting with Joshua Caleb Johnson, the young actor who plays Little Onion or Henry or Henrietta. This is the teenage slave who ends up traveling with Brown, who is a boy but essentially passes as a girl. You have some great moments with him. They go up to Canada. And, you know, you have this conversation about, well, aren't you free? I mean, this is in coming episodes. And he kind of says, well, am I really free? You're telling me what to do. Talk a little bit about working with that young actor.

HAWKE: Well, the biggest obstacle to making this show was the fact that the lead of the movie has to be, you know, 14 years old. And child acting is very difficult. I know it. I did it. And we would only go as far as this young man was able to carry us, you know, that there was really no point in making the movie if we didn't find the right person. And Joshua stepped into our audition room and he had all the tools that we needed. I mean, he had, obviously, talent. He had humility. He had a sense of humor. He had confidence. He has a great and beautiful family around him to give him context and support and not to indulge him.

I mean, there's a lot of traps for young actors, you know? It's almost the more talented you are, the harder the road can be, you know? I did my first movie with River Phoenix and Amanda Peterson. And, you know, both of them are no longer with us, you know, both lost to drug addiction. And it's not the drugs that are the enemy, in a way; it's the root causes that create that, you know? There's deeper things at work when that manifests. And it's a very hard job. And Joshua was - not only was he gifted, but he was a leader.

DAVIES: How did he lead?

HAWKE: You know, the way all good leaders lead - by example. You know, he was on time. He cared. It was a lot of work. Doing a limited series - like making four indie movies back to back. He had horseback riding, scenes - due to financial reasons, a set would have to be canceled, and we'd have to rewrite or combine a scene. And I'd have to call him up on Sunday morning and say, I know you're supposed to be hanging out with your family; any way we can have lunch together and I can run lines with you about this new scene so that we have a chance of doing it tomorrow? And he'd say, what time? And he'd be there.

And, you know, in a lot of the - you know, the movie really centers on questions of identity. Like all great writing, what McBride is really writing about is identity because on the surface - you know, people hear John Brown, they think it's about race. But then, well, wait. It's a boy wearing a dress, so it's about gender. It's about violence or nonviolence, sanity versus insanity. And you start to realize that, no, it's not about any of those things; it's about what makes a human being. And we needed a, you know, formidable human presence for this leading character. And Joshua just provided it.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with actor Ethan Hawke. He stars as the 19th century abolitionist John Brown in the new seven-part series, "The Good Lord Bird," based on the James McBride novel. It airs Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. on Showtime. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with actor Ethan Hawke, who's known for film roles ranging from the "Dead Poets Society" to "Training Day" to "Boyhood." He's currently starring as the abolitionist leader John Brown in the Showtime series "The Good Lord Bird," based on the James McBride novel. It airs Sunday nights at 9.

You got into acting at a very young age and were in a movie at age 14 with River Phoenix - right? - and then were in "Dead Poets Society" with Robin Williams at age 18. And I think you were only 24 or so when you did "Reality Bites," the movie with Winona Ryder, which kind of made you an iconic (laughter) figure of Generation X, or at least that's the way it's remembered. You had a lot of success early. You know, we talked to a lot of actors. And it can take a long time before you have an impact. And I'm wondering, that kind of success - was celebrity a good thing for you?

HAWKE: You know, 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, you know, the power to do what you want to do and open doors. And - 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.

You know, and a lot of young people struggle with, oh, not thinking they're good enough, not thinking they're smart enough. And if you're - if you throw oil onto that fire, which is by telling a young kid that, oh, you're amazing, you're great, and inside your own chest, you don't believe it, you know, that - there's a - 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.

And I think, for me, you know, I always liked the way that athletes think, you know, that, you know, you have to play as you practice. And the more you practice, the better you get. And if you just kind of put your nose to the grindstone and keep practicing, things will get better. But if you kind of worship all the false gods, you'll end up setting yourself on fire.

DAVIES: Right. So you felt like you had a lot to learn about acting, and you focused on learning it?

HAWKE: You know, humility is a great tool. I had this acting teacher that I love. He's an actor, really. His name's Austin Pendleton. He's a great actor. And I was getting ready to work with young Joshua on this movie. And I said to Austin, how can I help this young man, you know? How can I help him? I know this kid is talented. How can I really help him excel?

And he gave me one note. He said, when you first meet him, when he's got the job and he comes to work, ask him if he can say this sentence - I don't know anything - said, and don't stop until he says it and he means it. Because if you can kind of get to that beginner's mind and that no space - you know, a lot of young people, it doesn't matter what they're playing - football or soccer or sailing or whatever - they - you know, I remember trying to teach my son how to ski. And he's like, I know how to do it. I know how to do it. And that's what creates all the trouble.

And if you can get your brain to a place where you say, I'm open to learn and I don't have to - then you don't have to carry all this weight like you're supposed to be an expert. And then things start to come in. And you're being more honest. And then you don't have all this - you don't have to - you can get rid of the bravado. And so I did that with Joshua. And he came at it with this really humble place. And I realized that I guess Austin did that to me when I was younger. You know, I did one of my first plays with him. And it probably served me better than any other piece of advice is just to admit that you don't know anything, and stop trying to put yourself off like some kind of genius, you know?

HAWKE: A lot of people remember you in the film "Before Sunrise." That's the film where you convince Julie Delpy to get off the train and wander around Vienna with you, your first film with Richard Linklater, who you had a long collaboration with. I'm wondering what you saw in him or learned from him in that first film or what clicked that kept this collaboration going?

HAWKE: It was pretty thrilling to meet another young person that had given themself permission not to imitate the generation before them, you know, 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. And that was - it might not sound important. But everybody I'd 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 I want to be like, you know, whoever it is.

And this was a young person who was saying, no. What are we going to be? I don't want to be like anybody, you know? 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.

And I - you know, he was a constant resource on "The Good Lord Bird," I mean, he really was. I would call him. He's really good at team building. He's really good at knowing - you know, like a good coach who knows how to put people in a position to excel. By the time you're having a problem on set, it means you made 15 mistakes previous to that moment, you know? And I learned so much from him. It's too much to say.

DAVIES: Right. When you say that he kind of was the first to sort of embrace the idea that you're going to do something of your own, not imitate what came before, is - what did that mean in terms of that film? Do you remember?

HAWKE: You have to understand, "Slacker" had just came out. And "Slacker" was kind of punk rock for its moment, you know? It was a new voice. He wasn't playing. He wasn't trying to succeed in Hollywood. He did - it wasn't like he was trying not to succeed. He wasn't being against anything. He was trying to use cinema to express himself, as opposed to trying to make it as a director. Do you know - it's just - it's a different mindset.

He has this immense gratitude when he walks on set because this isn't promised to anybody, this idea that you get to tell a story and make a movie. He's so excited by this, you know, at bat, that he would call it, you know, that we have this chance. And we had this idea. He said this thing to me. It was just so great. He said, you know, my whole life, I grew up watching these movies where they've got car chases and helicopter crashes and espionage and people in - you know, shooting at each other. And he said, and then I leave the theater, and I think, God, my life is so boring.

See; but my life didn't feel boring until I watched that movie. My life feels, in my heart, so exciting. And he's like, one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me is really connecting with another human being, like really connecting. And I want to see if we can make a movie about that connection. Like, nothing's going to happen except two human beings are going to connect in a very deep way. And you're going to leave the movie - the movie might be boring. But you'll leave the movie thinking your life is thrilling.

(LAUGHTER)

HAWKE: And that was our goal. And that was pretty - nobody had ever talked to me like that. And it was a contagious way of thinking.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take another break. We're speaking with Ethan Hawke. He's currently starring as the abolitionist leader John Brown in the Showtime series "The Good Lord Bird," based on the James McBride novel. It airs Sunday nights at 9:00. We'll talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor Ethan Hawke. He stars as abolitionist John Brown in the new seven-part series "The Good Lord Bird," which is based on a James McBride novel. It airs on Showtime Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m.

I guess in the late '90s, there was a point - I was surprised to read this - where roles weren't coming your way, and you kind of had to go to Hollywood to do auditions. What did that feel like?

HAWKE: I don't know. You know, whenever you act like you're too good or deserve better, you know, you're pretty much announcing yourself as an idiot. The life of an actor is constantly up and down. I mean, that's one thing - people have this notion that, you know, you cross some threshold and you've made it or something, you know? 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. And so - I don't know.

I - to be frank, I enjoyed it. I hated how easy success came to me. You know, 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, you know, sell a record or painters who can't get anything bought. Just - you know, the world - the commercial art world is an extremely unreliable critic, you know? Mediocrity is celebrated constantly - right? - through the history of mankind, not just in our culture. But, you know, so I try 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.

DAVIES: Well, you ended up getting the role in "Training Day" with Denzel Washington, which was a huge hit. How'd you get that role?

HAWKE: Well, I was lucky. I mean, that was coming out of, like, what I like to call the second time I was washed - there's been, like, three times I felt washed up in my life. You know, and by times, I mean year spans. And I had - you know, "Reality Bites" had opened, and I was supposed to be this Gen X - you know, the poster boy for Gen X. And - but then all of a sudden, that became unfashionable, and so you couldn't get - you know, I was only 29, 30 years old, and people thought I already had - you know, oh, I know him, and I don't like him - kind of thing. And so you have to - I went out and auditioned. But, largely, I was really lucky.

Antoine Fuqua, the director of "Training Day," really believed in me, and Denzel really believed in me. And they - you know, I had to come in and screen test and everything, but I knew that they were angling for me to get that part, and they were my advocates. And, you know, the studio - you know, everybody wants to work with Denzel, right? So, I mean, you can imagine everybody wanted that part. And I was fortunate that they saw something in me. And it turned into a really unbelievable experience in my life.

DAVIES: Yeah. So how did it change things? I mean, you must have had plenty of scripts coming in then, more choices.

HAWKE: Well, it changes you because to see a great - to see up close how a great artist works, it changes you. You can't unsee it, you know? I watched Denzel go to lunch and then come back and do this scene. And you start to realize, like, 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 De Niro. And that's a really boring way of looking at life, you know? Why can't I just try to be as good as De Niro without waiting for somebody to give me permission?

But Antoine created an environment to really let - 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 that partnership gave me confidence in seeing the seriousness - when Denzel has a part by the throat, he does not let go. And when you see - you know, it's like playing with a great athlete or something like that when you see, like, oh, oh, wow, you can do that? I didn't know you could do that. You know, whether it goes from making up lines to behavior and how he rehearses and how he thinks and how he talks about scenes.

And it was - it opened up new - it was like I was living in this house and I didn't know there were all these other rooms. And watching him, I realized, oh, there's an upstairs to this place?

DAVIES: You kept coming back to theater at times, right? And I'm wondering why? What drives you back to theater? What's important, compelling about theater that's different from film?

HAWKE: Well, my joke about the theater - you know, you very - you can, you know, sit down and skim through all the channels on TV - you very rarely see somebody just acting terrible. But if you go to your local theater or Broadway or the West End or anything, invariably you'll see one person or three people in any given production that are terrible. It's because it's much harder, you know? It's just so much harder.

And when you're on stage, it's your time as an actor. There isn't a cinematographer to help you. There isn't an editor to help you. Nobody is, like, turning up the music or the - so that they can't hear that weird squeak in your voice. They're not cutting around your trembling hand, you know? It's a place - it's a fire where you can really build yourself. Walking in front of a thousand of your brothers and sisters and learning how to be relaxed is a spiritual exercise (laughter).

DAVIES: And it's energizing to do that every night and succeed?

HAWKE: It's energizing because you actually have contact with your art, you know? The problem with a movie - like, one of the things that's so exciting for me about - 'cause even doing this interview with you, I love to hear, like, when you talk about the movie, what it made you think. And I don't have interaction with the audience like you do onstage.

Like, I know - you know, I did this play "Hurlyburly" with Bobby Cannavale, Wally Shawn and Josh Hamilton, Parker Posey. We - it was a great group of people. And some nights we had pure magic onstage. But you knew, some nights we lost them - too long of a pause at the end of Act 1, too indulgent in the drinking scene. You know, it's like - it's a razor's edge between what is electric and what is mildly interesting (laughter), you know? And it's a question of energy. And learning how to carve that energy onstage lets me know how to do it on camera when I don't have an audience there.

DAVIES: You were afflicted by stage fright at some point, right?

HAWKE: Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, I don't know how you could spend your life doing this and not - well, some people don't, but I definitely did. I was an extremely confident young man. And then sometime in my late 30s and 40s - right when you're supposed to, like, be a grown up, when you have to stop being promising and start delivering - I started getting incredibly nervous and had a genuine war with anxiety.

DAVIES: Would you freeze, not remember your lines?

HAWKE: That's not really - that - I'm not saying that didn't happen, but that's not the way it manifests with me. The way it manifests with me is that I think I'm going to die - literally die. Like, I don't - I think I'm going to die when I go onstage, like, die - like, be executed. And (laughter) that's much more scary than your lines. The lines, I had a - lines are really just preparation.

There - it becomes - 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 it - that's the circle of negative thinking that can get you going. And so it's not - like, people who don't act think it's about learning your lines. It's like, I could care - I mean, you know me. I mean, you know me enough on this phone call or this interview that if I don't think of the lines, I'll make them up. It's...

(LAUGHTER)

HAWKE: I'll tell you a funny story. Sir Tom Stoppard once came up to me after a run of a show. And I said, how did it go? And he said, (imitating British accent) the show owes a great debt your energy, your passion, your heart, your enthusiasm. If you could say one line as scripted, my cup would overfloweth.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Wow. Well, you know when you said that it made you feel like you literally were going to die? I would think that would be horribly distracting. And - did it show in your performances?

HAWKE: You know, mysteriously, it helped (laughter). I mean, you know, it's harnessing. 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, you know, and that helped me be better. The trick is to figure how to make a friend of your fear, you know, 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, you know? Like, every little - the difference between good and great is like this fraction that is everything.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with Ethan Hawke. He's currently starring as the abolitionist leader John Brown in the Showtime series "The Good Lord Bird," based on a James McBride novel. It airs Sunday nights at 9. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RARE EARTH SONG, "HEY BIG BROTHER")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Ethan Hawke. He's currently starring as the abolitionist leader John Brown in the Showtime series "The Good Lord Bird," based on a James McBride novel. It airs Sunday nights at 9.

I thought we'd talk about a relatively recent film of yours, "Juliet, Naked," which actually nobody named Juliet is actually naked. It's about a musician that you play, this musician who'd been famous as a young man and had kind of disappeared but sort of had a cult following. He had spent a lot of years with different partners and fathered a lot of different children who he hadn't always been so attentive to. And some of them don't know each other. And I thought - this is a scene where you, as this musician, Tucker Crowe, is in a hospital in London. And I guess you were there because one of your daughters was giving birth, and you're going to do the right thing. You're going to show up and help her, and you end up having a heart attack in the lobby of the hospital.

HAWKE: (Laughter).

DAVIES: So this scene we'll hear is in the hospital where a bunch of your former partners and children are arriving, in some cases meeting each other for the first time. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JULIET, NAKED")

HAWKE: (As Tucker) What are you guys doing here? These are my sons, Cooper and Jesse. Come here. Come here, guys. Give it in for your dad. Give me a hug. Man, look at you. You're so tall. Wow. Man, check you out, too. Man, you're handsome. Hey, guess what. This is your sister, Lizzie. Lizzie, this is Cooper and Jesse.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Half-sister.

HAWKE: I know, half-sister. Cooper's the tall one. Jesse is the also tall one. So how'd you guys find me? How'd you get here? Hey - (whistling) - how'd you guys get here?

CAL PETRIE: (As Cooper) We flew.

BRODIE PETRIE: (As Jesse) Plane.

AYOOLA SMART: (As Lizzie) I called Carrie.

HAWKE: (As Tucker) You called Carrie? No.

SMART: (As Lizzie) Yeah. We thought you were going to die and you might want to see your children who...

HAWKE: (As Tucker) I'm not going to die.

SMART: (As Lizzie) ...We've never met.

HAWKE: (As Tucker) Well, even if I was going to die...

ROSE BYRNE: (As Annie) I'm going to head out. I'm going to slip away.

HAWKE: (As Tucker) Two seconds - I just - I want to talk to you. Oh, my God. No, wait, wait.

MEGAN DODDS: (As Carrie) What is going on?

HAWKE: (As Tucker) Hi, Carrie. Apparently, I'm going to make it. The doctors said I was brilliant for having a heart attack in a hospital.

DODDS: (As Carrie) All this way and you're fine?

HAWKE: (As Tucker) Yeah, I'm sorry to disappoint you.

DODDS: (As Carrie) Ten-thousand dollars - perfect.

HAWKE: (As Tucker) What does that mean - $10,000?

DODDS: (As Carrie) Well, they weren't going to fly coach to see their biological father die.

HAWKE: (As Tucker, laughter).

DODDS: (As Carrie) Anyway, we're fine. Thanks for asking.

HAWKE: (As Tucker) You know, you didn't give me two seconds. All right? How are you? How's - what's your stepdad's name?

C PETRIE: (As Cooper) Doug.

HAWKE: (As Tucker) Thank you. How's Doug?

DODDS: (As Carrie) He's great. He's training for a triathlon.

HAWKE: (As Tucker, laughter) Oh.

DODDS: (As Carrie) Sorry, I know exercise - big trigger...

DAVIES: And that is our guest Ethan Hawke as Tucker Crowe in the movie "Juliet, Naked." That's a fun scene, isn't it? (Laughter).

HAWKE: You know, it's one of my favorite ones I've ever done. That scene makes me laugh.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, it's funny. It's a romantic comedy with Rose Byrne and Chris O'Dowd, and it's really funny. Did you identify with this character, Tucker Crowe, you know, having been yourself kind of a cultural icon as a very young person and then having - you know, growing up and having a complicated life, you know?

HAWKE: Completely. I mean, it's why I did the part. It was fascinating. One of the great things about acting and aging is you're constantly having to revisit new problems. You're the same person, but your age brings about new problems. I always like to say, it's like - I had my first kiss on screen in the "Explorers." You know, I was a parent on screen. Like, and this is my first time I've played a grandfather, and I'll probably play a lot more of them. And you have to kind of look at that in the eye. You're like, right, this is the future of me, buddy. I'm - you know, I'm going to be playing, you know, some young starlet's grandpa who says some kind of wise thing while he, you know, has a heart attack (laughter).

So I don't know. I enjoy it, though. And I enjoy being able to visit aspects of myself and my life and the sense of failure. You know, there's a thing about being young and promising, like Tucker Crowe, and not meeting expectations that I think anybody that experiences - you know, my favorite - well, I was going to say, experiences celebrity. But my favorite line about that is Dustin Hoffman's, which is the only thing worse than getting recognized everywhere you go is not getting recognized everywhere you go anymore.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Right, right.

HAWKE: And life is - it doesn't matter what happens to you, you know? You're going to get beat up.

DAVIES: You know, you've sort of had this career where you've, you know, acted as a very young guy and played all kinds of different roles. When people see you on the street, do they throw lines at you? Are there certain roles that they ask you about?

HAWKE: Sure. You know, my - one of the things that's fun about my career is I've gotten to be in all kinds of different movies. There's certain people, you know, probably not listening to NPR - I don't know - who love horror movies, and they - people want to talk to me about "Sinister" and "Purge" for hours. Or there's people that love science fiction and they want to talk to me about "Gattaca" and "Predestination." There's, you know, the Linklater fans of the world that want to talk about "Boyhood" and the "Before" trilogy all night.

And then, you know, there's the cop pictures - you know, "Training Day" and "Assault On Precinct 13" and "Brooklyn's Finest," those - there's a certain portion of the public that wants to do that. Hopefully, someday somebody will want to talk to me about "The Good Lord Bird." You know, there's - "First Reformed" had its impact on a certain part of the culture. And so it's kind of the fun - I can meet people where they like to be met.

DAVIES: Well, Ethan Hawke, congratulations on the series and thanks so much for speaking with us.

HAWKE: My pleasure.

DAVIES: Ethan Hawke stars as the abolitionist leader John Brown in the Showtime series "The Good Lord Bird," based on a James McBride novel. It airs Sunday nights at 9.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET LOVE RULE")

LENNY KRAVITZ: (Singing) Love is gentle as a rose.

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, we talk with rock 'n' roll star Lenny Kravitz. His new memoir, "Let Love Rule," is about his life up to the release of his first album in 1989. He talks about his loving relationship with his mom, actress Roxie Roker, the tough relationship he had with his dad, meeting Lisa Bonet and finding his musical voice. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET LOVE RULE")

KRAVITZ: (Single) Brothers and sisters, join hands. We got to let love rule. Let love rule. We got to let love rule.

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET LOVE RULE")

KRAVITZ: (Singing) And love can make a little child smile. Can't you see this won't go wrong? But we got to be strong. We can't do it alone. We got to let love rule. Let love rule. We got to let love rule. Let love rule. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.