In a career spanning four decades, Ethan Hawke never wanted to play the monster, looking at Jack Nicholson’s terrifying performance in The Shining as an example of how an actor’s career can be defined by such polarising roles.
Starring as a malevolent failed magician – and serial killer known as ‘The Grabber’ – in director Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone, Hawke was initially unconvinced he wanted the role.
“I remember when Scott first sent me the script, I warned him before he sent it. I said, ‘You know I’m dying to work with you again. But it’s very unlikely that I will do this movie because for years I’ve had this theory about Jack Nicholson, how his whole career changed after The Shining in that, once you unveil your madness and evil side for the world, they can’t unsee it and they start to see it in all your other characters.’ So I’ve always been sensitive towards doing that,” recalls Hawke, who first teamed up with Derrickson ten years ago for the horror thriller Sinister.
“But then I read it, and I felt it was so much fun. The script was so good, and I just enjoy Scott’s work. I loved doing Sinister and I thought to myself, ‘Well, you know what? I’m 50 years old. Maybe it’s time to change the map and start embracing my inner Grabber!’”
Few films feature the villain at the centre of narrative, so the filmmakers knew that The Grabber, a child serial killer and a symbol of pure evil that terrorises a northern Denver town, needed to be embodied by an actor with the depth, nuance and cultural gravitas to anchor The Black Phone.
“I wanted to capture the way such a figure could become almost mythological for the kids,” Derrickson tells STACK. “Something scary, but also exciting. Fascinating, but also terrifying.”
There was just one major hurdle: “Ethan isn’t generally a big fan of doing genre or horror because he gets too scared,” laughs the director.
Overcoming his fears, Hawke tells us today, “I’m so glad I did. The mask work part of it was really fun. And it also felt in service to the role. There’s something about the story that I just loved, the idea of a horror movie and coming-of-age drama combined, just worked for me.”
He also connected to his own fears growing up during the 1970s. “There were a lot of cases of people abducting kids, and there was also the explosion of the fear of serial killers. We were haunted by this idea that there’s some madman with no morals out there,” says the four-time Oscar nominee who has no qualms about playing villains, recently starring as Arthur Harrow in Marvel TV mini-series Moon Knight – he just didn’t want to play pure evil.
“I worried about that a lot. That just seemed pretty flat out horrible,” reveals the father-of-four, who was understandably nervous about playing a child serial killer. “Not to overuse the word ‘scary’, but it was unpleasant to come to the set and have to terrify a young person, and be horrible and put a young performer through the experience of some unimaginable situations that you wouldn’t want them to imagine.
“And yet, I believe in the value of storytelling. And that myths and legends and dark tales and fairy tales all have a value in our psychology, and so you just give over to it,” says Hawke.
“It was also really difficult because it was during the pandemic. So there wasn’t a lot of socialising. You couldn’t go out to dinner and have a bunch of laughs; everybody kept to themselves and that was challenging and robs me of one of my favourite things about moviemaking, which is being together with a group of people and throwing a party, and that was compromised.
“But these kids were so wonderful and talented, and they love making movies. So my fear went away really quickly because they understand – kids today have all grown up in love with the movies. They have knowledge of filmmaking that it took me years to learn, because the way we all talk about movies and everything now is different than when I was a kid. But I also was a child actor, so I’m very sensitive to their situation,” he adds.
Although The Grabber’s magic days are over, he still dons terrifying full-face masks, each with a different expression.
“There’s something to be said about the fact that he goes to such great lengths to not be seen,” says Hawke. “He must really hate himself. And that level of self-loathing is probably what gives him the ability to hurt others. I was excited about the idea of playing a character in a mask, and Scott was looking for someone who was game to play with them.
“When I read the script, I imagined there being just one mask, but Scott devised a plan where the mask itself works in this strange, symbolic universe, constantly adjusting which part of The Grabber’s real face is actually showing.”
For Hawke, the biggest challenge of wearing the masks was figuring out how to communicate and relate to the other actors while wearing them.
“Even just living through the pandemic, we’ve all seen how masks change how we relate to people,” he notes.
“When someone covers their face, you automatically look to their gestures. We’re hardwired to read people’s moods by reading their face, so when that’s gone, things like body language and energy are what you immediately start reading. So that was a fun challenge for me to figure out for the character. How does he stand? How does he move? What’s the quality of his voice?”
The resulting performance is unforgettable and troubling, but for Hawke it was the relationship between the children – Mason Thames’s Finney and Madeleine McGraw’s Gwen – that was so powerful.
“When I showed Ethan the finished film, he had a very powerful, personal reaction to it,” Derrickson says. “He said it was so suspenseful and scary yet told entirely through the eyes of love. That’s probably my favourite thing that anyone has said to me about the movie.”
• The Black Phone is in cinemas on July 21, with advance screenings July 15–17