SPOILER ALERT: Do not read unless you’ve watched the series premiere of Marvel Studios’ “Moon Knight,” now streaming on Disney Plus.
“Moon Knight,” the latest entry in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is as much a story about the gods of Egypt as it is about superheroes. Fitting then to cast Ethan Hawke — a god of the independent film variety — to play the comic-book series’ antagonist, Dr. Arthur Harrow.
While Hawke’s career spans more than 35 years (and with four Oscar nominations to boot), the actor, writer, director and producer has spent most of that screen time in projects better known for their meaty monologues than their otherworldly mythology. Save for a few sci-fi movies (“Gattaca,” “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”) and period epics (“The Magnificent Seven”) — not to mention modern takes on “Great Expectations” and “Hamlet” — “Moon Knight” marks Hawke’s first time playing in a sandbox of this particular grain.
But as Arthur faces off against Oscar Isaac’s British museum gift shop worker Steven Grant (and his other identity, the ex-mercenary turned vigilante Marc Spector), it’s immediately clear why Isaac pitched Hawke the role in a Brooklyn coffee shop: he commits.
So much so that the character’s introductory scene — where Arthur smashes his cane onto a water glass and puts the shards into his sandals — was Hawke’s idea. It’s an unsettling start to the series that takes audiences into the mindset of this “half-monk, half-doctor” character, and he wears it well. Almost too well…
“No need to be terrified. I’m not a super-villain, I just play one on TV,” Hawke quipped in an interview with variety as part of “Moon Knight’s” virtual junket where he and Isaac disclosed the methods behind their transformations and weighed in on Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.
Hawke explained that he was immediately intrigued by the opportunity to play opposite Isaac, but it was his conversations with the actor, executive producer and director Mohamed Diab (who helmed episodes 101, 103, 105 and 106) and Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige that locked him in for the part. “It was obvious they wanted us all to set sail together and create something,” Hawke said.
Read on as Hawke explains how, and why, he slipped into Arthur’s psyche.
You took this role without reading the script — what was it about Arthur that made you want to say yes?
Mostly it was just that it was a new legend, a new superhero. I love that it wasn’t a well-worn path that we had to re-conceive. It was something I knew nothing about. So I’d be able to create a new character and play in this sandbox, in this arena, and make something new. That’s a turn on for me.
In some ways, it’s kind of like an indie because you are setting off on a new trail, but it’s just an indie with the biggest budget ever.
Yeah, exactly. It’s an indie that can afford to build pyramids.
What surprised you most about stepping into that Marvel world?
Every other experience I’ve ever had in film is generally that the more money they have, the more fearful the producing staff is. They really want you to do this cookie-cutter thing, do what we paid you to do, don’t have any ideas.
Marvel clearly has a good relationship with actors. The metaphor I like to use is, you have to cook in their kitchen and use their ingredients, but once you’re in the kitchen, and with their groceries, you can do whatever you want. So that was kind of fun.
I was impressed. They have tremendous confidence. A lot of people who are really successful, get brittle and arrogant. And wonderful people get confident, and they believe in others and instead of having power over people, they empower people. They really empowered Oscar, Mohamed, myself, May, other people working on the show to try to have a good time and try to make something that we cared about. Because they basically bet that if we liked it then other people would like it.
You’ve mentioned that Oscar kind of cornered you in the coffee shop and asked you to join him on this adventure. You’ve done big budget movies before, but he’d also done “Star Wars” and “X-Men.” Was there anyone other than him that you turned to to ask what working with Marvel would really be like?
I did a film years ago called “Sinister” directed by Scott Derrickson, who also directed “Doctor Strange” and I talked to him at length about the experience. He was very passionate that I was going to have a good time. He basically was like, “If you give them energy, you will have a good time,” meaning, “You will get out what you put into this.”
I called Mark Ruffalo [who’s played Dr. Bruce Banner/the Hulk since 2012’s “The Avengers”], and he said the same exact thing: “The people who have a bad time are people that don’t want to play; if you’re willing to play, they’re gonna let you play.” Vincent D’Onofrio, who played Fisk in “Daredevil,” said the same exact thing. [Marvel] really let him create a really crazy unforgettable character that he didn’t think other people would even let him do.
Since you hadn’t read the script, how did you learn about the rather “crunchy” way that we’re introduced to Arthur?
That [scene] really sprang out of my imagination and our conversations. When you read a comic book, some of the pages have eight drawings, some of them have 16, some have four, and then every now and then, they’ll give like the villain one full-page drawing. I kept asking the writers and directors, if it was a comic book, what would his full-page drawing be? And they were like, “What do you think it was?” I started really meditating on that, and I started thinking about spiritual people who go crazy, who get mad on their own spiritual pride, and how often that turns inward and you see that they’re secretly self-lacerating in some way and hating themselves . Because we all have sin, and the idea that somebody is free of sin is not really possible if you’re human. And so with the self-hatred and the turning inward, I had this image of him listening to a hymn while he put broken glass in his shoes, that he hid from other people.
I knew he had a cane and I kept saying, “Wait, I have a cane. Do I have a limp?” They’re like, “No, you don’t have limp.” And I thought, “Ahh, I know why he has a cane.” So I told them this idea. And this is what I mean about what was so surprising about Marvel: They’re like, “Let’s shoot that. That’s a great idea. Let’s open the show with that.” I’m like, “Okay, well, I guess these guys do want to play.”
They wanted to go all the way there. They wanted you to know exactly what kind of show you’re signing up for. So, what was in the sandals?
It’s just candy glass — it turns to sand pretty quick, so my feet are okay.
You could just imagine it.
I didn’t go full Daniel Day-Lewis and cut the bottom of my feet.
You’ve cited Carl Jung and David Koresh as inspirations for this. What did that research look like? Or was it more the vibe that you were going for?
With Carl Jung I really dove in, because I was watching Oscar take the mental illness aspect of his character really seriously. He was constantly reading about it and talking about it, so I was learning about it from him and about how much it kind of fit in the landscape of a superhero movie.
Because the disorder speaks to you a lot in dream language, and in metaphor, and you take on these archetype personalities and that in that their dream life is some of the most sane space, because it’s a united space. I started thinking, “Carl Jung used to always write a lot about dreams.” I didn’t know much about Carl Jung, so I started reading all about him and I started finding a lot of his most famous quotes really spoke to the language of this piece, and I started riffing on this combination of half-monk, half -doctor. That was where my brain took me.