Caught in the act
A star turn in the acclaimed Winter’s Bone made John Hawkes one of Hollywood’s major stars, but after decades of stalwart work on the indie fringe, mainstream success is proving to be a bit of “a double-edged sword,” he tells DONALD CLARKE
YOU SHOULD, by now, have some idea what John Hawkes looks like. A thin, battered actor with pinched features – the kind who used to play drunken weasels in classical westerns – Hawkes has stolen scenes in two recent independent pictures. He was the slippery cult leader in the superb Martha Marcy May Marlene. He played the protagonist’s dodgy uncle in the greasy Winter’s Bone. This week, you can see his heavily lauded performance as Mark O’Brien, a quadriplegic poet hoping to lose his virginity, in the touching, unsettling drama The Sessions.
Hawkes should be happy. Now 53, he spent decades fighting his way through supporting roles without achieving name recognition. With an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone – and countless other nods for Martha and The Sessions – he now registers as one of the business’s most sought-after character performers.
“That changes every day. You feel more visible. More people know you. There’s a good side to that: people know your work,” he says. “There’s also a bad side: they start to know you and that makes you less effective as an actor.”
Really? Is that really so?
“Are you kidding me?” he says in a voice tinged with disbelief. “If I am in a crowd of people and feel invisible – like I do today – I can observe behaviour and report it back in the characters I play. If I am the centre of attention in the same group of people, then I can’t have a normal experience. I can’t observe people if they have a preconceived impression of me.”
Doesn’t this put all celebrity actors in a tricky position?
“Look, if you watch Winter’s Bone and you don’t know me, it’s very different to seeing me as an actor for the first time. There are a lot of wonderful movie stars. But often I don’t believe them, because I know too much about them. I’ll think: ‘oh, that movie star is doing a good job of pretending to be a journalist’.”
So, on balance, John Hawkes might prefer you to move rapidly away from this article and maintain your happy ignorance about his life and habits.
Those still reading will be interested to learn that he was born and raised in Minnesota, but spent most of his formative years in Texas. Christened John Marvin Perkins, he made the journey to Austin when he was 18 and set about working with his brother as a carpenter. These were the post-punk years and Austin was beginning to secure its reputation as the most Bohemian city in the Lone Star State.
“It is. Um. Yeah, I was going to say something else rude . . .”.
Oh go on. Do.