John Hawkes has been acting since the mid-1980s, which is tough to believe since the first time most people took notice of him was well into the 1990s in movies like FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, RUSH HOUR, THE PERFECT STORM, and IDENTITY, among dozens of film and TV parts. With me, his name got locked in my brain thanks to the short-lived HBO series "Deadwood" in which he played the Western towns highest-profile Jewish character Sol Star. This was followed shortly by a leading role in a sweet little film from 2005 called ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, opposite writer-director Miranda July.
Hawkes kept the solid and varied performances coming in WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY, Michael Mann's MIAMI VICE, Ridley Scott's AMERICAN GANGSTER, and Spike Lee's MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA. And for reasons I'm not exactly clear about (but I'm grateful for) Danny McBride decided to make Hawkes his brother in HBO's "Eastbound & Down." But it was his role as Jennifer Lawrence's Uncle Teardrop in WINTER'S BONE that earned him his first Oscar nomination, and the hits just kept on coming. Take a look at Hawkes' range in films like MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, HIGHER GROUND, and CONTAGION. And having seen the upcoming Steven Spielberg film LINCOLN, I can report that Hawkes has a sizable role and is remarkable in it.
But a few weeks ago, Hawkes and I sat down in Chicago to talk about he role that will likely get him his second Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actor, playing real-life journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, a man struck by polio as a child who spends most of his days in an iron lung with few prospects for meeting or forming any intimacy with the opposite sex. O'Brien hired a sexual surrogate (played by Helen Hunt) to assist him in the losing of his virginity. It's remarkable performance, made all the more so when you consider that Hawkes' entire performance is done lying down with no movement below the neck (with one exception that we never see). Between Denzel Washington in FLIGHT, Daniel Day Lewis in LINCOLN, and handful more I have yet to see, this is an exceptional time of year to see some of the greatest performances you'll see in 2012. Please enjoy my talk with the great John Hawkes…
Capone: It’s good to see you again.
JH: Hey, it’s good to see you. Do you want coffee or anything?
Capone: I’m good, thanks. So, I was lucky enough to interview William H. Macy a couple of weeks ago about the film and I tried to involve him in discussions of faith and sex, and all he wanted to talk about was how jealous he was that he didn’t get to do any love scenes with Helen Hunt.
She’s never done anything like this, and I’ve never seen a portrayal of sex done the way this is--very raw, very stark, no mood lighting or soft music. Was that important that they make it as realistic and awkward as possible?
JH: Well, I think so. The tendency in most filmed loved scenes is that while you shoot them, they're awkward and they're unfamiliar and they can be kind of funny and it can be kind of nerve-wracking and it can be by the numbers with the director saying “Caress her hair” or “Stroke her thigh.” Then it’s set to music and made to look like the perfect fantasy and edited in such a way. But certainly our warts-and-all approach and a sense of reality and truth, we're seeing a guy who’s lived into his late 30s having never been touched for pleasure; it’s all been utilitarian kinds of being moved from the lung to the gurney to having your teeth brushed, to be fed, to be undressed, dressed, shaved, but never just touched for pleasure.
So while that would be a really exciting and wonderful thing, I’m sure there’s also a great deal of trepidation in Mark’s mind, and of course in reading his essay you would know that. We wanted to capture that other side. Certainly there’s a sweet and…well it’s a first time on many levels. It’s the first time for him to be really touched in a pleasurable way and certainly the first time to begin to try to have sex, to see a naked woman. All of these things would be a very nerve-wracking thing, and there’s a truth in the first time--anyone who’s been lucky enough to have a first time--that is relatable in that scene, if that makes any sense.
Capone: It does. But then to make matters worse for Mark, he has this wonderful Catholic guilt piled on to that. I can’t imagine how the desire for that kind of pleasure and the guilt he felt about hiring someone just tore him up. He’s already a creature of his head anyway. It has got to be physically exhausting to have that kind of mental battle going on in your head.
JH: Maybe so, but I feel on some level he was ready and was able to hopefully compartmentalize a little bit and set things aside. No one was really forcing him to do this. I would believe in knowing what I’ve researched about Mark that there would be questions, but he doesn’t so much talk about guilt that I’m aware of in the essay, just performance anxiety, disappointment that he isn’t a world-class lover the first time out, and things like that. I think that he found peace, I believe, within his religion and in balancing his faith and his desire for the ultimate human companionship.
Capone: You said talking to his girlfriend Susan was a huge help to you. What did you learn from talking to her that maybe you hadn’t figured out about Mark from his writings or from the documentary?
JH: Well you know it’s difficult, someone asked me if I could ask Mark any question what would it be, and between someone’s essays and poetry, which is a very personal thing, between his autobiography called HOW I BECAME A HUMAN BEING--finished posthumously I believe--telling the details of his first memory until the book finishes with his death. I felt like I knew so much about the guy, and in this particular episode he’s written kind of a fairly exhaustive essay describing this time. Susan told me stories about Mark that were illuminating, to be sure. Like I say, when you’ve got so much information on someone in first-person narrative, and then you’ve got the script, which seems to really find truth in all of these events, although narrative film is not documentary, it’s never going to be exactly true; nor is a documentary, because when you edit things, that becomes subjective too.
Speaking to them was incredibly valuable, but I think what I mostly got were just stories from Susan, stories of Mark and what Mark was like, and I certainly think I learned from her. Again, a lot of this is in his writing, but I learned from Susan that Mark didn’t tolerate a lot of bullshit in his life. By the time she met him, he had some anger and bitterness that often came out in humor, but I’m guessing sometimes didn’t. The things that I learned from her weren’t directly maybe applicable to the story, but were certainly just another window into this guy from an outsider’s perspective.
Capone: She was providing you with some color to the black-and-white version of Mark.
JH: Exactly. Meeting someone who knew and was intimate with the person you’re playing. It’s almost enough just to hangout with them in a room or talk to them on the phone. Susan’s a pretty awesome poet herself from the couple of poems that I’ve read, so when Mark says at the end of the film that they bonded over things like baseball and wrote each other mushy poems, all of those things I think also come from fact.
Capone: I almost forgot that Robin Weigert plays Susan. You’ve worked with her before, in "Deadwood," although I don’t know how many scenes you had together.
JH: I called her, yeah. Sol and Jane didn’t have a lot of scenes together. We were sometimes in a group scene or two, but for the most part, our characters didn’t intersect a great deal. She’s an actress that I just think is phenomenal, Robin Weigert, and underappreciated a bit, at least in Los Angeles. I think in New York, she’s known as a great stage actress. But it was a favor that she did for me and for us to come on and play a fairly small role, but a hugely pivotal role. It would be really difficult to find a terrific actress that would come in for the last 10 or 15 minutes of a film, and it takes an actress who has so much of an inner life and understanding of a character that it’s already in her when you meet her. We were just so lucky to have her. To have that character be in less capable hands would have been really detrimental, I think.
Capone: I know I always get excited when someone from "Deadwood" shows up in anything, so to have two of you in the same movie is pretty awesome.
JH: We had W. Earl Brown also, who we were lucky to have. Then when you throw in Adam Arkin and these other terrific actors who really responded to the script to come in and play these kind of smaller parts.
Capone: I an audience, our tendency would be to take pity on someone like Mark, but you and Ben don’t really let that happen. How did you take pity out of this story and his character?
JH: I think there’s something really interesting and honorable about an underdog, though they may be ill-equipped and not have the tools available readily accessible to them to solve their problem to see them just continue to punch, to keep battling, to keep trying to accomplish what they want to accomplish. There’s something really appealing about that to me and honorable, and it was as simple as at the first meeting with Ben before I accepted the role of saying, “I think Mark really needs to fight self pity,” and Ben of course agreed. He'd written the script that way, but there certainly could have been more “woe is me” moments in the film. We tried to keep those to a minimum, even though a guy like Mark would have every right to feel those things, it’s just not as interesting when you’re watching a story to see someone wallow as it is to see someone pity themselves.
Capone: It's not cinematic.
JH: Right. Probably in all artists, it’s a noble human trait to have reason as humans do, which could take us in either direction, in this case reason might be, “I’m screwed, fuck it. I’m just going to lay here and not care about anything.” But to make the choice, which humans have the unique ability to do, to continue to fight is a really interesting thing to seek and probably in all art. Even a novel, I can’t imagine reading a novel about someone feeling sorry for themselves for 400 pages would not be so interesting.
Capone: Tell me about the physical preparation and the physical experience of playing this part. What did you do physically to prepare and on set what you did physically? Were you grateful to get up out of the gurney at the end of the day?
JH: I think so. Yeah, I like lying down. [Laughs] I’m pretty good at it, but this was not a comfortable kind of lying around. There were difficulties throughout. When you’ve placed your body in an extremely uncomfortable position, your muscles are flexed and stretched in ways that aren’t normal for you and you’ve got a soccer ball-sized piece of foam half way up the side of your back. It was uncomfortable enough to try to find that position, but when you have to hold that position for long takes in a wide shot where you can see the characters whole body for long periods, the difficult thing was holding that position.
And even when the camera wasn’t seeing my legs or feet, it just felt like a cheat to move at all, so I really tried to maintain a kind of stillness, and it was sort of like a meditative exercise on some level, but all of that physical work I wanted to make second nature, so that I would be able to forget it all and just be a human being in the scene relating to other human beings. It is a difficult thing. As an actor you want to react, you want to give something back to your partner in the scene. It’s like a game of tennis. It can’t be one sided. You’ve got to volley the ball back over the net to them, and so to lay immobile while Helen Hunt is dressing you is difficult as an actor not to want to help.
Capone: I imagine it would be more difficult not to want to help her undress you.
JH: That’s what I’m saying. “I’ll just take the shirt off for you, and we'll get going here,” but hey. And then the second half of that question was did I have appreciation for my own body and own mobility? Perhaps. Since I was choosing not to feel sorry for myself, as Mark the character, I guess when I would get up, it would feel almost unfamiliar in a strange way and driving home alone would feel kind of odd.
I guess I was kind of in his head throughout, so I wasn’t even thinking how great it is to be up. A lot of times during down time on the film, I would stay horizontal. I would find a quiet place and listen to classical music that Mark liked or listened to the audio from [the documentary about Mark] BREATHING LESSONS just to make sure I was getting his voice right in preparing for whatever we were about to shoot next. I often tried to stay horizontal, because it just felt natural while I was in the mind of the character.
Capone: I did want to ask one question about something you had coming up. Are you for sure doing this [untitled] Elmore Leonard thing [in which Hawkes and Mos Def play the younger versions of the Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson characters in JACKIE BROWN]?
JH: Well, if the money arrives. There are so many wonderful films that are having a hard time, that have been offered to me that I’m interested in doing, a couple of really wonderful lead roles as well and really great scripts, and I read a lot of stuff. I’ve sifted through and found five or six that I love, and then to have them not be able to raise a very small amount of money has been disconcerting, but I suspect as this next year unfolds that some of those will find their money, and we'll be able to go.
Capone: All right, cool. John, thank you so much. Great to meet you.