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Why Ethan Hawke Was The First Choice To Play The Grabber In The Black Phone

If you've seen the critically-acclaimed supernatural thriller "The Black Phone," directed by Scott Derrickson and based on the Joe Hill story of the same name, you already know that Ethan Hawke goes to chilling depths to play the monstrous child-murderer known as The Grabber. Given Hawke's usual M.O. of non-villainous characters, you might not think that a character like The Grabber would be a natural fit for the actor. But not only does he completely disappear into the part; he also does so largely underneath a creepy mask, and Derrickson recently revealed that Hawke was his first choice to play the sinister role.

Despite wanting to approach Hawke first about the possibility of playing The Grabber, Derrickson said that he first tried to discourage him from accepting the part because of its brutal, disturbing nature, per IndieWire. But thankfully for all involved, Hawke decided to go against his usual "no villains" instinct and make The Grabber his own -– and now he's even open to returning for a sequel as long as Derrickson is involved. And now we can all benefit from seeing how director and actor collaborated to create such a memorably horrifying antagonist for the screen. 

It was all about Hawke's vocal range

In an interview with IndieWire, "The Black Phone" director Scott Derrickson spoke about casting Ethan Hawke in the role of The Grabber. "I didn't write the script for him, I don't write roles for particular actors," the director said, but after the script was completed he began to picture Hawke in the part.

"I called him up, and I said, 'I have the next movie I'm going to make, it's with Jason [Blum],' and Jason and Ethan are very close," Derrickson said. The director approached Hawke with what might be called a "soft sell" on the idea of playing The Grabber on screen. "It's the villain, and let me try to talk you out of it already," he recalled. "For starters, he's a pedophile, sadistic killer, and second of all, he always wears a mask, so we don't really see your face, but other than that, it's a great role."

Why was Derrickson interested in casting Hawke? He cited Hawke's "distinctive-sounding" voice as a main reason. This was a voice that Hawke opted to demonstrate via what must have been an extremely creepy voicemail message to the director once he'd decided to accept the role. 

Hawke used his voice and The Grabber's array of masks to complete his character

In a part like The Grabber, in which the actor's face is largely hidden behind a mask, a good vocal range is very important. As with earlier movie monsters like Claude Rains as the Invisible Man or the Phantom of the Opera, the character comes largely from the voice and physical mannerisms rather than any contortion of the face – and in The Grabber's case, Hawke masters both with apparent ease. Fictional monsters are often hidden behind masks or prosthetic makeup, allowing an actor like Ethan Hawke to fill in the gap of a character through their voice or mannerisms. In an interview with Collider, Hawke spoke about how the masks in "The Black Phone," designed by the legendary Tom Savini, allowed him to find some truth in the terrifying character. 

"[T]he mask made him real for me in some strange way," the actor said. "It was like he's ashamed of himself and that shame is driving him to even more unimaginable crimes. And that duality was confusing in a good way. It had a human logic to it, which is like, 'Uh, it doesn't make any sense at all.'" That confusion, perhaps as much as his distinctive voice, helped Hawke in crafting the character.