Moon Knight’s Ethan Hawke on Cult Leaders: “There’s Almost Nothing More Disgusting Than False Humility”

There is nothing more exciting than talking to an actor who genuinely loves their craft, and Ethan Hawke’s sheer enthusiasm for his latest project is palpable even through Zoom. Dressed in a plaid suit and printed shirt, the blue-eyed actor is all smiles as he greets me in the virtual room, telling me he loves Toronto. He is warm, friendly, and excited to talk about his first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

After 30 years in the industry, the 51-year-old veteran makes his Marvel debut with the Disney+ series, Moon Knight. The series follows Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), a mild-mannered gift-shop employee, who discovers he has dissociative identity disorder and shares a body with mercenary Marc Spector. As Steven/Marc navigate their complex identities, they are chased by enigmatic cult leader Arthur Harrow (Hawke).

Arthur Harrow is a role that Hawke didn’t just look to the comics for inspiration. He clearly relished the opportunity to play this character, sharing that he finds spiritual zealots scary, and that allowed him to explore his role further. Hawke is unapologetically honest as he shares that it’s the false humility of cult leaders and insincere ministers that he dislikes and modelled his character after them.

We spoke with Hawke about the eccentric nature of crafting his character, his foray into the Marvel Universe, and what surprised him after 30 years of making movies. 

Congratulations on your first role in the MCU. I loved seeing you play the villain!

Thanks! I have four kids so I’ve been watching all these movies for what seems like a couple decades now. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to play in the sandbox and now, here I am.

To play the complexity of a cult leader, did you try to find the humanity when playing someone like him?

Oh, that’s my job, right? It’s to find humanity wherever you can. Just because you’re playing somebody that other people perceive as a bad guy — it’s always more nuanced and interesting if you can see that character from that character’s own point of view. I think that he believes he’s a saint. I think he believes he’s saving the world. I think he’s aspiring to be a great person, not just a good person. He’s just doesn’t care what anybody else thinks.

I loved what you recently said in an interview: “When you teach an audience how to see the demon inside you, they can’t unsee it.” How much of this darker side were you willing to explore and let live on in the minds of the audience?

Well, I think when I was saying that I was talking about when I was younger and I was very wary of the trap actors can get into if they start playing bad guys too young because it’s hard for the audience to stop seeing you that way. I think I’m at the point now where I have to try to do something new. So the rules of the game have changed.

Ethan Hawke interview in post
Marvel Studios 2022

You’ve said that as an actor, you have these little boxes you want to check. You love putting yourself in different genres to try to create a larger life’s work. How did Arthur Harrow and Moon Knight accomplish that goal?

Well, that is exactly the way my brain works. This is a different genre, as they call it: the Marvel Universe. I really like Oscar Isaac’s acting. I think he’s a really special performer and has a unique thing he contributes [to the project]. When I met him and talked to him about this, it was obvious that he was going to jump off the high dive. He was going to take a big dare and really go for broke. In general, I find that really fun when people take [risks] because even if it doesn’t work, it’s the right way for something not to work. You never regret those kinds of choices.

I thought it would be fun to play in the sandbox and see what we could do. Could we make an original Marvel world? I loved that it was terrain that hadn’t been covered. With some of the more famous characters, you’re walking a path that others have already walked and there are a lot of expectations about what it should be and shouldn’t be. Most people don’t know Moon Knight and it’s a darker, more mysterious superhero. We had this wonderful Egyptian director, Mohamed Diab. He was bringing his new energy and his new insight. He and Oscar were an exciting team and so I would just play the foil and do my best.

With this being your first experience in the MCU, what surprised you about this world that Disney put together?

I think the biggest surprise was the history of movies always using mental illness to create a villain. This uses mental illness to create a hero. That’s really interesting about how a superpower could be to heal yourself — that’s new terrain for Marvel. That’s actually ripe for character work. I think that Oscar had a chance to create a character that would allow him to give a performance not unlike when Marvel really kicked off with Iron Man — Downey’s character was so three dimensional. Was he a good guy? Was he a bad guy? His personality was so dynamic, and Oscar had a chance here too and I like [projects] like that. So I wanted to be a part of it.

Ethan Hawke interview in post
Marvel Studios 2022

Besides what’s in the script, what did you need to do for yourself to fully transform into Arthur?

Villains live in relationship to the hero, right? I needed to figure out if the hero is going to be unbalanced, I needed a villain that was extremely balanced and needed to be the opposite in some way. That’s a riddle: how do you make sanity malevolent? How you create a balanced, sane villain was mysterious to me and I started building off the idealism of a lot of despots. A lot of the people who’ve done the most damage to the world started out extremely idealistic and the power just gets corrosive and so I just kind of leaned into that aspect.

To fully play out Arthur Harrow, did you need to know his complete backstory and the entire story arc on the show?

I wish I did. I mean, the answer should be yes. But the way these jobs happened, sometimes we had the architecture of the story we were trying to tell when we started, but there was a lot that wasn’t coloured in, and a lot that changed. We had to think on our feet a lot. We were rehearsing every Sunday; we would do read-throughs. We would have brunch with our writers and the directors and talk through what doesn’t make sense because when you break reality the way that his character is breaking reality — Oscar’s character, the Moon Knight, does not understand reality exactly as it is. So you have an unreliable narrator telling the audience the story. But we wanted you to be able to watch it twice and have it make sense and so a lot of the work that we all did came in just basic storytelling ways.

I love that you have the robe, and you have the hair and the cane to add to this character — did that help inform the character?

Yeah, I always find spiritual zealots a little scary. So I saw him as someone who was so sure of his beliefs that he was sure of your beliefs too. Meaning he knew what was right for everyone he met and that’s scary. When you think you know more than everyone around you, you become judge, jury, and executioner. That’s power you don’t want anybody to have.

Ethan Hawke interview in post
Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney — Oscar Isaac, May Calamawy, and Ethan Hawke

Did you look at real life cult leaders or did you prefer to stick to the comics?

Totally, I love looking at real life. I mean, you could say, Fidel Castro was a cult leader of sorts. I started thinking a lot of the Southern ministers that I would see as a young person who have the light of God in their eyes, but are secretly up to no good and you sensed it; you smelled no good on them. But they said all the right things. There’s almost nothing more disgusting than false humility. We’re all like allergic to that or spiritual pride. That’s dangerous terrain to walk and I did completely model it off that.

You’ve often said that for you it’s about finding things that have something new to offer you and to take on a role that makes you feel like a student again. So what did you learn about yourself as an actor or as a person when you took on such a significant role in the Marvel Universe?

That’s a good question. One of the things that really surprised me is that in my 30 years of making movies, usually the higher the budget, the less creative freedom you have. But there’s something amazing about what Marvel’s kind of DNA is — the way they think is you have to cook in their kitchen, but as long as you stay in their kitchen, you have incredible freedom. They really encouraged us to play and have fun and think spontaneously and creatively and that really surprised me. It’s normally when you have huge sets and epic costumes and loads of extras and the best DP in the world, they don’t want to give you any creative freedom because they’re spending too much money for you to have a bad idea, it’s like, ‘Let’s just stick to the plan.’ But Marvel’s loose; they shoot from the hip a little bit. I think that’s why they’re so successful because you’re never exactly sure what they’re going to do next. They trust the creative people they hire.

Episode one of Moon Knight premieres March 30 on Disney+.