Over the course of nearly four decades of acting, Ethan Hawke has done a little bit of everything. One thing he’s never really attempted, however? Playing an unquestionably bad dude. In Scott Derrickson’s “The Black Phone,” Hawke finally goes full villain, taking on the role of “The Grabber,” a prolific kidnapper and murderer who has turned a quiet ’70s-era Denver into his own personal hunting ground.
Based on the Joe Hill short story of the same name, and adapted for the screen by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, the film follows young Finney (newcomer Mason Thames), who is taken by Hawke’s character and must somehow hatch a plan to escape from The Grabber’s (suitably creepy) basement lair. He’s assisted by a mysterious phone, which routinely connects Finney with the voices of The Grabber’s previous victims, all of whom have suffered mightily at the murderer’s hands. Upstairs, the masked madman lurks, plotting increasingly horrifying tricks and tests for his latest victim.
The film also reunites Hawke with the team (including Derrickson, Cargill, and producer Jason Blum) behind the 2012 horror hit “Sinister,” which saw Hawke taking on a different kind of scary role, playing a down-and-out author who moves his family into a haunted house. Despite the apparent affection between Derrickson and Hawke, the filmmaker told IndieWire that he and Cargill never wrote their on-screen Grabber expressly for Hawke, and even tried to talk him out of the role when they approached him with it.
“I didn’t write the script for him, I don’t write roles for particular actors,” Derrickson told IndieWire during a recent interview. But after Derrickson and Cargill completed the script and set up the film with Blum and his Blumhouse Productions, the filmmaker reached out to Hawke to float the idea of his “Sinister” star coming on board as The Grabber.
“I called him up, and I said, ‘I have the next movie I’m going to make, it’s with Jason,’ and Jason and Ethan are very close,” Derrickson said. “I said, ‘It’s the villain, and let me try to talk you out of it already. 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.’ He told me, ‘Look, I don’t really play villains, and it would have to be some real Jack Nicholson and ‘The Shining’ kind of thing for me to do it.’”
Derrickson kept it simple: He asked Hawke to read the script and get back to him. By the next morning, Hawke already had his answer. Moreover, he even seemed to already have the character on lock.
“The next morning I woke up, and there was a voicemail on my phone, and it was Ethan, in the voice of The Grabber reading one of the lines,” the filmmaker said. “And that was it. That was his way of telling me that he was going to do it. It was very exciting.”
So, yes, that gravelly, super-creepy Grabber drawl? That’s all Hawke. It’s also exactly what Derrickson was hoping for when he asked the iconic actor to consider the role.
“I think that one of the main reasons why I wanted to go to Ethan first is that Ethan has one of the most distinctive-sounding voices of any actor,” Derrickson said. “I don’t think that people really take advantage of how unique his voice is. It’s got a very distinctive tone, but not only that, it has incredible range. He can talk in a very high range very naturally, and he can talk in a very low, menacing, growly range very naturally. He made use of that skillset with The Grabber, and I think you really feel it behind a mask. You feel the light, almost vulnerable things he will say and then the really growly, angry things he’ll say and how he shifts between them so easily. It’s very unnerving.”
And while other actors might have balked at a role that requires them to have their faces covered for the vast majority of their screen time, Hawke seemed to delight in it, using his voice and the rest of his body to convey the different facets of The Grabber. While we never learn much of The Grabber’s backstory, one key element about his non-criminal life informs much of the work: He’s a magician.
“I love the idea that he’s a magician, he’s a performer, so there’s a flamboyance to what he does,” Derrickson said with a laugh. “I think it all ties into the personality.”
A Universal Pictures release, “The Black Phone” hits theaters on Friday, June 24.