Why Ethan Hawke and Little Marvin Refused to ‘Play it Safe’ With Their Limited Series

For their first outings as television creators, Ethan Hawke and Little Marvin held nothing back.

Hawke acquired the rights to James McBride’s novel “The Good Lord Bird” for the Showtime adaptation. He also wrote scripts, executive produced and starred as abolitionist John Brown, approaching history with a witty bent. Meanwhile, Little Marvin blended classic horror genre elements with the all-too-real terror of otherness and racism when a Black family moves into a predominantly white neighborhood in “Them” for Amazon Prime Video

Both men dabbled in the past for these limited series, with “The Good Lord Bird” set in the 1850s and “Them” set a century later, in the 1950s. But it was their very modern mindsets about the subject matter, as well as the importance of teamwork with their casts and production crews, that helped inspire such passionate responses to the projects.

Here, they talk about what kind of art inspires them, how much they think about potential audience reaction while writing and towing the line of realistic violence on-screen.

How did you approach the tones of your shows?

Ethan Hawke: The thing about James McBride’s telling of John Brown’s story is it’s a little bit more like if Redd Foxx were to tell you the story of John Brown. If you start trying to talk about race in America, people get a very ponderous, serious expression on their face like you’re doing something quote-unquote important, and they also simultaneously don’t want to pay attention. McBride, in his own way, takes the piss out of John Brown, while also celebrating him; he takes the piss out of Frederick Douglass, while celebrating him; nobody is off the hook: everybody is a human, full of foibles, and can be made fun of in James McBride’s universe. What’s great about it to me is it’s all being told from a very unreliable narrator — this boy dressed as a girl, who’s 14 and claims to have ridden with him. I had never worked on a canvas this size and tone is so fragile, especially if you’re doing something that people don’t immediately know what it is. If you’re venturing off the beaten path, it’s very, very difficult to get production design, costume, hair and makeup, every actor — some of whom have prepared a lot, some of them have just showed up — in the world.

One of the big surprises for me about “Them” was seeing Christopher Heyerdahl. I want to say the acting in your show is top to bottom mind blowing. I am a really ferocious critic of acting, and your two leads — Ashley Thomas, Deborah Ayorinde — they’re so multi-dimensional. I know actors love to be cool, actors want to be funny, actors love to be sexy, actors love to be emotional — but fear is an emotion that is so a part of our daily lives [and] not one you want to put on screen because it makes you look weak. But this whole perception of weakness and strength is stupid anyway, and their performances, it just doesn’t get better than that. So, I guess the way to get tone is with actors who know what they’re talking about.

Little Marvin: The casting Gods shined on us. I have to call out Junie Lowry-Johnson and Libby Goldstein because their eye was brilliant. You have your little dream, or your little nightmare in the case of our show, that you’ve written, and you think that’s the thing. And then the right actor comes in and it’s this magic. I also have to call out Jeremiah Birkett, who plays Da Tap Dance Man in our show. There’s a line he has which is, “Whatcha gonna do?”, which he says to Henry and goads him toward an act of violence. Well, that’s just written on the page as a line. It’s Jeremiah’s decision in the moment to start singing it — and then to let that build into an anthem, and then to start stomping his feet, and then by the end you realize you can’t even extricate that from the vision because it becomes so crucial. I know you understand that as an actor: it’s critical what actors do.

Hawke: It makes me feel emotional to hear you say that because I love when that happens — when an actor’s response to the text is like yeast rising. But that man’s performance is as haunting as anything I’ve seen. And I also want to tip my hat [to] the makeup team. There’s a real moment of genius in your show [where] you’re watching a Black person put on white face to put on blackface, and then you rub it off and it’s a white actor. The layers of how racism works from inside of us and from outside of us is so revealed in that moment. This character that’s fucking with my head and terrifying me and terrifying the characters that I care about, and it’s just an amazing moment.

Little Marvin: I’m blown away, thank you. And I think you said it beautifully. With genre — particularly horror — it does allow the medicine to go down. It’s like slipping the pill inside some ice cream. Because your pulse is pounding, because you’re scared of that stuff in the basement, because these things are all happening, it allows you to take in some rather complex and nuanced and volatile things. Horror has always done that. When I think back to my favorite films of the ’60s and ’70s, they were rife with complex issues. “The Exorcist” is not just genius because it’s terrifying, it’s genius because it’s the interpersonal dynamics between a mother and her daughter, it’s the grappling with faith. And so, certainly the ambition anyway, was to wrap these complex, nuanced things and feelings of racism — also internalized racism — in such a way that you would take it in. Because just like Ethan said, if we just made this as a straight drama about redlining, [snores] no one would watch it. [Also], there is a malice and a darkness at the heart of our entire story. There is a thread of terror throughout all of it, whether it’s what’s gripping the family or whether it’s how racism is so codified into every element of the real estate game, so it was almost just like riding that wave, rather than thinking, “Here’s where we interject this.”

To dive deeper into the casting process, Little Marvin, were you writing with anyone in mind initially?

Little Marvin: No, this is my first experience making a television show [so] I would have to be a madman to have gone into this with ideas for who I could get. I had my vision for what I wanted to see, but again, the right people come in the room and change everything for the better. I didn’t know some of them, but then I had been a fan of Alison Pill forever, but had never seen her quite like this. And I think that there was just a base level of fearlessness that all of these actors possessed, and they were all ready to come and embody it without any sense of ego.

Ethan, you knew you were going to play John Brown so how did that affect the shaping of characters?

Hawke: This is a very weird way to bake a cake because I could come up with scenes and I’d get notes about, “That’ll never work!” And I’m like, “I know exactly how I’m going to play this and I know it’s going to work.” In my research about the character, I would read John Brown’s letters to find out what he had in his pockets and he had a pet squirrel for 17 years and he kept its tail in his pocket. Well, that’s goddamn interesting! I had to get that in the script, and I didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission. There was a freedom to how I could perform [also] because I was so intimate with the material, and that was really exciting.

Were you writing less direction on the pages because you knew what you were going to do and didn’t have to explain it to another actor?

Hawke: I had a great partner in [executive producer] Mark Richard. I had no television experience, and it’s a huge undertaking. I have never been so tired as I was when this experience was over. And it doesn’t stop. If you’re doing something that people have passionate feelings about — “You can’t show this; you can’t make that joke,” you have to say, “Yes we can; we have to.” The enemy here is us being safe. It’s all fraught and we’re living in a culture where everybody’s trying to do everything right, and nobody even knows what the word “right” means. And if we can’t be honest with each other and make jokes, then all we’re going to do is wait for each other to leave the room to speak honestly, and that’s stupid.

Little Marvin: Ding, ding ding.

Hawke: And you can’t really talk about racism without saying that there’s malice there. And so, it’s very brave to do, but it’s very scary — and not scary like I’m nervous I’m not going to do a good job. It’s like, “Even if I do the best job possible I’m going to piss some people off.” You’ve got to put some metal in your spine, so everything from music choices to casting, you’ve got to find your allies. And Mark was really good at saying, “Ethan, enough John Brown. The show’s about Onion!” And he was really good at saying, “Hey cool, that’s never going to get across all these notes we’re getting from people, so you just put that in your pocket and improvise that shit.” And McBride was incredibly helpful. He was there for us every step of the way, and that was a very powerful ally to have both as a researcher, as a writer, as a statesman.

Little Marvin: I had an exhaustion in my bones from making it. It was a physical sensation of exhaustion that I’ve never experienced before. I’m curious about the balance — because you did everything. Do you ever step away from any of it? How do you even stay in character while you’re also overseeing everything?

Hawke: Sometimes we’d have a production meeting and I’d get told we’re cutting the budget, and I’ve been shouting at people [in the show] all day long, and I’d sit in this meeting and I’d say, “God dammit, you’re not cutting the budget!” And my wife, who produced it too, would have to say, “Let me handle this conversation.” As an actor, you’re accessing elements of your emotional life every day for hours of the day and inviting anger into your life, for the sake of your performance, but it’s very hard to turn that valve off completely. And it gets into you subtly. I was on my way to set one day and McBride called me up and was like, “Shit man, you know what I never got in the book? This guy loved animals. You’ve got to get animals on set.” So I go to the production people I’m like, “Can you get me a turtle? Can you give me a cricket? What can you get? Give me a bird that will land on my shoulder.” And of course they’ve got all these reasons why they can’t get you any animals. But we were on a location scout and I stopped everything to catch a turtle, and we’re not shooting the scene for days, but I was like, “I’m keeping this!”

You touched on not wanting to play things safe and how, no matter what, an audience may not respond positively to the work. But did you have a specific audience in mind when creating these shows, and how much were you thinking about educating someone who doesn’t know about the nuances of racism in this country versus someone who might find them triggering?

Little Marvin: I never thought of the audience when I was writing it. I wrote the show that I needed first, and then I hoped and prayed that someone else out there would need it too. I’ll see if this experience evolves over time, but I think trying to second guess what an audience is going to feel or think about something is maybe the surest way to create crap.

Hawke: I think that if I have any audience in mind, it would be me. I hate to say it, but I would sit there and Joshua [Caleb Johnson] would do something on set or Daveed [Diggs] would do something on set, and I would just giggle my ass off at how well they were executing what we’re going for. I would see how sly it is and I would just appreciate it.

I want to bring the conversation to music for a second on this idea because for me, when you cranked up “Young, Gifted and Black” at the very end, I rethought the whole show. I’ve known and loved that song so long, but I don’t think I really fundamentally knew the anger and rage and terror that a song like that is born out of. It was profound because this piece that I’d known my whole life, I now know differently. And that’s where storytelling can be magic.

Little Marvin: Some of it’s discovery that I would make in an edit, but that particular one, I wrote into the script. And thank you for feeling that because it was intended. And even the pilot, so much of it, as twisted as might sound, was inspired by my love of “The Wizard of Oz.” So when it came to the music, of course we would bookend with Patti LaBelle singing “Over the Rainbow” and Diana Ross singing “Home.” But getting back to yours, it’s the humor, and that is such a hard tightrope to walk and it never feels cheap. Did you know going in there’s a tone to it and music’s going to do this?

Hawke: I wish I could say I wrote it in like you did, but for us it was a strange thing. If we used something anachronistic and played Public Enemy, it broke the spirit. If all you do is play period-accurate bluegrass and stuff like that, it feels too earnest. So it was strapping it to the Civil Rights movement and going halfway back or a quarter of the way back so it’s not contemporary music but it’s not period correct either. Playing Taj Mahal when [Onion] gets his first kiss, I don’t know why it’s perfect but it’s perfect. These little things are amazing. Also the titles. They tell you right away you can laugh.

Little Marvin: They do. You’ve got this anachronistic image, this period thing and then these graphics that are so not, and that combustible mix of things tells me right away where I am.

When it came to the violence, how did you decide where the line was in terms of how graphic to get, visually?

Hawke: We’ve got a 14-year-old lead, so there’s a certain Huck Finn thing going on; there’s a certain PG-13 thing going on. On one level you have this obligation to the truth of the suffering and the pain that’s real — and another level, nobody wants to see that. I believe in shining light in dark places, but there’s a lot of people that had animosity towards the show [because they] don’t want to see a slave rebellion be put down, not with this world we’re living. I hear you. [But] I believe so much in the value of art, and good art is not here to please you. Have that reaction, be upset, it’s OK!

Little Marvin: I agree with all of that. This idea that art is meant to be a weighted blanket for your soul, I don’t subscribe to that. Some of the best art that I’ve ever seen has rattled my cage and made me deeply uncomfortable and unsettled, and it’s forced me to wrestle with things I don’t necessarily want to. I might love that experience or it might absolutely reject it, but I won’t forget it.

There’s trauma and pain at the heart of our story and some of what I’ve heard — because I don’t read or look at anything — is that people feel a kind of way about that, and I have to say that as a lifelong horror buff, these stories are dipped in trauma, they’re rife with grief, they’re rife with rage and with transgressive imagery. They always have been. And I don’t subscribe to this idea as a Black person, because we’ve experienced pain, I’m not allowed to then play in that field. I think that robs us of voices. I’m just going to keep making shit; I’m too old to care about what anyone cares about me. But, it worries me for the next generation who might be like, “I can’t go there and I can’t do that because they got dragged.” No. We need you, especially when there are so few of us working in this space.

Given all of the hardships that the characters in both shows experience throughout the episodes, and the fact that these are limited series so once the last episode ends the story is over, did you want those final moments to be an opportunity for the audience to let out the breath they’d been holding?

Little Marvin: I’m sitting with a guy who happens to be in this movie that has one of the best endings of all time, which is “First Reformed.” People are still wrestling with what the hell happened there. I have my theories, but i also don’t want to know. Living in the question has elevated that piece of art for me because it doesn’t try to wrap it up in a bow and tell me what it is, it just leaves me with the question. And so for this, I’ve heard all sorts of theories and I love that. All of them are valid and all of them are correct enough. I don’t want to have to tie something up for you that is clearly not tied up. I wrote this four years ago, waking up to Black folks being terrorized every day, and here I am four years later, waking up to Black folks being terrorized every day.

Hawke: There was a great deal of nervousness about releasing our show in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and to listen to McBride talk about that, it was, “So you’re telling me the timing is bad because Black people are being terrorized? This is a show that takes place in 1859 when Black people were being terrorized. If you’re going to wait for Black people to stop being terrorized, you’re basically telling me to shut up.” So, our show ends with this idea of “what a beautiful country,” which is a quote of John Brown’s and it aspires to be the same kind of open-ended question of “First Reformed,” which is, “What does he mean?” Why would John Brown say that? Does he mean that the idea of America, a country by the people for the people of the people is a beautiful idea.? Is he talking about God’s Earth? But it’s not clear because issues of faith and despair are at play every day in anybody who’s awake.

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