John Hawkes: ‘I semi-retired at 19. Which I highly recommend’
The End of Sentence star on his punk rock ethos and the road-trip movie that took him to Ireland
Father and son on the road: John Hawkes (Frank) and Logan Lerman (Sean) in End of Sentence
Since the late 1980s, you would have had to work hard to avoid John Hawkes at the movies. He starred alongside Keanu Reeves, Mr T and the Butthole Surfers in Alex Winter’s directorial debut, Freaked. He worked with Quentin Tarantino on From Dusk ’til Dawn and Jackie Chan in Rush Hour. He was part of the SAG nominated ensemble cast of Ridley Scott’s American Gangster and was a grief-stricken informant for Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in Michael Mann’s big-screen 2008 reboot of Miami Vice. He was George Clooney’s lovelorn, ill-fated crewmate in The Perfect Storm.
That part was typical of much of Hawkes’ early career as a character actor. He has jokingly claimed that he’ll call his memoir after his early roles: “I Can’t Find Love and I Always Die.”
And after all those love-shy deaths, in 2010 Hawkes became an overnight sensation and Oscar-nominee for his performance as Jennifer Lawrence’s meth-addicted uncle in Winter’s Bone.
“It did come out of nowhere,” says Hawkes. “I am sure every actor rehearses their Oscar speech at some point. But I was really, really surprised. I felt a combination of so many things. I was very grateful for certain. But I come out of a do-it-yourself punk rock ethos. It was strange to suddenly be accepted in a world I had railed against all of my life. I was a little confused. I wasn’t sure how to handle myself. It felt like a dream. I guess it did change things. People began to see me as an actor who could play bigger parts. That’s always a nice thing.”
Hawkes has never chased mainstream success. It has come looking for him
Hawkes soon parlayed his newfound fame into a series of arresting turns in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Contagion, Lincoln, and The Sessions for which he won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead and was shortlisted for Best Actor by SAG and the Golden Globes among others. He remains independent at heart. He bounced from Identity, James Mangold’s hugely successful 2003 adaptation of the Agatha Christie whodunit And Then There Were None, into Miranda July’s winningly odd Me and You and Everyone We Know.
“I’ve done a few large studio films,” says Hawkes. “But I just like good stories and I usually find them on stage and in smaller projects. I like the blessed ordinary, I guess. I like human stories. I like head-scratching and problem-solving and the mess of life.”
In that spirit, his first gigs after appearing on the red carpet at the Oscars included the goofy, video-shot drugs comedy Everything Will Happen Before You Die and voice work for Eve’s Necklace, a thriller with an all-mannequin cast; post-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, he signed up for The Peanut Butter Falcon and End of Sentence. The latter project brought Hawkes to Ireland.
“I always wanted to go to Ireland so that was a good thing,” says the 61-year-old. “I’m sure I’m not the first or the last person to really fall in love with the place. I do move around a lot, unsurprisingly. But I never spend time somewhere and think: Oh, I could live here. And I really felt like that about Ireland. I could be very happy there. Us Americans are still teenagers besides the old world. We have a lot to learn. There are obvious things about Ireland; the people are friendly; the countryside is beautiful. And there’s a way of life and kind of a feeling that’s hard to put into words. Once Covid begins to lose its grip on us hopefully I’ll be able to come back.”
He laughs: “We also had really good weather. I guess I was lucky there.”
Road trip movie
End of Sentence, a tender-hearted, lightly-comic father-son drama from Icelandic newcomer Elfar Adalsteins, casts Logan Lerman as Sean, an inmate who is released from an Alabama prison to reluctantly embark on a road trip with his mild-mannered father, Frank (Hawkes).
The trip, which takes the mismatched pair from the US deep south to Ireland, is a way to fulfill the dying wish of Sean’s immigrant mother who wanted her ashes scattered in the country of her birth. For Sean, it’s a payday: he only agrees to accompany his father if Frank can give him the airfare and means to get away forever. Inevitably, the road trip springs surprises, not least Jewel (Sarah Bolger), a hitchhiking huckster with an enchanting singing voice.
Hawkes is full of praise for his younger co-stars, especially the Dublin-born Bolger, who scored an early breakthrough in Jim Sheridan’s In America before finding fame in The Spiderwick Chronicles, Once Upon a Time, and Into the Badlands.
“She’s had a long and storied career,” says Hawkes. “You could tell by working with her. That reconstructed pub scene we shot? When she was singing? I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve done a fair few movies. And there are only a few moments as an actor where you feel richly alive from watching someone else work. And that was really something to see. When you sing live in a movie, you’re scoring the film for a few minutes. It’s walking a tightrope. There’s no way of fixing things up later.”
Hawkes was born John Marvin Perkins into a small, Scandinavian community in the US state of Minnesota. His parents grew corn and raised hogs. He wrestled because the nearest boy his own age was the wrestling coach’s son. He quit the sport in high school but swears that wrestling has given him the discipline to be an artist.
“We were far away from the main population centres of the state,” he recalls. “We had a black-and-white television with one channel until I was a teenager. You had to figure out how to entertain yourself. The joke was that I was the child star of the family being the youngest. My folks weren’t getting along really great. A lot of my performance tendancy came out of a need to reduce tension. My oldest brother played guitar so I picked it up. I was nine years his junior and he was my hero. He kind of still is.”
At school, a teacher desperate for “warm bodies” for a drama project cast the youngster in a production of You’re a Nice Guy, Charlie Brown. It was a small role and a transformative experience.
“I was a combination of being pretty shy and then extroverted,” says Hawkes. “So the teacher thought it was something I might enjoy. I had two lines but about a week into the rehearsal process, I could lie in bed and recite the entire play from beginning to end and sing every song. It was very strange. The way it was so deeply in me immediately. I love my family but I felt at home. I didn’t know how to become an actor. I didn’t know how anyone would make money being an actor. So I did it for free for 10 years.”
After school, he made his way to Austin, Texas, where he became a member of the band Meat Joy, with Gretchen Phillips, and a collaborator on any number of can-do theatre and music projects.
“In the 1980s when I was there, it was probably the cheapest city in America,” he says. “There were only 300,000 people there at that point. It wasn’t uncommon for the dishwasher to have a master’s degree or the cab driver to have a PhD. It was so cheap, the people got there and thought, I can’t find a job in my chosen field but this place is so incredibly inexpensive I can just enjoy my life. I semi-retired at 19. Which I highly recommend. I worked 20 hours a week as a waiter and the rest of the time I just started diving in and making art and making music and trying to enjoy every hour of every day. It’s not like that any more. But what a lucky thing to be there when I was there. It was fantastic.”
He continues to make music. A two-man musical, Rodney & John and The Meaning of Life, featuring Hawkes and his longtime collaborator Rodney Eastman, was due to premiere in March 2020 until Covid got in the way.
“There is an adage that says when you’re making a movie the more money there is, the less fun you’ll have, and that less money means more fun,” he says. “I don’t wear punk like a badge. But there’s a lot to be said for that.”
Hawkes has never chased mainstream success, it has come looking for him, regardless. He scored his second Oscar nomination with The Sessions in 2011 and grew a fanbase through the TV shows 24, Eastbound & Down, Lost, and Deadwood. After years of discussion and pre-production, Deadwood: The Movie premiered on HBO in 2019, allowing David Milch’s prematurely axed western series to bow out gracefully.
“I never thought we could get a chance to come back,” says the actor, who played arguably the least evil character in the show. “It was so dear to the heart. They were such a unique group of people. The craft people and the technicians worked at really high levels to make that world believable. It was really thrilling to get back with those people and watch them and David Milch work again.”
End of Sentence is available on digital platforms