Scott Derrickson was almost certain that Ethan Hawke would never agree to star in his horror movie “The Black Phone.” But after getting Hawke on board, Derrickson said he now feels Hawke’s chilling, complex and sadistic performance in the film is one part of an ongoing transformation for the actor and a new peak for his career.
In fact, he likened it to the “McConaissance,” the so-called career transformation in the early 2010s during which Matthew McConaughey went from a rom-com star to a sensational, Oscar-winning actor and beyond.
“I think Ethan is reaching one of those career pinnacle moments, like what we saw with Matthew McConaughey during his so-called McConaissance, where it was like ‘What happened to Matthew McConaughey? When did he become Daniel Day-Lewis,” Derrickson told TheWrap. “I think Ethan’s kind of having one of those moments right now where he’s really playing above the rim. He’s taking risky roles and doing things that are so daring and unique and different than what he’s done in the past, and I admire him a lot for that.”
After reading the script for “The Black Phone,” Derrickson says Hawke was upfront with him that he simply doesn’t play many villains, let alone a masked serial killer whose face we barely see. But in the last few years alone, Hawke’s toyed with more complex, darker characters, including the baddie in Marvel’s “Moon Knight” series, a Norse king in “The Northman,” playing Nikola Tesla, an Old West abolitionist in “The Good Lord Bird” and most notably, as a stoic and tortured minister in 2017’s “First Reformed.”
“When I called him I said, ‘You’re not gonna want to do this; he’s a child killer,'” Derrickson said. “I think he was ready for some risk.”
But Derrickson also feels that mask was key to Hawke unlocking a new side to his performance as The Grabber, a man who in the ’70s abducts a string of children and keeps them barricaded in a basement for days or weeks up until he finally takes their lives. In the script for “The Black Phone,” The Grabber merely wears one of two devil masks, one that’s smiling or another that’s frowning. But in the finished product, he alternates between three versions of the same mask, wearing different pieces of it that can reflect whatever impression he wants on his victims.
It not only allowed Derrickson to play with more of Hawke’s face, but gave Hawke a “Eureka moment” that he could allow the mask to do some of the scarier heavy-lifting.
“I thought, is there a way to evolve this, to do something new with it, and at some point, try to create an iconic horror mask that we haven’t seen before,” Derrickson said, referencing the history of masks worn by “Halloween’s” Michael Myers, “Friday the 13th’s” Jason or “Scream’s” Ghostface.
He continued: “That allowed him, I think, to be more peculiar and unconventional and even vulnerable in the way he would present himself. Because it’s always scary as long as the mask is on, and the more he would do complex, unusual, unexpected things, in both his specific phrasing and in the tone with which he would deliver his lines, the more unnerving it became.”
“The Black Phone” opens in theaters on Friday. Read more from Scott Derrickson’s interview with TheWrap here.