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.

“Some people say Austin is God’s apology for the rest of Texas. Now, I didn’t make that up. I really do like a lot of places in Texas aside from Austin. So, don’t quote me. Or if you do quote me, make sure to say I didn’t make that up. Ha ha!”

Message understood.

Success has not polished or softened Hawkes’ alternative credentials. He still looks and sounds as if he’s just walked in from staging alternative street theatre or walloping frets in a hardcore band. Indeed, he spent much of the 1980s playing in an abrasive band called (what else?) Meat Joy. As he explains it, living in Austin really allowed such creativity to flourish. It was, at that point, the cheapest city in the US with a population over 100,000.

“I just got roped into modern dance – then music. That’s how it was. If you told us then that, say, the Butthole Surfers would make money, you’d get laughed at. There were a few thousand people in the US that liked the music. Then it turned into millions. But I didn’t mind. I had a deep desire to avoid the straight world. I knew what I didn’t want to do.”

As he was playing in the band, Hawkes was taking significant roles in local plays and smaller parts in independent movies. He remembers driving 200 miles to Dallas for an audition, saying “anybody want a Coke” and then desperately hoping that he got the “Coke guy” part. Eventually, in 1989, a part in Percy Adlon’s Rosalie Goes Shopping brought him to Los Angeles and he soon secured an agent.

When did he register with a wider public? He certainly attracted attention in the superb (prematurely cancelled) western series Deadwood. He had, however, been working consistently for nearly two decades before that series broke water in 2004. He has, in earlier interviews, laughed about the fact that, once in Hollywood, he was required to play little else but madmen, villains and sleaze-balls. Yet he seems like such a nice fellow.

“It’s weird. I know,” he says. “I played regular parts in Austin. As soon as I moved out, I found myself just playing psychos. What does that say about Texas? As soon as I moved away, I was just playing crazy people.”

Happily, directors have, of late, allowed him to exercise the more sane corners of his psyche. Next week, he turns up as Colonel Robert Latham in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Before then, we can enjoy his superb performance in Ben Lewin’s The Sessions. The picture follows the hero, a polio survivor who must use an iron lung, as he recruits a professional sexual surrogate to ease him into the ways of the flesh. It’s an uneasy, often queasily comic business. Helen Hunt offers a brave performance as the sexual educator. Hawkes is faced with the challenge of emoting with his face alone.

“I had never done that before. You’re right. It is a challenge,” he says. “There’s a Todd Haynes film called Superstar about Karen Carpenter that just uses Barbie dolls. I remember watching it and, first, laughing and then being really moved. If you can be moved by Barbie dolls, then you can be moved by a static person.”

In order to keep his body in the right position, Hawkes inserted a football-sized object beneath his lower back. He insisted that he would only move is head within a 90-degree angle. All this is impressive. But one nagging question does, in such circumstances, always announce itself.

“When I read the script, I immediately wrote on the frontispiece: ‘Why not a disabled actor?’ I didn’t realise until that night when we met that Ben, the director, was a polio survivor and disabled himself. He said it was something he’d thought about.”

Lewin eventually convinced Hawkes to set aside his worries.

“We have shown it to disabled groups. I raised this question and a few disabled actors came up and said: ‘Get over it.’ They warned me that there were going to be militants who are upset. They said: ‘Fuck them. Stop apologising. Hopefully, this will encourage more discussion about disabled people and sex.’”

One feels like a bit of a fogey asking about sex scenes. We’re all supposed to be utterly relaxed about such things. The titular sessions in Lewin’s film are, however, quite unlike any sex sequence you’ve seen before. Hunt’s character is asked to be both clinical and sensitive. The couple spend a long time without their clothes, but there is no pounding music, no seductive lighting, no clutching of sheets.

“Yeah, and no rose petals. No rolling. We kept wondering why they are always rolling in those scenes,” he laughs. “Those sex scenes are never like the way it was on set. Except in this film. It’s always unwieldy and awkward. Even if you were doing it with your wife, it would be peculiar. You have a guy with a boom and all this crew. But we actually embraced that in our situation. It was meant to be uncomfortable.”

The Sessions attracted much applause at the Sundance Film Festival and ended up picking up the audience award. Given that both Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene also triumphed at the Utah event, Hawkes is in danger of becoming their official mascot. The Sessions also brought him nominations at the Golden Globes Screen Actors Guild and a dozen other prestigious bodies. To many observers’ surprise, the Oscars did not oblige. One imagines that Hawkes is, however, reasonably comfortable with that snub. He genuinely doesn’t seem to want any more attention.

“The attention is a double-edged sword,” he says, returning to his theme. “I’m not that excited about being known. I don’t like being the centre of attention unless I’m on stage.”

I think you’re stuck with it, Johnny.

The Sessions is out now

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