Playing John Brown in Showtime’s limited series “The Good Lord Bird” required an intensity from star and executive producer Ethan Hawke that pushed him to his limits. “It was the first time I knew what having a heart attack might feel like,” Hawke told Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast. And shooting the series in the middle of a hot and humid Virginia summer didn’t help. “It was 107. And I’m carrying like, seven rifles and three pistols and dressed in wool and screaming my full head off.”
But to play this historic abolitionist figure, as adapted from the James McBride novel “The Good Lord Bird,” Hawke knew he couldn’t do it lightly. “When society is insane, it takes a bit of insanity for it to see itself,” he said. “How I felt, is to be a person who is going to shatter an insane element of society. You can’t shatter the criminal institution of human bondage gently.”
John Brown is an abolitionist whom you might remember from history class but probably don’t know much about. In the series, which comes with the disclaimer “All of this is true. Most of it happened,” Joshua Caleb Johnson plays Henry Shackleford, nicknamed “Onion,” a fictional enslaved boy who becomes a member of John Brown’s eccentric family of abolitionist soldiers. But here’s the catch: early on, John Brown assumes Onion is a girl, and Onion isn’t about to correct him.
For a bonus edition of the podcast, we talk to stars Hawke (also an executive producer) and Johnson about the unique relationship between their characters, the growth of Onion along the way and what John Brown’s intentions ultimately were. I began by asking Johnson what the show has meant for the young actor’s career. Listen below!
The production, from Blumhouse Television, is extremely satirical but also serves up a dramatic look at pre-Civil War America, starting with Bleeding Kansas, a time when the state was a battleground between pro and anti-slavery forces. Eventually, the series leads to brown’s raid in 1859 on the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, which we know helped start the Civil War.
“The Good Lord Bird” is Hawke’s first major TV project, from adapting the material — via the book by McBride, who also was an executive producer — to eventually starring in it, although at first he didn’t think of the role for himself.
“It’s such a big story,” Hawke says. “Nobody’s ever made a movie about John Brown before, the Battle of Harpers Ferry has never been put on film, this kind of unbelievable moment in U.S. history. It’s such a dramatic moment. I always felt like wow, if Shakespeare was gonna write a story about America, he’d pick John Brown.”
Hawke said he was also drawn to the way McBride told the story, with John Brown as the event of the story, but telling it through the Onion’s eyes. “That made it revelatory, and beautiful and allowed us to be able to tell it with wit and humor, in a way that was so surprising for me,” he says. “I would have thought would have been impossible. And we just found allies at every turn, from Blumhouse to Showtime, starting it. And then Joshua. I used to say to Joshua that I think was an unfair burden to put on him, but the show would only go as far as he took us. This is his show. And his insight and intelligence and discipline and talent was the show. I called my wife after Joshua’s first audition and just said, ‘I think we got it.’ We had to make him jump through hoops. But I knew from his first reading, I would like to watch this young man tell this story.”
For Johnson, playing Onion’s coming-of-age tale coincided with his own coming of age. “We were around the same age,” he says. “And the crazy thing enough is when I went to Virginia in July 2019, I literally just hit puberty, like probably like a week later. Virgina’s humid and very moist. And so my pores are open and my skin was breaking out, and these hormones coming out of my body that I had never felt before. I was getting taller and my body was changing, growing a little hair, I’m growing sideburns And that’s kind of how Onion, going on that long journey with John Brown, everything started coming together. He started growing up, becoming a young man, not just physically but mentally in the way he thinks.”
In reading McBride’s book, Hawke was struck by how little people widely know about this historical figure. “The more I think about it, the more I wonder why young people aren’t taught about this part of history,” he says. “But the deeper I looked into it, I understood why they didn’t teach it. I mean, this country is scared of looking at its past this way. To really understand John Brown, you really need to look at human bondage and what was happening. You don’t see statues of John Brown. I mean, if there was a statue for John Brown for every statue of Robert E. Lee, this would be a different country. It’s who gets to tell our story, right? Not to quote ‘Hamilton,’ but it’s a big part of why we felt it was so important to tell the story. You need to know about Harriet Tubman, you need to know about Frederick Douglass, you need to look at the DNA of the founding of this country to know what we’re talking about now.”
As for adapting the satirical tone of McBride’s book, Hawke says there were countless discussions on how to do it right. “That was the most reoccurring conversation about 18,000 times a day was this razor’s edge that we were walking. If it was too funny, it wouldn’t be emotional. We’re not making ‘Blazing Saddles.’ And if it was too rigorous, and if it lost its sense of humor, then it would be something that we’ve seen before or it wouldn’t open your heart in the way that McBride’s book did. It was this challenge. It’s not John Brown as taught by your high school librarian. It’s as if Redd Foxx was telling you the story or Richard Pryor, Chris Rock. The unique thing that McBride did is telling it through this 14-year-old boy who’s in a dress. It’s an uncommon vantage point, and it allowed for it to have a kind of Mark Twain aspect to it, where it’s all seen through a point of view.”
As a matter of fact, Hawke had Johnson memorize passages from Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” as an exercise. “I knew that doing that Huck Finn speech would be extremely difficult and if he could carry that weight, then everything that we were going to do would actually be easy,” Hawke says. “Joshua does it so effortlessly, that people don’t really understand how difficult it is to get yourself into that period mindset or language. You know, a lot of young actors have a lot of talent, but they can’t shed themselves of the 2020 mannerisms. Joshua is extremely funny and his humor and intellect could could engage in this different setting. And that’s very rare.”
Later in this episode: Netflix recently gave Phil Rosenthal a fifth season order for “Somebody Feed Phil,” and with the world slowly opening up again, it couldn’t come at a better time. The “Everybody Loves Raymond” co-creator has helped countless viewers explore the world and travel vicariously through his series, particularly during these pandemic times. And his cheerful mood as he explores the world is also infectious. We spoke to Rosenthal about the recent return to comfort like the current hot chicken craze, compare our COVID weight gains, and discuss his most recent season, including his visit to Hawaii.
Variety’s Emmy edition of the “Awards Circuit” podcast is hosted by Michael Schneider, Jazz Tangcay and Danielle Turchiano and is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in television. Each week during Emmy season, “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.