How Ethan Hawke Made His Series The Good Lord Bird A Family Affair

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“I mean, it happens a couple of times if you’re lucky in a career, to have such a long relationship to a character,” Ethan Hawke tells Sonia Saraiya when reflecting on his Showtime series, The Good Lord Bird. On this week’s episode of Little Gold Men, the actor opens up about falling in love with James McBride’s novel of the same name back in 2016, calling his storytelling a “miracle.” In the limited series, Hawke plays mystical abolitionist John Brown, an impassioned figure who joins forces with Henry “Onion” Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a fictional enslaved character. 

Though published in 2013, Hawke says McBride’s source material is as resonant as ever. “He’s allowing us to look at the deepest wounds, some of the deepest wounds that this country has, some of the most hurtful crimes in the DNA of the building of this nation,” he explains. “But he’s doing it with such love and wit and silliness and strangeness that you can actually hear it.” The project proved to be so personal for Hawke that he even enlisted his wife, Ryan as executive producer and daughter, Maya as his onscreen child. During his LGM interview, Hawke spoke about shedding his Gen X heartthrob origins for more complex roles and which Oscar winner he originally envisioned as John Brown.

The latest Little Gold Men podcast also welcomes back founding co-host Mike Hogan for a conversation about the endurance of 1950’s All About Eve alongside Katey Rich, Richard Lawson, and Joanna Robinson. The group then discusses the Cannes Film Festival lineup ahead of Lawson’s trip to France and Rich interviews Jimmy Smits about his role in the long-awaited In the Heights.

Listen to the episode above, and find Little Gold Men on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts. We’d also love to hear from you via text, which you can sign up for here.

Read a partial transcript of the Ethan Hawke interview below.


I remember, I think you put this on your Instagram that you thought about reaching out to Jeff Bridges to play the role. Then you realized that you could play him. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that.

The life of an actor is very weird because you... When I first read the book, I thought that I would be right for Owen Brown [third son of John Brown] because I kind of... In my mind I’m still 32. I read it, I think: “Yeah, I can play that part.” Then you realize, “Oh wait, I’m 50. I can play the old man.” It’s a little bit like King Lear. If you’re going to play one of these big time, older man parts, you have to be young enough that you can still hop on horses and throw a sword around and chase people down a battlefield, but be old enough to understand the crisis and the depth of the suffering that’s going on.

It’s an interesting journey from Gen X heartthrob, I think that’s fair to say, Gen X heartthrob to civil war, militant abolitionist. Is there a connection there or is it just what happened?

If there’s a connection, it’s about how much people don’t really understand the life of a performer. When I did Dead Poets Society, for five years I got offered parts where I played privileged prep school kids. Then you do Reality Bites and you’re the Gen X heartthrob. Then you do Training Day and then you get offered a ton of cop pictures. Then you do Boyhood and you get offered a bunch of dad parts. We have this ability to want to put every person we meet in a box, about who they are. And, of course, who I really am is an actor and I’ve always been an actor and I’ve always been curious about other people and telling stories, and I’ve been doing the same thing since I was a kid.

One of the things I love about [The Good Lord Bird] is that it’s kind of a family production with your wife being an executive producer. Then your daughter is in it too, I guess the Gen Z connection there. So tell me a little bit about how Maya got involved with the show.

Well, anybody who knows Maya knows what a passionate young person she is. She’s a poet, she has an album out. I really don't use the word lightly. This kid’s always been an amazing, deep thinker. When we started working on this show, she had just been cast and the BBC did a production of Little Women, which she’s amazing in. and that really introduced her to the transcendentalists. There’s this connection between John Brown and [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Henry David] Thoreau. There’s an earnestness to Maya and a passion and a zeal for... I’'s a loving of all mankind. I mean, she takes that Louisa May Alcott stuff seriously, she feels that deep.

What was amazing for me as the dad of the show is I always wanted her to play my daughter but when I first started developing the project, it would have seemed like nepotism. Then Stranger Things came out and the execs from Showtime one time called up kind of sheepishly and said, “Hey, do you think Maya might want to play your daughter?” And I was like, “Yes.” I waited until it was their idea. “I don't know, let me call her up and see if…” I’ve been talking to her about it for years.

One of the things that I love about Maya is her love of other people and she just felt an immediate passion for Joshua and they got along like a house on fire and they’re singing songs together and doing poems together. Maya’s really interested in vocal work and period work and what’s in her character’s pockets and trying to make her character as real as possible. She was just coming out of Juilliard and she has a fire in her heart for art. What’s fun for me as the dad to be near her is it inspires me to be the person she thinks I am. “Dad, what are you doing to get ready for the scene?” The truth is “Oh shit, not much.” But because she’s there, I have to be the person I’ve been pretending to be, or not pretending to be, but you know what I mean.

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