Sign up for newsletter >>
Ethan Hawke’s Good Country People

Ethan Hawke’s Good Country People

Hollywood’s most versatile artist brings his Flannery O’Connor movie to Nashville

“The goal of my life is to sit up under things,” Ethan Hawke told a packed audience during a screening of Wildcat at the Belcourt on Wednesday. Hawke was riffing on the Flannery O’Connor quote that inspired his new film about the life and work of the mythic Southern writer, a line that has also served as an unofficial mantra throughout his career. 

Now firmly in his sixth decade, Hawke has become a Hollywood figure who has cannily navigated industry trends to not only maintain relevance, but make projects on his own terms. Hawke’s deep dive into the work of O’Connor for his third film as a director may seem a bit left field. But, Hawke has never been particularly concerned with breaking away from his status as a Son of the South for the sake of Hollywood stardom.

In fact, that upbringing has informed his approach to work and life. “I thought Flannery O’Connor was up there with Abraham Lincoln,” Hawke said while discussing his mother’s love of the author and the pilgrimages she took to O’Connor’s house in Milledgeville, GA, where the author wrote most of her acclaimed fiction.

Originally from Austin, TX, Hawke lived much of his childhood in the South before his film debut at 14 in the teen space fantasy Explorers. For most actors, the transition from child star to adulthood can be daunting, but Hawke managed to break through by remaining discerning about his roles even at a young age. Such may explain why he has worked consistently while embarking on several waves of resurgence like the one he is on now. “The world is an extremely unreliable critic,” he said.

For Hawke, the battle between cultivating an artistic voice and the demands of the market was one of the reasons his childhood love of O’Connor remained consistent into adulthood. “She was always at war with herself. She had this dedication to excellence.” 

Known for her midcentury Gothic stories about the South in the waning days of Jim Crow such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and Wiseblood, O’Connor spent most of her life torn between the region that shaped her and her greater ambitions. She was one of the most lauded early graduates of the now hallowed Iowa Writers’ Workshop whose New York aspirations were thwarted by the early onset of lupus, a disease she succumbed to at 39 that also killed her father. She was a dedicated Catholic who struggled to reconcile her desire for acclaim with her version of sacrificial Christianity, a conflict she discusses at length in her now published Prayer Journal

Though Hawke often exudes a critical Gex X distance, he has long been interested in the connections between faith and art. “Can human creativity be an act of worship?” Hawke asked the audience at the Belcourt–a question that has for too long been absent from America’s arthouse theaters.

It was this lifelong obsession with the spiritual that Hawke’s daughter, Maya, used to convince him to direct her in Wildcat when she purchased the rights to O’Connor’s work. A lifelong superfan thanks to her father, Maya wanted to undertake the role of O’Connor in a project that would successfully translate the author’s work to film. “She [O’Connor] was so gifted and brilliant, but could be so insecure,” Hawke said. “That really helped Maya with the sudden fame from Stranger Things.” 

With their mutual adoration of O’Connor, the Hawkes embarked on the project with the mission of doing justice to the author's artistry and her complicated depictions of the South. Thanks to years of high school English textbooks and college lit survey courses, those familiar with O’Connor often perceive her as the carnivalesque chronicler of a region filled with misfits and social maladroits. But, as the film makes clear, O’Connor saw herself less as a detached social critic than a native imbued with the South’s complicated legacy. 

As a film, Wildcat seems far more concerned with reflecting O’Connor’s worldview than conforming to the conventions of the Oscar bait biopic. Hawke plays O’Connor during her post-grad years as she navigates preserving her artistic voice with the demands of the publishing industry and her traditional Southern mother (Laura Linney). However, the Hawkes made the decision to interweave vignettes from O’Connor’s fiction into the narrative with Hawke and Linney playing multiple characters with a stacked cast featuring everyone from Steve Zahn to Licorice Pizza’s Cooper Hoffman. The result refuses to allow Hawke or O’Connor to step outside the milieu. All are implicated in these narrative worlds.

Throughout his career, Hawke has shown an adeptness for avoiding simplistic politics. An offhand comment during an election year aside, he’s not the type of celebrity to opine on social media about the issue du jour (or the type to use social media in anything more than a perfunctory manner). Such makes him the perfect director for grappling with O’Connor, whose legacy has come under fire in the post-Floyd years with a spate of articles interrogating her racism that remain firmly in place near the top of Google search results for her name. When Hawke was asked this inevitable question, his response was refreshingly measured. “People who view her that way aren’t really upset with her. They are upset with America.”

Rather than choose to avoid a figure saddled with such one-dimensional baggage, Hawke chose to will Wildcat into existence because it’s a passion project in a career of them, just like his last film as a director: a biopic of the Southern Americana musician Blaze Foley. That film saw Hawke make his first visit to the Belcourt for a special screening back in 2018. This time, he pulled triple duty on a hazardous Wednesday as those braving the weather to see Wildcat filled multiple auditoriums. But this type of thing is what Hawke lives for. “You just kind of have to do it,” he said. 

Wildcat is now playing at The Belcourt.