Ethan Hawke on Creating a New Horror Icon in ‘The Black Phone’

Four-time Academy Award nominated actor, Ethan Hawke, is no stranger to the horror game. In fact, some of his most memorable turns came from two of the biggest hits Blumhouse has ever seen: The Purge and Sinister. Nearly a decade since both, and Hawke is back in the genre, teaming up with the mega-horror studio again. However, this time, things are different. Because unlike his previous horror works, in The Black Phone, Hawke is the horror!

The Black Phone

Recently, we were given the opportunity to speak with the acting icon about his terrific work as The Grabber in The Black Phone, one of the year’s best films so far! Here’s what he had to say:

NOC: Hi Ethan! Thanks so much for your time today. How are you doing?

HAWKE: Really well! Really well. Thank you for your time.

Very good to hear. Let me start by just saying what an amazing movie. This is one of my favorite movies of the year. You give such an amazing, haunting but terrifying performance in this, so really well done!

Well that’s a great way to wake up! Thank you for saying that.

(from left) Director Scott Derrickson and Mason Thames on the set of The Black Phone.

Absolutely! If I may, 10 years ago, you, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill collaborated on a little movie called Sinister, which ended up being one of the greatest horror movies of the 2010s. Here you are reuniting for The Black Phone, which in my opinion, is even better. And it’s hard to top Sinister, but you did it with this film. What was it like coming back together with Scott and C. Robert to produce this amazing movie?

Well we had a really special experience making Sinister. It was a really small movie. It was a really simple. We had complete creative freedom to spin a midnight murder mystery. And so I wanted to work with Scott again. Because he really reawakened in my brain a love of genre movies. There’s pretty much nothing I enjoy more than geeking out with Cargill and Scott about movies. I love making movies with people who are fans of movies. Scott and Cargill love the history of movies, and they love breaking films down; what worked, what didn’t work, how it could have been better, how it should have been done, who should have been cast. And it’s so fun to talk about with them.

Ethan Hawke as The Grabber in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

This felt like, I agree, I’m so proud of Sinister, but this kind of feels like a more mature movie. It’s even better made. There’s something nihilistic about Sinister, and there’s a pure heart of gold with Black Phone — it’s hard to imagine a movie about child abduction that has a heart of gold — but it kind of does. And it combines genres; is it a serial killer, is it a ghost movie, or is it a coming of age film? And to do all three of them in a powerful way, I think. And this is the first time I’ve played a “capital V villain.” And I don’t think I would have done it for anyone else but Scott. So it was a pleasure.

That’s amazing! Now as far as The Grabber goes, one of the things that makes him so scary is that in the tradition of Heath Ledger’s Joker or Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, we don’t know much about his backstory or why he does what he does at least on screen. Did you, Scott, and Cargill collaborate to discuss what that history was to prepare you for the role before the cameras started rolling?

The important thing is you want to build a character where all the audience sees is the tip of the iceberg. What’s outside the water. We needed to create what was hidden. What’s underneath the water is how the tip of it moves. It informs him. One of the things that I thought was brilliant about the screenplay is that it didn’t try to tell you too much, because it’s what you don’t see that’s terrifying. And we had to come up with why is he a magician, why black balloons, what’s his relationship to the phone, what’s his relationship to his brother, what’s his relationship to this space. But then we had to erase it all. So that we could understand it and the audience could just feel it.

Wonderful! And if I could ask one final question, you mentioned this is the first time you’re playing a “capital V villain.” And while I agree with you, we also saw an epic villain turn for you earlier this year in Moon Knight as Arthur Harrow.

Ethan Hawke as Arthur Harrow in Marvel Studios’ MOON KNIGHT, exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

So do you like playing villains now? And do you think we’ll be seeing you as one again?

You know, I don’t know. For me, I’m a flat out, straight up performer. And I like to go where the show is. And if I can work with talented people — getting to work with Oscar on Moon Knight was so much fun! I would say Arthur Harrow would function more as an antagonist. Not to split hairs. The Grabber is evil incarnate. He’s madness. He’s the ID. He’s what lies beneath the ocean or behind the stairs, or in the darkness of the attic. That’s where The Grabber lives. Whereas Arthur Harrow is more of your old fashioned antagonist. He’s the opposite of [a hero], but he has a philosophy you can understand. He’s not pure insanity.

Wonderful. Ethan this was such an honor. Thank you so much for this! I’m so excited for audiences to see what I saw when The Black Phone comes out June 24!

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