Arts & Culture

Ethan and Maya Hawke Bring Their Flannery O’Connor Film Home to Atlanta

With a surprise appearance by Maya, the father-daughter team delved into their lifelong fascination with the Georgia literary icon and iconoclast

Photo: Anton Jackson

Ethan and Maya Hawke on stage with moderators Seth Ingram (second from right) and Akshay Bhatia.

“I think if you made an ordinary movie about Flannery O’Connor, you should go to jail.”

Ethan Hawke’s mission statement stirred a round of applause from the audience at Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre on Friday. For the third time in two days, a capacity crowd had gathered at one of the city’s historic cinemas for a screening of Wildcat, enticed by an appearance by the Oscar-nominated actor.

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The event was part of the film’s month-long U.S. press tour, which began on May 3 in New York and features a post-credits conversation with Ethan in a dozen cities. But the Atlanta premiere was always destined to be special. Not only is Flannery O’Connor the literary patron saint of Georgia, Ethan himself lived in Atlanta briefly around 1980. His mother made a living selling college textbooks to area universities at the time, a job that sparked an instant interest in O’Connor’s stories that she passed along to her son.

photo: Anton Jackson
Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre.

The homecoming turned into a family reunion when Ethan’s daughter Maya Hawke, who has spent plenty of time in Atlanta herself during years of production on Stranger Things, made a special appearance at all three events.

Though the film may be credited to Ethan as the director, it wouldn’t have happened without Maya, who earned her first producing credit for Wildcat. She found her own way to O’Connor’s work as a teenager through “A Prayer Journal,” the author’s letters to God that attempted to reconcile her massive creative ambitions with her desire to remain a humble Christian servant. The letters resonated with Maya, who began reading them aloud with Ethan and workshopping a monologue based on the texts.

“I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to play this character since I was fifteen or sixteen years old,” said Maya, who turns twenty-six in July. What she called a “slow journey of curiosity” led to the young actor’s most noteworthy performance to date. Not only does Maya anchor the film by playing the author as she travels home to Milledgeville, Georgia, for convalescence, she (and costar Laura Linney) play several characters from O’Connor’s iconic stories, including “Revelation,” “Good Country People,” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

This shared passion for their subject was on display as Ethan and Maya treated viewers to an hour-long post-screening discussion. The bulk of the conversation delved into the inspiration for and execution of the biopic, which blurs the line between O’Connor’s life and fiction to capture her singular perspective. The father-daughter team also revealed a few ways in which they’ve influenced each other. It was one of Ethan’s pieces of advice that motivated Maya to take on the role: “It’s not how well you know something, it’s how long you’ve known it.”

Maya’s confidence received another boost as soon as she walked onto the stage. Seth Ingram, executive director of Georgia’s Rome International Film Festival, had already presented Ethan with the longstanding but aptly named Flannery O’Connor Award for Storytelling when Wildcat screened there in November. Because Maya was unable to attend the festival, she was presented with an O’Connor Award of her own at the final Atlanta event. 

“I mean, it’s so crazy!” Maya said as she accepted the plaque. “I don’t think I’ve ever received a physical award. Especially not one this heavy. I’m extremely flattered and slightly overwhelmed.”

photo: Anton Jackson
Maya holds her O’Connor Award on stage.

She also received a personal congratulations from legendary director Francis Ford Coppola, who has made a home in the Atlanta area while working on Megalopolis, his latest feature film. Atlanta-based filmmaker and Coppola apprentice Akshay Bhatia, who co-moderated the discussion with Ingram, passed along praise from his mentor: “He wanted me to tell you that he’s incredibly proud of you.”

What would O’Connor herself have thought of the film? The author was known to openly criticize adaptations of her stories—“It could have been worse,” she said of one Gene Kelly vehicle in particular—but Ethan felt sure he did right by her in at least one respect.

“I would much rather make an abstract, weird art piece than make an after-school special,” Ethan said. “I think she would just hurl at anything sentimental.”