Ethan Hawke directs daughter Maya in Flannery O’Connor film ‘Wildcat’
When actor Ethan Hawke lived briefly in Atlanta, Ga., as a child in the late 1970s, he recalled his mother embracing the Georgia gothic author Flannery O’Connor, who died of lupus in 1965 at age 39.
“I grew up in a house that kind of worshipped her as one of the lions of Southern fiction,” said Hawke in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
More than three decades later, his daughter, actress Maya Hawke, fell in love with Savannah-born O’Connor herself in high school. “It became a meeting point for us,” he said. They both found O’Connor’s exploration of the shifting South in the 1950s and 1960s intriguing and achingly personal.
Maya, now 25 and known as sassy Robin in Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” which is shot in metro Atlanta, was able to persuade her dad to co-write a script and direct a movie about O’Connor. The final result, dubbed “Wildcat,” is an unusual blend of O’Connor’s real life and depictions of several of her short stories. Maya plays O’Connor as well as a few of her story characters. Emmy-winning actress Laura Linney plays O’Connor’s mom, Regina, and key short story roles as well.
Given that O’Connor spent much of her life in Georgia, it would have made sense for the movie to be shot in the state. But Hawke said he had trouble finding quality crew in Georgia willing to get paid modestly for an independent film like this.
“I would have loved to have shot in Georgia,” Hawke said. “Nothing would have made me happier. But the tax credit is harder to get than you think. And crew in Georgia are used to higher paying jobs. They all seemed to be doing Marvel movies.”
One of the people who has control of O’Connor’s estate lives in Kentucky so Hawke checked the state out, found good locations and enough crew to make the movie earlier this year.
The Hawkes didn’t want to create a traditional biopic. Instead, “Wildcat” is what Hawke calls “an intersection of faith, imagination and creativity.”
The movie starts in 1950 when O’Connor has to move back to Milledgeville, where her family moved when she was in her teens after a brief time in Atlanta. She’s forced to leave New York City and live with her mom on a farm when she comes down with lupus. The film weaves her life with those of her characters in short stories such as “Good Country People,” “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” O’Connor battles her own health issues, her Catholicism in a town full of Baptists and the expectations of the people around her.
Her stories don’t necessarily please the small-town denizens of Milledgeville and one woman chortles over the Mammy character in “Gone With the Wind” while O’Connor rolls her eyes. “Everybody expected Flannery to be like Margaret Mitchell but her writing and approach to characters were nothing like Mitchell,” Hawke said.
Hawke was thrilled to get Linney to join the film. Hawke and Linney first worked together on Broadway in 1992. “I’ve known her my whole adult working life,” Hawke said. “I admire her tremendously. She knows Flannery’s work and has a deep understanding of these people and who they are. This world seemed right up her alley. I also wanted Maya to experience working with her and see excellence up close.”
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