Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Kate Woods On What It's Really Like Directing Ethan Hawke On Good Lord Bird - Exclusive

Few actors have had careers as varied and interesting as Ethan Hawke. He could have coasted on being part of Gen X's version of the Brat Pack after Reality Bites. Instead, he embraced the Richard Linklater side of philosophical self-exploration with stuff like Waking Life, Before Sunset, and Boyhood. He's the kind of actor who is just as comfortable playing opposite Denzel Washington in Training Day as he is playing against a ghastly spirit in a horror movie like Sinister.

Hawke's name has been in the news lately, ever since word broke that he was attached to the Oscar Isaac-led Marvel Disney+ series Moon Knight. But there's another recent project he both starred in and co-created: The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird is a rare, unflinching take on America's shameless era of slavery that actually talks about the compelling and divisive abolitionist John Brown. Brown is one of those men who does the right thing for the right reasons despite being an absolute mess in his personal life. Hawke plays Brown with intense theatricality, but does so in a space that is often starkly real. The result is a drama that's often pushed to the brink of delirious dark comedy, without ever losing its serious grip on its subject matter. It's a tricky balancing act that would challenge any director.

Looper spoke with director Kate Woods about her tenure at the helm of The Good Lord Bird's penultimate episode, "Jesus is Walkin'," and she told us about working with Hawke and about how she married the grim with the comical.

Kate Woods compares The Good Lord Bird to a Coen Brothers movie

"Ethan was really driven and determined to get the humor right," Woods says. "The big draw for me was the very special tone it has. It was almost Coen Brothers in its kind of skewed humor. Considering the subject matter, it's actually hard to do that. It was a razor's edge — you can fall one way or the other very easily." In the penultimate episode, John Brown (Ethan Hawke) and his group of abolitionists are trapped in a barn with a few hostages. As ever, Brown demands the freeing of all slaves. As ever, his plan is not going well.

The challenge to Woods, the cast, and the crew is to manage the space. How do you handle the tension leading up to a deadly firefight realistically in the tight confines of a barn? "When I first started thinking about it, I was really going, 'What am I going to do with this? How am I going to make it interesting?'" says Woods. "But I found in the end that if you just lean into that, the fact that they are stuck, and the style that we had, which had not very much movement, it kind of lent itself to just playing on that. There was a lot of humor in the miscommunication and all that kind of stuff."

How Ethan Hawke makes The Good Lord Bird worth the challenge

Part of the solution to those tonal challenges was in simplicity, but The Good Lord Bird, like so many premium channel shows, is about following a complex narrative from multiple vantage points. In addition to Brown, there are folks like Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) — young, yearning for freedom, but mostly just terrified. "The fact that there were so many people at any one time was always challenging too because you can't just show everybody at all times," says Woods. "You had to choreograph it so that the scene flowed from one person to another without you having to sort of cut around all the time, which would have been death for a thing like that."

In the end, though, much of it falls to having a creative performer like Hawke in the lead. "I think Ethan was amazing because stars just have something," Woods admits. "You can't describe it. When they have this quality, the camera loves them. You can see pretty much into their hearts and if you combine that with the kind of talent that [he has], they're mesmerizing."

The Good Lord Bird is now streaming on Showtime.