Born and raised in smalltown Minnesota, John Hawkes took his time getting to the big screen, but eventually won wide acclaim for his work playing Old West merchant Sol Star on the HBO series Deadwood and the slippery Teardrop in the film Winter's Bone, among other roles. Besides playing Kenny Powers' brother Dustin on HBO's Eastbound and Down, Hawkes logged prominent roles in The Perfect Storm, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miami Vice, American Gangster, Miracle at St. Anna, and last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene and Contagion. This year, Hawkes turns up in two high-profile awards contenders: Lincoln , directed by Steven Spielberg, and The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin, and co-starring Helen Hunt and William H. Macy. I spoke to Hawkes at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where I opened our discussion on a note of gratitude and sympathy—given the actor's bulk of press for the film.
John Hawkes: That's okay. As much as I want to maintain the lowest possible profile, for many reasons—beyond the selfish, that I like to move about freely in the world; I'm a private, shy person often—it's just the idea that I want to be effective as an actor. If I'm the center of attention in any group of people, somehow, then I can't observe human behavior, which is my job, to observe and interpret that. And it makes me nervous. And also the idea that when people know too much about you and make associations, you're less believable in a role. So, that said, I'm happy you're here, because I love this movie, and I want people to see it. So this all helps, and I thank you.
Groucho: I'm always fascinated by process, and some actors can be shy about talking about process, but can you talk a little bit about the various fronts you approached this character from, in terms of the physicality and having to retrain [your] body? I suppose you had to do your own "body awareness exercises..."
John Hawkes: I suppose I sort of did, yes! Yes.
Groucho: ...and then also...psychologically.
JH: Sure, the inner and the outer life of the character. I think this one might've been outside-in. There were so many tools at my disposal, and I was lucky to have, I think, seven or eight weeks to get ready for this one; it's rare for me. Generally, things come together last minute, and you're hustling to try to catch up. Although, I must say that I've worked—I love the preparation for a part, and even though it had that time, I was still learning and figuring out more as we shot. It was an endless swell. Physically, um (pause): let's start there. Jessica Yu's beautiful and brilliant short film called "Breathing Lessons," based on Mark's life, was the greatest tool that I could wish for. As much as it scared me to watch it, to realize that once I'd seen that film that everything would change, it made for a much richer interpretation of Mark than I could have done without the film. There was Mark, interviewed: his essence, his sense of humor, his attitude, his physical form—his twisted, ravaged, polio body—and his literal speaking voice. I love detail and specificity as an actor. I feel, for any storyteller, anyone making any piece of art, the more specific you can be, and the more truthful detail you can imbue into what you're doing, the more universal your story becomes, oddly. And the second half of the value of that film for me was that I want to do honor to Mark's memory; there's certainly some extra weight of responsibility when you're portraying a non-fictional character. Mark left us in 1999, but he's got many survivors who loved him, and through Jessica's film, I hoped to be able to capture his voice and his physical being so that somehow, when they saw the film, they would recognize their friend or relative in what I'd done.
G: And you had success with that.
JH: I hope so. You know, you can't do—it's a narrative film. To do an exact kind of rip-off of every facet of Mark wouldn't be valuable.
G: But recognition of his spirit was acknowledged by those who loved him...
JH: I hope so.
G: According to the press notes.
JH: I hope so. I think so; they seem to have blessed us before and after, and continue to help us promote the film, which is a good sign, that they felt we did well enough that they want to continue to be part of it. None of us are getting paid for this; this is all from love, as was making the film: it was a very low-budget film.
G: And then working with your mouth must've been—
JH: Sure. I learned to type, to make phone calls, and to turn the pages of a book with the crudely constructed mouth-stick that I made for myself to rehearse with at home. I needed to make the physical side of Mark second nature, so I wasn't thinking about it and judging what I was doing while I was working, which is the worst thing that can happen to you. I wanted that stuff to be something I just didn't think about.
G: As he would be used to the pain—
G: For example—
G: You would not want to be experiencing that for the first time while filming.
JH: Yes, and in fact, it's mentioned a couple of times in the script, in our film, that Mark's spine is horribly curved. Well, you can't disregard that as an actor. And I didn't want to. I conceived of and helped design a soccer-ball-sized piece of foam that we wrapped duct tape around and I placed under the left side of my back throughout filming. There's no body double, no prosthetics, no CGI, no makeup of any kind, face or otherwise. I just wanted to be a human being. So once I could get that out of the way, I could do what I always do when I play a character, which is overprepare, and then forget all of that and just be present with the other actor when the director calls "Action," just be available to whatever's going to happen in the scene. On the non-physical side, the inner side of Mark, there was so much: there was interviewing Cheryl Cohen-Greene and Susan Fernbach and Jessica Yu. To sit down with these women and talk about Mark was hugely illuminating. There was all of Mark's writing: his articles, there's a journal that's his, his essays, and in particular his poetry, which I think is really what turned his crank. Poetry was a way inside and outside of himself, on some level—a way to relate to the world. And there were the basic storytelling ideas of "don't play the ending," "fight self-pity," "find the humor": all these things were things that I worked toward. But I have no formal training as an actor, but have just kind of developed my own way of working. And, in the end, Mark was exactly like—the preparation was similar to any character I would play, and I would, in fact, forget that I was horizontal while I was working, and felt like a human being, which I think is one of the theses of the film.
G: Right. Exactly, yeah. I'm interested in—it's such an important part of the film...his self-image issues and him learning to feel that he's someone who deserves love and deserves sex.
G: I'm curious about maybe the disparity in his own self-image as it comes across in his writing, having read all of that writing, and how he was described by those women who knew him.
JH: I'm sorry—so the question is—?
G: What kind of an outside perspective did you get from them
G: That you couldn't get from his writing.
JH: Well, when you are playing a character who has left diary entries practically, for lack of a better term, in very explicit detail, you have a wonderfully specific view of what's going on when you speak to people who knew him. And you speak to Cheryl Cohen-Greene, who was in the room with him, describing scenes that are in our script. It's just another perspective, really. Mark's autobiography, How I Became a Human Being, and his kind of reportage of his inner life was so specific that there wasn't a lot more to learn. It was just interesting to have another angle on it, I think—another person's perspective on what was going on; that was illuminating as well.
G: Do you think his concern of maybe being undeserving of love—which I think, like you were saying before: the specific being universal—a lot of people can relate to that.
JH: I think almost all of us.
JH: Yeah. In our soul's darkest hour, if nothing else. Sure.
G: To what degree, I guess, do you think that's tied up in his Catholic guilt?
JH: Oh, that's probably part of it, certainly, certainly. But I love the collision and, indeed, alliance of religion and sexuality in this movie. I think that Mark's faith was a very positive thing, even though it made him question his journey, in this movie. I think it worked to his advantage to have a confessor, to have someone that he could pour his heart out to, and the fact that it's a Catholic priest in a confessional, and Mark speaking about very frank sexual issues, there's humor there. It's truthful humor; we tried not to go for cheap laughs. I think that there's a broad range of humor in the film, but I think that it all comes from truth, ultimately. Even those laughs that make the whole theater quake. At our best screenings, I think that again, it all comes from truth, and that's what interests me the most.
G: Talking about the humor there, I think his sense of humor is so important to his personality and also so interesting: there's a kind of aggression to it—
JH: Certainly. I hope so.
G: But in a satirical sense. In a sense that, oftentimes, that edge is to get a rise out of people to make them realize how they're treating him.
JH: Right, or even, in the most positive way, to break the ice, to let them know that he's aware of his physical form. I think it's almost a gift to give to people to say, "You can relax around me," a bit. "It's cool. If you're not going to be an asshole, then I think we could hang out. We could talk and we could discuss things. 'Cause, though I'm horizontal, I'm a person, too." And he says, in Jessica Yu's film, you know, (in Mark O'Brien voice:) "I'm just a body; I'm fucked!" You know? And so I think that he needed to think beyond that in order to find self, and to find a way to live.
G: Right. So you talked about having weeks of preparation out before the film—
G: Which is great. I'm curious about rehearsal. Did you have much rehearsal time? Were there certain things you agreed upon not to rehearse in order to keep the spontaneity, like the sessions themselves?
JH: Yeah, you're going definitely through the right door there. There was—I work however any actor wants to work; I have no formal training, as I said. But I'm adaptable. In this case, it was more what you'd, I guess, call "script conferences." Mr. Macy had Ben and I up to his house for lunch one day, and we spoke through the scenes. And Helen and I, who didn't meet ever before the—we didn't know each other before we were cast for the film—our relationship wasn't icy, but it just wasn't—there was—we were trying to, I think, without either of us saying it, keep a real distance for the work ahead. So when we would sit down with Ben, we'd sit on either side of him and do what actors and directors often do, which is to say, y'know, "Should that word change?" "What's important for this scene?" "Couldn't this line disappear completely? It's already implied." But it was never really her and I talking together about what we wanted to do or accomplish. All this was just because, in an independent film, there's not time to have that hour each day to talk through things. We tried to make some of our decisions, or at least ask the right questions and solve them when we were on our own, perhaps. Helen and I were given the amazing gift by Ben Lewin of shooting the intimate, surrogate scenes in chronological order. And, I think, knowing that, we definitely wanted to maintain an uncomfortable kind of distance. Something film does that other media does not is capture moments between actors for the very first time. And I think it's a very exciting thing for the actors and the audience. It really is unfortunate when you're rehearsing and you find some really amazing moment, and it wasn't captured on camera. You're an actor in a play, [and] you find those moments, you recreate them each night before the audience to tell the story. But film, you want those things to just happen. So the very first session between Helen and I is rife with moments that are happening for the first time, surprising to both of us, awkward, unfamiliar, occasionally funny, unwieldy: things that every sex scene ever is, in a movie, between two actors, and then is generally edited to look like a perfect fantasy, and the violins come in on top to target our heartstrrings. We weren't interested in that. We had, again, an unfamiliarity that worked in our favor. And as our characters got to know each other in the subsequent surrogate scenes, Helen and I were getting to know each other and finding comfort, just as our characters were. It worked in our favor, I believe.
G: I know that you didn't go the formal route with your acting training, but you learned by doing, which is the best way. I'm curious how you got your start: I know on stage, but what led you to it? How'd you catch the bug?
JH: Oh! When I was a sophomore in high school, my sister Laurie was a senior in the same school, I loved my sister, she said she was taking a drama class as a sluff course, and I just wanted to hang out and be in a class with her, so I did; I took the course kind of seriously. There was only one drama—y'know, that was it. That was the drama course; it wasn't like there was a series of them. We had no drama department, per se; we performed plays in the gymnasium at our high school. At that point, I'd been a wrestler; I was tired of it; I'd been doing it since I was four years old and wrestled competitively for most of that time. That drama teacher put us on a bus, and we rode 150 miles southeast to Minneapolis and saw The Crucible one afternoon at the Guthrie Theater, Arthur Miller's play, and I was changed by that. And the next year, when one of my teachers said, "Hey, they need extra people for the play; you should try out," I did, and had two lines in the play. I was hooked, and tried to find a way ever since to figure out how to, hopefully, earn a living at this, which—. Went to one year of college; one of the professors took me aside at the end of that year and said, "I don't want to get your hopes up, but you may possibly be able to carve out a career in dinner theater; I was elated at the prospect. I worked for ten years as an actor before I made a dime, working at a theater company that was brilliant, in Austin, Texas; having been around the world, and seen theater, having sat out for some of the shows. And big state theater productions, our company'd run lights; I was often so lost in the show I'd forget to throw cues. These were wonderful people that were older than me that I learned from; hopefully they learned from me too. After one year of college, at St. Cloud State University, I moved to Austin, Texas, never having been to Texas. My brother was a carpenter, and I worked for him, and I was invited to come with him. And a buddy of mine from my hometown came with me. And he and I formed that theater company in Austin. And Hollywood made movies. And they would come through Austin. And so I read for small roles, got parts, and then slowly, sometimes at the advice of actors that I'd watched on screen that said, "You should get out of here. Go somewhere else and try to be a professional actor," I would often say, "Well, why would I leave Austin?" Thirty years old, I moved to Los Angeles and just kind of been punching ever since.
G: Yeah, yeah, I'm so glad that you've turned all these corners you've turned—
G: And now you're getting so much wonderful recognition.
JH: Guess so. I loved my life as it was five years ago; I love it now. I don't really feel a need to grab for the brass ring, climb to the top of the mountain and beat my chest and scream, "I'm the king of the world." I'm not interested in that. I want to be an effective actor, so hopefully all this doesn't fuck that up! (Laughs.)
G: Right, right!
JH: (Laughs.) But we'll see. Thank you so much. G: Well, thanks so much.
JH: I appreciate it. G: It was a pleasure talking to you.
JH: And you.