Movies

Ethan Hawke Tells Us Why He Wanted To Play … The Grabber!

Make no mistake, whatever your preconceived notions are of The Grabber, he is not someone who is good at heart but got saddled with an unfortunate name. No, In Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone, The Grabber lives up to his adjective of a name and spends his free time kidnapping and murdering kids. This behavior is, frankly, way out of line.

What’s funny is when Ethan Hawke was first approached by Derrickson to play The Grabber (the two had worked together before on Sinister), Hawke’s initial reaction was, “Are you nuts?” But the more he thought about it, he’s never really played a true villain before. He did worry that he’d be remembered as a villain, but, at this point, it would take a lot more outings as The Grabber to match the 37 years of non-The Grabber roles Hawke has played.

In The Black Phone (based on a book by Joe Hill), it’s 1978 and kids in a suburban town keep going missing. This was more an era where kids would be warned of the dangers, then given a pat on the back, “good luck,” before being sent off to fend for themselves until dark. When young Finney (Mason Thames) is captured by The Grabber, he must outsmart The Grabber, being helped by the ghosts of prior victims that communicate to Finney over a mysterious black phone in the basement where he’s kept.

Ahead, Hawke (who, like me, thinks The Grabber crossed a lot of lines over the course of this movie) explains why he had so much fun playing The Grabber, it led him to take another villainous role in Moon Knight. Speaking of Moon Knight, Hawke gives us his assessment of the reaction to that series. He knows it’s an off show, but that’s something he’s proud of in that it doesn’t fit in squarely with a lot of what we’d seen before in the MCU.

I’ve been trained over many, many years to root for your characters. I have to admit, some of The Grabber’s behavior? He lost me.

Yeah. He’s pretty reprehensible.

I’m watching this and thinking, this is way over the line.

“This is not good.”

You know what? I even reached a point with him when I was like, “This man should be in jail.”

Yes, I think so. I have a funny joke about that.

Okay.

My whole life people say, “Well, did you like your character?” Or whatever. And I say, “I don’t think in judgment of my character.” My line is that I’m my character’s lawyer. I see the world. I defend his position. I justify his actions. But there is no lawyer in the world that wants to have The Grabber as his client.

And I didn’t want judge a book by its cover, but the name “The Grabber” does not have many positive connotations.

It does not. The Grabber, you don’t want to draw that name from a hat.

No.

It’s not going to go your way.

I literally can’t think of some attribute where I would nickname someone The Grabber and go, “I mean that as a compliment.”

He is definitely an incubus or something. It’s some manifestation of the Id of darkness.

At one point I was like, “Maybe he’s a good magician?” Then no, not even that.

No, no, no, no. Not one positive attribute.

You said you were worried about doing it at first because you don’t want to be remembered for your entire career as being a villain. At this point, I don’t think you could do that if you tried. If you want to be remembered only as a villain I think you have some more work to do.

I think I do, too. If you work for 30 years, you can’t undo it with one part.

“Look, he was nominated for two Academy Awards, but he is The Grabber now.”

“But he is The Grabber now.” I think that when I was younger, I was really just slightly aware of the baggage that actors can create. When they really excel at playing a horrible person it does get harder for you to see them as a benevolent soul.

I see.

Once Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal Lecter, it’s hard to watch him as a sweet grandpa with the puppy, because you’re worried he is going to bite his head off. But then you get a little older and you realize that, ah, it’s okay. And this movie is really funny. I mean, I know it’s scary, but it’s ultimately really a story about a brother and sister who love each other. And The Grabber is really a larger metaphor for how older people do not have the kids’ best interests at heart. You feel the world above these kids – whether it’s the cops or the school people who aren’t looking after them, their parents. The grownups are no help.

It’s set in 1978. You were about the age of these kids in 1978.

Yeah. You know what was even funnier about that? I did my first movie when I was 13. So, 1983, close to the same time. And I was the same age as Mason was. And I was wearing all the same clothes and the cars they’re driving when we were making Explorers.

Okay yeah, I was going to ask if you were talking about Explorers.

Yeah. It’s totally my era. I really related to this kid.

So I was a kid in the ’80s and it’s funny if you even try to explain to someone 10 years younger that this movie is pretty accurate. We were warned all the time about being kidnapped. There was that TV movie about Adam Walsh that everyone watched. My parents were like, “You might get kidnapped, you have to be prepared for that.” Then it’s like, “Well, good luck. Be home by dark.”

“Have a good day at school, by the way, don’t get in a van with somebody who’s offering you candy.”

Exactly. It was always candy and a van.

Actually, when I saw my character’s van, I laughed because when I was a kid, that was exactly the van my mom was warning me about.

It was always the van. Be careful of the van.

Always the van. Don’t get in the van.

And The Grabber parks his van in an outdoor garage, you can see it. It’s like, of course, that’s The Grabber. Whoever owns that van is The Grabber.

It doesn’t take a genius. What kind of lunatic would drive that van? The Grabber.

Did it take a little bit for you to decide, “I want to play the Grabber”?

When Scott called me up and said that he was sending the script and told me a little bit about it and I laughed and I was talking to him and said, “Listen, Scott, I’m dying to work with you again, but there’s no way in hell I’m playing a character called The Grabber.”

Was it the character or the name or both?

He said, “Yeah, I want you to play The Grabber, he’s the guy that abducts and kills children.” I’m like, “Are you nuts? I’m not playing that character.” And he’s like, “Well, just read it then.” I warned him before I read it. But then I read it and it just seemed like a really good genre movie to me. And I thought that the mask work was something I’d never done before. And exactly all the reasons why I didn’t want to do it might be exactly the reasons why I should do it. Because it’s fun as an actor to make yourself uncomfortable and play against things that suit your vanity. It’s fun to play John Brown, he’s a hero. He’s a stud. He fights for justice.

Right.

But I thought it might be good for me to do something outside my wheelhouse. And also, let’s face it, actors, we only go as far as our opportunities. When you have an opportunity to work with a top-tier director, you just have to do it. Basically, my theory about it, Scott’s really smart. He knows how to make a good movie. If it doesn’t work, it won’t work. And the downside of it working great is for the rest of my life, people will be calling me “The Grabber.”

Well, like you said, you do have a mask most of the movie.

That helps.

Now a 12-year-old kid will pass you on the street, “It’s the Grabber!”

“That’s the Grabber. Run!”

I hope that happens at least once in your life.

I hope so. Isn’t it funny that Alec Guinness had this huge long career. Epic, beautiful career. And at the end of his life, everybody knew him as Obi-Wan. A movie that I don’t think he ever even saw.

I mean, I’m sure he was happy with the money he made off those movies, but he seemed annoyed that people weren’t talking about Doctor Zhivago or…

Exactly. All the David Lean movies.

So that’s your positive connotation about The Grabber. In your mind, Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Grabber have a lot in common.

Both wizards.

Did you do this first or Moon Knight?

I did this first.

Okay.

So this was the first villain I’d ever played. I remember while we were doing this, I think is right when I was offered the Marvel movie. And we were talking about it and Scott was really helpful about his experience on Doctor Strange and how he thought I should do that movie. So it was strange. I went right from The Grabber to Harrow. So after not playing villains, I did two back-to-back.

With The Grabber, I was pretty turned off by his actions right away. I’m not signing up for what this guy’s offering…

You’re not going to his convention.

But Harrow, the jury was out there because you don’t know where he’s coming from.

Yeah, exactly.

I mean, literally, because he could just be a kindly doctor.

He really could. And the thing is, he operates more in the old-fashioned sense of the way I used to think about characters, which is that he’s the antagonist, he’s not evil. He’s just the opponent to the protagonist. He’s just in opposition.

Well, it is interesting, so you play The Grabber and you were really doing some soul searching about playing a villain, and then you play a villain immediately next. So you had to have enjoyed playing The Grabber.

Just, I don’t know, it just walked me through a door to different kinds of characters. Then I went immediately into Harrow, and that was fun because so much of The Black Phone is about mystery. And what was fun about the Moon Knight is, oh, you’re never sure in Moon Knight what’s a dream and what’s not a dream. But it was a much bigger canvas to paint on as far as characterization.

A few years ago I was interviewing you and you joked that if you had known there would be so many Purge movies you wouldn’t have let them kill you off in the first one. I’m not sure you’re taking your own advice lately. How will you feel when The Grabber 7 comes out?

As much as I said that, I also love that about movies: a beginning, middle and an end. One story, one thesis statement, one larger metaphor. You can really make something beautiful. I think I said that about The Purge to make you laugh…

I did laugh. It worked.

I don’t mind dying at the end of a movie. I think one thing that’s funny though is, my mother who obviously loves me, whenever I die in a movie, she finds it completely unbelievable.

Well, that’s probably a good thing.

Because she’s my mom. “I didn’t find that believable.” I’m like, “You didn’t find what believable?” “I don’t feel like you would die, honey.”

Has she seen The Black Phone yet?

Mom?

Yes.

Oh, she’ll never see The Black Phone.

So you never have to worry about your mom seeing you as the Grabber.

She went to see Sinister and it took her five years to recover.

I’m curious what you thought about the reaction to Moon Knight. I’m not just saying this because I’m on a Zoom with you, but I loved it because it’s so weird. But when something goes for something different of course there will be people who don’t like that. But it is going for something.

I mean, Oscar and I were really into that.

I can tell. Both of you were looking like you were having the time of your life.

And I wanted to push the whole Marvel thing a little more Kurt Vonnegut, a little more Philip K Dick. To press the weirder elements of it. And if you’re dealing with the main hero, that’s what’s different about that show, is that the hero is suffering from mental illness. So it seemed like it needed a perspective about what is reality. Because the hero has no reality. I found that the most dynamic part of the show. I mean, that’s what that show is about to me. So, I don’t know. I feel really happy that if Oscar and I if, when we started, we wanted to do Marvel thing, we wanted to contribute. You don’t want to just color in the lines where everybody else has colored before. We wanted to try to do something that might be worth your time. If you’re going to do that, you’re going to lose some people. Because it’s a lot different than the rest of the stuff.

I think it accomplished that, of doing something completely different in that universe.

Oh good, good. That’s what we wanted to do.

So, for the record, I’m not on board with the behavior of The Grabber. I just don’t like what he stands for. But I enjoyed watching you play him.

All right. Noted. It’s on the record.

‘The Black Phone’ hits theaters on Friday, June 24th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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