Ethan Hawke on Playing Villains in The Black Phone and Marvel’s Moon Knight (Interview)

Ethan Hawke as The Grabber in The Black Phone. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Ethan Hawke is no stranger to the horror genre with films like Sinister and The Purge. The actor is also known for playing protagonists in films like Gattaca and Training Day. However, 2022 has been a different year for the actor as he portrays antagonists in Marvel Studios’ Moon Knight and the Scott Derrickson-directed film The Black Phone.

The Black Phone is set in 1978 in a suburban Colorado town. Kids are going missing due to a serial killer known as The Grabber kidnapping them. This antagonist is Hawke’s creepiest role, who likes wearing a white mask with a large, unsettling smile. During the press junket for the film, we had the chance to chat with the actor.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nerd Reactor: You’re on a streak of playing villains. What’s the mindset from playing a lot of good guys to embracing these types of roles now?

Ethan Hawke: Embracing my dark side. For Black Phone, that’s the first straight-up capital V villain I’ve ever played. I mean, he’s just a diabolical personification of evil, right? In the Marvel [series], I think of Dr. Harrow as more of the old-fashioned antagonist. He has a logic; you can understand him. He’s not absolutely insane. He’s perhaps broken and confused. But The Grabber is full-blown insane. It is strange. Maybe it’s turning 50, and the world wants me to be bad guys, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just I got tired of being the good guys. The life of an actor is funny. As you change, you start to get cast in different roles.

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

For The Grabber, what was the thing that captured your interest? Was it the script or just the way the character is portrayed? Or the outfits like the mask?

I did a movie called Sinister with Scott Derrickson about a decade ago, and it’s been fun over the last 10 years to watch that movie just scare the daylights out of everybody. I loved making it with him, and the reaction to the film was really positive. We wanted to work together again. And while I did not want to play the villain, when I read the script out, I found it really beautiful. It surprised me that it’s a scary movie, but at its heart, it’s this really sweet, coming-of-age story about a brother and sister who love each other and take care of each other. And I found that really surprising. If you can make a good film inside a genre film, people love the tropes of a good genre film. You know, they just love it. And if you can make a quality movie inside that genre, it’s a lot of fun. So it was my belief in Scott. That was why I did it.

Once you’re on the set, you have the persona ready. With the mask, does that help change how you act out the character? For example here. [Shows Ethan my t-shirt of The Grabber].

Wow. I love that. The mask changed everything. I was thinking about the character. I was trying to figure him out. And then I was sitting right here in this office, and the masks arrived. And I started trying them on and I was like, “Oh, wow, this is gonna be really fun.” It’s more like Greek theater. And I realized that The Grabber is actually performing for his victim. It’s basically a performance. He’s teasing them. He’s playing hide and seek with them. The character just flowed out from those masks.

For the character, there’s a lot of mystery behind what his intentions are. Maybe he has other plans or it’s very ambiguous.

You know, the ambiguity is what I found so engaging. So many stories are overwritten and they tell you too much. There’s nothing scarier than the things that you just cannot understand… that your brain can’t find answers for. We know so little about him. He wants to be a magician, I guess. I mean, he’s clearly insane and clearly very dangerous. But when your brain can’t make sense out of somebody, it’s even more terrifying than if you can, because you don’t know what’s motivating them.

I spent time thinking about his backstory. Why black balloons? What’s his story with the phone? What was his childhood like? Why is he so ashamed of himself? Why does he not want to be seen? But I started thinking that there was no answer that was as terrifying as not knowing. And I think whatever the real truth of the story was, I think that his brain is so broken by the time we find him that he doesn’t even know the answers to those questions. He’s just like a broken computer that’s glitching.

About The Black Phone

Finney Shaw, a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, is abducted by a sadistic killer and trapped in a soundproof basement where screaming is of little use. When a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring, Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims. And they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney.

The film stars Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw. It’s directed by Scott Derrickson and co-written by C. Robert Cargill and Derrickson, based on the short story by Joe Hill from his New York Times bestseller 20th Century Ghosts. The film is produced by Derrickson & Cargill’s Crooked Highway and presented by Universal and Blumhouse. Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill are producers, which is executive produced by Ryan Turek and Christopher H. Warner.

The Black Phone hits U.S. theaters on June 24, 2022.

Facebook Comments