Ethan Hawke makes his debut as a collection creator with Showtime’s Civil War-era miniseries “The Good Lord Bird.”
“It was definitely the most challenging undertaking of my life,” says Hawke, 49, who stars in and executive-produced the show. “It was like doing four or five indie movies back-to-back.”
Premiering Oct. 4 at 9 p.m. — and primarily based on James McBride’s National Book Award-winning 2013 novel of the identical title — “The Good Lord Bird” follows newly freed younger slave Henry, nicknamed “Onion” (Joshua Caleb Johnson), who finally ends up with well-known abolitionist John Brown (Hawke) and his band of troopers on a campaign to finish slavery. It culminates within the 1859 raid on the Army depot at Harpers Ferry, Va. — the prelude to the Civil War.
(Brown in the end turned the first individual in US historical past to be executed for treason; his 1859 hanging in the show’s attention-grabbing opening.)
“I’m not playing John Brown the historical figure, I’m playing John Brown as Onion sees him and as James McBride spins a big yarn,” says Hawke.
“It’s a strange tone to walk. It’s a tone [Quentin] Tarantino has hit and the Coen brothers have hit, where it’s half-ridiculous and half-blistering and half-electric and half-silly and half-preposterous. That was the joy of it — it’s like taking a high dive. You don’t really know how it’s going to go, you just have to throw yourself off and hope you live.”
“The Good Lord Bird” mixes truth and fiction: “All of this is true. Most of it happened,” reads a tongue-in-cheek on-screen announcement. In addition to Brown, the fictional Onion encounters iconic figures similar to Frederick Douglass (“Hamilton” star Daveed Diggs).
“I’m a big Mark Twain fan, and I just felt like McBride lapped Mark Twain,” says Hawke. “It’s like [‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’], however, Huck Finn flirts with speaking about race in America, and McBride dives all-in. So I simply wished to share it with everyone I knew, and the way in which to try this is to carry out it.
“The Harpers Ferry raid is one of the most dramatic events in US history, and I couldn’t believe it hasn’t been 15 movies,” he says. “They made about a hundred movies about the Alamo…[the raid] is such an incendiary story, and to talk about it forces you to have other conversations that are hard. That’s why it’s been avoided.”
The seven-episode miniseries is an uncommon TV function for Hawke, whose profession has primarily been on the large display screen, the place he’s racked up 4 Oscar nominations thus far (“Best Supporting Actor” nods for “Boyhood” and “Training Day” and “Best Adapted Screenplay” nods for “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight”).
He says, although, that making a TV collection has not been a longtime ambition.
“It was really just this story. I was thinking, ‘How would you tell that book in two hours?’ You wouldn’t be able to reduce it enough for a movie,” he says. “And my wife [producer Ryan Hawke] was like, ‘Dummy, there’s this thing called limited series now, wake up!’ So in a lot of ways, I always just thought of it as a long movie.”
But regardless of the huge endeavor by Hawke to co-create “The Good Lord Bird” — alongside with “Hell on Wheels” author Mark Richard — and to executive-produce the collection, he says it wasn’t a hardship to star in it as properly.
“I love acting. I loved being on set with the guys and playing this character,” he says. “In plenty of methods, the manufacturing was the work, and the work was the play.
“Gene Hackman has my favorite line: ‘They pay me to wait. I’ll act without spending a dime. It’s the ready I hate.’ ”