A new horror film called The Black Phone finds Ethan Hawke playing a truly evil villain for the first time. We spoke to the film’s co-writer, C. Robert Cargill, to find out how that character – nicknamed The Grabber – came to life on the page, as well as how Hawke brought him to life onscreen.
Adapted from the Joe Hill story of the same name, The Black Phone is directed by Scott Derrickson, who co-wrote the script with his longtime collaborator C. Robert Cargill. The film’s official synopsis is as follows…
“Finney Shaw, a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, is abducted by a sadistic killer and trapped in a soundproof basement where screaming is of little use. When a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring, Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims. And they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney.”
That sadistic killer is played by Ethan Hawke, an actor who the filmmakers previously collaborated with on Sinister, but has actively avoided playing villains in the past. We spoke to Cargill to find out how they persuaded him to play a character destined to become a horror icon.
Casting Ethan Hawke in The Black Phone
First up, we asked Cargill how he and Derrickson persuaded Hawke to break his villain rule. Cargill explains…
“Scott and I try to write from a character perspective and then find the right actor afterwards. We didn’t talk about who we wanted in the role until we were serious about making the movie. Then of course Ethan was a no-brainer. We just didn’t think we’d get him because it’s such a complicated role, and up until this point, Ethan had never played a villain, and was against playing villains.
“It was like: ‘Well, we can take a wild swing at Ethan.’ Ethan had said many times he’d love to work with us again, and we’d love to work with him again. Then he was like: ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ He read the script and really loved it.
“He talked to us about it on the first day. He said that he wasn’t going to do villains and he has his reasons for that and he’s talked about that extensively during interviews so I won’t try to put words in his mouth. But when he sat down and read the script he goes: ‘The script’s really good. I trust these guys, and they didn’t lead me astray last time when I made a type of film I’ve never made before, so let me try it again.’
“People are saying he’s doing villains now because he did this and he did it in Marvel [Hawke recently played Arthur Harrow in Moon Knight] but now he’s talking about the fact that that character isn’t technically a villain because he believes that he’s doing the right thing. So this is really his only villain so far.”
How Ethan Hawke brought ‘The Grabber’ to life
We then asked Cargill what Hawke brought to the role of the masked villain…
“Everything. What he told us was that he had done Greek tragedy in college so he had performed with a mask over his face before, and this is muscle memory going back to that. So be brought all this big theatricality to The Grabber. And really brought this great voice work that really has a range of emotion to it.
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“We had a long discussion about the nature of The Grabber. Here’s a character that is clearly a pedophile, that is vile, and how would he talk to this kid who he has clearly imprisoned for nefarious purposes. Ethan went back-and-forth, between almost trying to seduce the kid in a way, to this evil terrifying gravelly horror voice. The way he would go back-and-forth at the drop of a hat during these performances was just stunning.
“Watching it in person – me and Scott jokingly refer to him as two-take Hawke. You only need two takes with the guy. You get his warm-up take, which is good, then you get the take you’re going to use, and after that you get one for safety, and that’s what shooting with Ethan is like. He was always nailing it every time, and it was just phenomenal to watch.”
The Black Phone hits UK screens on June 22, and US cinemas on June 24.