Ethan Hawke can now be seen as The Grabber in Scott Derrickson's adaptation of THE BLACK PHONE in cinemas from Friday 24th June.
What was it about THE BLACK PHONE that made you want to be a part of it?
About 10 years ago, I worked with Scott Derrickson on SINISTER, and I was so glad that I got to work on that film because I learned a lot from him about genre movies and how they can intersect with the performance. I’ve followed his career over the years and have a lot of respect for him. So, when someone like that offers you a movie, you take it seriously. Also, I felt that unlike 95% of scary movies, THE BLACK PHONE had a real beautiful beating heart in the middle of it.
How would you describe that beating heart?
Well, the film is scary and terrifying, but it has a heart of gold in the sense that it’s really about a pair of siblings helping each other, learning how to take care of themselves. I just found it oddly moving, and I couldn’t put the script down when I read it.
You play a terrifying and complex character known as The Grabber. Who is he in your eyes?
He is obviously an extremely damaged person. In a movie about parents passing on their torments and how to avoid it, in a lot of ways, it is about how a generation tries to stomp out the love in the one underneath it. So, I found that it was easier to portray him as a wounded animal that could do whatever he wanted because the world, in his eyes, was so unkind to him. In that sense, I think he feels a sense of justice when inflicting pain on others because of what was done to him. Generally, people who lie a lot are people who were lied to a lot. So, they don’t feel guilty about it because they believe it’s fair.
He always wears a mask. What can you say about the experience of acting with your face covered?
There was something liberating about the mask work. When I was a kid, I remember going to drama class and studying what a mask can do to body language and voice, and how it can impact a performers relationship with the audience. Also, living through a pandemic, with our faces are covered all the time, I found it very interesting.
And the mask constantly changes…
That’s where Scott’s brain is so special as it was his idea to have the mask constantly change. They put a lot of artistry into the mask: sometimes it covered the top half of my face, while other times it covered the bottom; sometimes it was on one side, while other times it was on the other side; sometimes it was a smile, while other times it was a frown or had no expression at all. Scott and I would talk about this line in Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary Rolling Thunder Revue that says, “you know somebody is telling you the truth when they are wearing a mask, and that they’re lying when they are not.” What that relationship is to identity lies in the truth and is fascinating because we are all scared of not knowing the truth and hate being misunderstood. There was just something so powerful about how they designed these masks, and it was fun to have them all out and decide which one was right for each scene. Masks are important archetypes of the horror genre.
After having abducted several young kids in the town where the action takes place, with fatal consequences, The Grabber targets a teenage boy who struggles to survive and outwit him. Mason Thames delivers a powerful performance in that role as Finney Shaw.
It’s so much fun when you meet these young people that are so in love with movies. I went through it with Joshua Caleb Johnson on THE GOOD LORD BIRD, and with Ellar Coltrane on BOYHOOD, where you watch these young artists at work who have such a great sense of playfulness and joy. Mason was very excited to be in this movie, and he got so into the film that he made it so much fun to be on set. So, the environment was playful and rich. He is a savvy young performer that did such a good job, and the same thing can be said about Madeleine McGraw, who plays his sister, Gwen.
And then we have this old broken-down black phone attached to the wall in the basement where Mason is being held captive that The Grabber insists doesn’t work, but that keeps on ringing.
I know, it’s just scary! Phones have become a big part of our lives; so, the idea that a phone can connect us with something that we can’t connect to – like the past or the dead – is powerful. And there is something about this old 70’s phone that is ripe with metaphor to me.
You have worked with many great filmmakers. Why do you believe Scott Derrickson has become such an important voice in the horror genre today?
He just knows what he is doing and understands the geometry and math of the genre. For example, certain people know how to make a comedy, but others don’t. So, as an actor, you can be funny as hell on set, but if the edit isn’t quite right, it’s lost. And the same thing is true with a scary movie. There is a science to what taps fear into us, and how to use it effectively to tell a story. THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is one of the scariest movies I have ever seen, as is SINISTER, and DR. STRANGE is also an extremely well-made film. As a performer it is great to be in good hands and know you are safe, and that’s what Scott Derrickson provides. When people know what they are doing, the job gets much easier. In that sense, he’s like a very good coach that knows what position each player should play, and your job, as an artist, becomes fun because you can colour in between the lines as much as you want, knowing that, in the end, all the colours are going to match up and the drawing will make sense.
Speaking of the fun, actors tend to say that’s it’s fun to play the villain because you can go out of the box in your portrayal of the character. Do you agree?
Yes, because usually you know that the good guy is going to do the right thing, but you don’t always know what the villain is going to do. That’s why, throughout history, you see actors having a ball with villains. I had a front-row seat watching Denzel Washington play a world-class villain in TRAINING DAY. But, to do it well, you don’t “jump the shark,” as they say – you keep on playing the truth of your character and your reality to make sense out of it.
So, what did you think of The Black Phone when you saw it finished?
I thought it was Scott Derrickson’s most mature film to date. I love directors that make the characters come forward, and he knows how to make the story, the characters and the filmmaking become one thing. When you see a genre movie like this that also feels personal, you realize that there is an artist trying to create something out there. And I like films that invite you in like that. I really like SINISTER, even though it’s cold and dark, but there is an elegance and warmth to THE BLACK PHONE that I hadn’t seen from Scott before. That’s why I think he has matured.
We see that warmth in the relationship between the siblings. Madeleine McGraw who also shines as Mason’s sister, Gwen.
I grew up with a stepsister with whom I had a very powerful connection to, and that sibling bond, that can occur, is strong. Learning how to love each other despite difficult circumstances - and obviously the circumstances in the movie are much more difficult than anything I ever experienced- is, in my opinion, the heart of the movie; especially as we watch these siblings take care of each other and fight for one another. Madeleine is wonderful in that role! I love them [Mason and Madeleine] both, and I think they are the movie.
You obviously didn’t listen to that old saying in the industry about avoiding working with dogs or kids, as you work with both in this film.
Well, I think some actors say that because oftentimes, the scenes that are chosen in the end are the ones where the dogs or the kids are “best” in, but the truth is that with a good director, good young actors, and a decent canine, anything can be accomplished.
The story is also thrilling and surprising, and in a very smart way, without cheating the audience with twists and turns that don’t really make sense from a narrative point of view but are there for the easy scares.
Yes, because typically you feel the director is trying to surprise you when it doesn’t make sense. But with great filmmakers, like Hitchcock, there is a big twist that makes you think: “Why didn’t I see that coming?” That’s when something is smart – when in hindsight it had to be, versus, “Wait, what was that?”
And what do you attribute the success of producer Jason Blum and his company Blumhouse Productions to?
A lot of times, when you deal with genre filmmaking, there is an over-emphasis on trying to entertain and sell something they believe people want to see; but the funny thing is that often what people want to see is precisely what you want to make, and not what you might think they want to see. So, be true to yourself and let the chips fall where they may. And Jason Blum figured out pretty early on that if you let someone like Scott Derrickson execute his vision for a genre film, you can be the great general manager that not only hires the coach but allows him to run the team. Jason lets the players play, and because of that people put their best effort forward. That way, when the artistic troupe is having fun, so is the audience. When you are on a set with Scott you know he’s in charge, which is not always the case with big-budget Hollywood movies.
Do you believe that watching a scary movie like THE BLACK PHONE can be cathartic in a way, maybe even helping us navigate our fears?
Fear is a big part of our daily lives, and many times we just don’t know what to do with it. So, putting it on film or on stage has value, because ultimately it teaches us how to handle it.
What scares you in real life?
People unwilling to listen to each other. I think these past couple of years have been difficult for everybody, as we were figuring out how to navigate our fear of the pandemic and of each other. There is so much that we’re fearful of all the time, and I think the arts can help find a meeting ground.