Ethan Hawke and Maya Hawke have a running joke about ‘Wildcat,’ their Flannery O’Connor movie

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Wildcat 2023

This image released by Oscilloscope Laboratories shows writer-director Ethan Hawke, left, and his daughter, actor Maya Hawke, on the set of "Wildcat." (Steve Squall/Oscilloscope Laboratories via AP)

Ethan Hawke and his daughter Maya Hawke have a running joke about their Flannery O’Connor movie.

“Wildcat,” which Ethan directed and Maya stars in as O’Connor, was made with complete sincerity. It’s a deeply creative investigation into the Southern Catholic novelist and short story writer behind “A Good Man is Hard to Find” that dips in and out of both her imagination and her real life.

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O’Connor died at age 39, in 1964, of lupus. She won the National Book Award posthumously, in 1972. Though celebrated for her prose and sharp social satire, in recent years she’s also come under scrutiny for racism in private correspondence and her treatment of race in her works. It was territory that was both thorny and rich with possibility. But the Hawkes can’t help but laugh about it too, imagining the pitch to a major studio or streamer.

Here’s how it might go:

Maya: “We want to make a movie about an unfortunate-looking woman with lupus. She struggles with her faith and has no boyfriends.”

Ethan: “She’s a really brilliant writer but she’s completely unsuccessful.”

Maya: “Also recently her mild success has been has been completely disbarred and people are mostly interested in removing her from the canon these days. What do you think?”

Ethan: “Sounds like the makings of a commercial, hit movie!”

“Wildcat” (in select theaters Friday), if it isn’t evident, was made independently. Both Hawkes drew heavily on friends they’ve worked with over the years to round out the cast. Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Steve Zahn and Vincent D’Onofrio are just several of the names in the big ensemble.

Maya had the idea for a movie around the time she was deciding to commit her life to acting. Despite having two successful actors as parents, including mother Uma Thurman, she’d hesitated primarily because she loved literature so much. If she went to Juilliard, she worried that she’d have to choose. So, in a mild act of rebellion, Maya decided to audition not with a monologue from the theatrical canon, but with one she’d reworked from O’Connor’s “Prayer Journal” with her dad on his breaks while filming “The Magnificent Seven.”

“If I showed them that I was really interested in literature, and if then they still wanted me, then it would probably be a place that would still allow me to explore language and writing and poetry the way that I wanted,” Maya said. “What a rebel.”

Ethan too had read O’Connor early, at the urging of his mother who wanted him to read female authors in addition to Faulkner and Hemingway. They were both interested in this prickly woman who wrote about faith in a way that wasn’t proselytizing, and about race and white Christian hypocrisy as few others did. She was also talented, self-hating and dealing with this illness, which killed her father. She got her diagnosis at 24 and moved back to Milledgeville, Georgia, to live with her mother (portrayed by Linney).

Biopics hold little interest to Ethan, especially, he said “in the age of Wikipedia.” But in agreeing to direct and co-write the film, he thought of films like Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” and Jane Campion’s “An Angel at My Table.” They were about real subjects, Jake LaMotta and Janet Frame, but they didn’t require any preexisting interest in boxing or literature. They were just films about people.

“(‘Wildcat’) is a kind of treatise on imagination, reality and faith and how those three things intersect with each other,” Ethan said. “I’m not trying to do a college lesson on Flannery. We used her life experience as a launching pad for a conversation."

Before getting too deep into the process, they also asked themselves hard questions about making a movie about someone who has said racist things.

“It begged the question: Do we want to make a movie about somebody who said some ugly things at some point? And what would that say about us if we did? And how do you be a good anti-racist?” Ethan said. “One of the things that I came down to is that you just can’t tell a story about America in the past or the present, frankly, without touching on America’s wounds and America’s crimes and America’s sins. One academic said it very beautifully that Flannery O’Connor is a racist in recovery, like our country.”

Maya wondered whether depiction is inherently a celebration or if it can be an observation. She hopes it’s the latter, which she said is a courtesy that’s often extended to films about complicated men but perhaps less so when it’s a female subject.

Something author James McBride said while Ethan was working on “The Good Lord Bird” had also stuck with him.

“He used to say how important it was that you don’t paint racists with horns on their head because people don’t have horns and racism is real,” Ethan said.

And after much research and debate, together they decided to not back down from the conversation or defend her.

“I’m interested in this woman, and I’m interested in all the truths of her life,” he said.

“Wildcat” also inspired Maya's new album, “Chaos Angel” (out May 31). The title and title track came out of a scene she shared with Philip Ettinger where O’Connor is talking about how she used to wrestle with her guardian angel.

“That idea really hit me in my gut,” Maya said. “The way in which we resist our best selves. … As soon as we finished making the movie, I went to record this album.”

Maya is currently 25, the age her father was when he’d just finished “Before Sunrise” and was acting on stage in Chicago in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.” They are close and like-minded, often finishing one another’s sentences. But Hawke laughs that he is slightly envious of Maya's musical talents.

“There’s a part of me that has joked my whole life that all I really am is a failed musician,” he said. “All art aspires to be music. It’s the easiest emotional connection that we can find with each other. So to watch her excel at this art form? I’m a little jealous of her for that.”

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