Interview – Ethan Hawke, star of ‘The Black Phone’, on embracing evil for this villainous role

Finney, 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.

To celebrate the Australian release of The Black Phone – in cinemas July 21 – the awesome team at Universal Pictures gave me the opportunity to chat with the incredible actor, Ethan Hawke, about what is what to play a truly evil villain for the first time in his career!

Nick: How are you today, Mr. Hawke?

Ethan Hawke: I’m doing great! Thank you for being here.

Nick: No, thank you for having us! My favourite shot in the film is when the camera slowly tracks up the stairs from the basement, into the kitchen where it reveals The Grabber (Hawke), sitting there shirtless, silent, and holding the belt ready to hit Finney. I would love to know, from your point of view, what is it about the silence and stillness of that moment and your performance that feels just as effective and terrifying as any jump scare in the film?

Ethan: I guess the darkness; the unseen is always the most terrifying to us. Mystery, unknown evil. I had the idea that when you can’t see somebody’s face, seeing other skin is also terrifying. How do I make this person, this villain, human? He’s not Darth Vader, he’s some other entity. The more you see him breathing, but you can’t read his facial expression, it’s scary. Is he asleep? Is he not asleep? The mystery of the unknown, you know– the ocean is terrifying to us! Outer space and things we can’t understand. Why is this person so awful? What is motivating them? That unknown is where a lot of the fear lives. And Scott’s very good at mining those tropes.

What was the process like with figuring out the mask and what parts were going to be taken off or added for each kind of section of this film?

Ethan: The man who designed the masks is a brilliant designer! He and Scott had the idea that wouldn’t it be interesting if the mask constantly evolved. So, that it had one, kind of, iconic image, but that it was constantly changing – the smiling face changing to no mouth, the left side of the face to the right side of the face, the top, the bottom.

Just wearing any mask work gives you a sense of playfulness, and it makes body language so important, and it makes vocal work so important. But the idea that the mask itself was evolving, could say something about who the character was. It was so fun to have all these different masks out and decide which one to wear for which scene, and Scott always had really good ideas about what he wanted. And it was so new for me playing, this type of horrible human being was new.

Also, there’s aspects of Greek tragedy at work, right? You know, those old-fashioned Greek dramas where you’re representing this evil id of the universe. What I like about the first horror movie I did with Scott, Sinister, and this one is there was a real sense of play. We were just playing. It’s midnight, and you’re sitting around a campfire, and you’re just telling everybody a spooky story. And you get really into it. You know, that’s the fun of this genre.

(from left) The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) and Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

With the different characters that those masks created, did you come up with a backstory for all of those different personalities?

Ethan: I tried to! It was harder the more I thought about it. I kept coming up to this analogy of a broken computer. That it almost doesn’t make sense. You don’t understand why it’s skitzing out. It’s short circuited. And so, the more I tried to make sense out of them, the answers always seemed not right. And I instinctually just feel that so much of evil and arrogance and abuse is created out of insecurity, and that there’s some deep insecurity at work that’s desperate to cover itself up with the mask, and simultaneously wants to be known. It doesn’t want to be seen, felt, heard. But, it’s all broken. In no way is this person healthy at all, and that’s what’s challenging about us just playing something that doesn’t make sense.

You’ve said in the past that you have been hesitant to play evil characters or villains. What has made you embrace such a nasty type of character such as The Grabber?

Ethan: You know, I don’t exactly know how it happened. 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 have had this theory about Jack Nicholson. His whole career changed when he played Jack in The Shining. Once you unveil your madness, your evil side for the world, they can’t unsee it. They start to see it in all your other characters. So, I’ve always been, you know, sensitive towards doing that.

But then I read it and I felt it was so much fun. The script was so good. And I’ve just enjoyed Scott’s work. I love doing Sinister. I thought to myself: ‘well, you know what? I’m 50 years old. Maybe it’s time’. It’s time to change the map and start embracing my inner ‘Grabber’. And I’m glad I did. You know, the mask work part of it was really fun. And it also felt in service to something about the story that I just love. The idea of a horror movie/coming of age drama, combined, you know, worked for me.

Thank you to Universal Pictures for letting me speak with the amazing Ethan Hawke! The Black Phone is showing advanced screenings from July 15-17, before its official Australian release on July 21.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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