Like many of you, I was a fan of John Hawkes before I could put a name to his face, initially as Pete “I never said help us!!!” Bottoms in the opening of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. Since then, he’s worked consistently as a character actor, popping up in things as varied as RUSH HOUR and BLUE STREAK to CONTAGION and LINCOLN, as well as taking lead roles in stuff like WINTER’S BONE, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, and THE SESSIONS (two of which landed him Indie Spirit awards).
In Dennis Hauck's TOO LATE, he plays someone we haven’t seen from him so far; the resilient, resourceful L.A. private eye with an agenda. It’s a movie that is told over the course of five related, yet individual scenes, with Hawkes’ Sampson as the common link between them, and the actor coolly, intently carries the film on his shoulders (aided by killer dialogue and some truly amazing cinematography). It’s not something I would have assumed him for myself, but given the wide range of roles, big and small, he’s played over the years, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that he blew my ass away with his simultaneously calculated and vulnerable performance.
I was lucky to get a chance to speak with Hawkes over the phone during the fest, and he talked about his musical background, TOO LATE’s unusual production schedule, his devotion to his craft, and what it was like to wave a dildo in front of his face without corpsing for INSIDE AMY SCHUMER:
VINYARD: I had an amazing time last night watching you guys play. I didn’t know you had a history in music.
HAWKES: Oh yeah, man. I’ve been playing in bands from when I started in Austin, Texas back in 1982.
VINYARD: No kidding.
HAWKES: I’ve done it ever since, but I never thought to try to make a living out of it. It’s a hard business and I’ve always just done it for love. I’ve been in bands off and on, and I’ve played solo ever since. It’s a long time.
VINYARD: Did you write all the songs you guys played? I know some were covers, but-
HAWKES: Yeah, the instrumental is from a band called Santo & Johnny that was popular in the late ‘60s. The yodeling song was Jimmy Rogers, and all the rest were mine, the other four I guess.
VINYARD: You never thought to record anything?
HAWKES: Yeah, the bands that I was in recorded. There’s a couple of movies I did where I played. I played in a movie called MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, I had to kinda play live in that film. There’s a few times where I’ve gotten to play in movies or TV shows, and a song that I wrote called “Good Man” has been pulled in a couple movies and television shows. At least one of the times, I don’t think they knew I was an actor or anything like that. They just found theh song and liked it, so that’s pretty cool.
VINYARD: You wrote an original song for TOO LATE. Was that something you brought to the table?
HAWKES: Dennis likes to play guitar and sing as well, and maybe he just wanted that in the movie. Maybe part of it was knowing that I could pull something off because he knew that I played, so he had the character sing a song. Maybe he wrote that before I got the part, I’m not sure.
So yeah, he wrote something that had a lot of words. I was nervous at the end of 18 minutes to try and remember that, and there was no time. It was all coming really quickly. I had written something that he thought was pretty good, and then I wrote something else. He couldn’t decide, so I recorded the one we ended up using in the movie, and he liked it enough to say that was the one.
VINYARD: And that was the first scene you guys shot, is that correct?
HAWKES: It was, yeah.
VINYARD: The film was shot over about two weeks spread out over the course of two years, right?
HAWKES: Yeah. If you think about it, ‘cause each scene takes, as far as the actors’ participation, two-and-a-half days. We would meet for an hour-and-a-half, and then the next day we’d go to the location and begin to try and map it out with the crew, and by the end of that first (shooting) day we’d have time to get one shot off. Then the next day it was just all shooting takes and resetting for half an hour, whatever it takes to get everyone where they’re supposed to be, and goin’ again.
VINYARD: So by the time they brought you guys in, did they have everything pretty meticulously blocked out?
HAWKES: Not really, no, no. On that first day, that would be all of us kind of figuring it out. I think they certainly had an idea of what they wanted to do. I don’t want to say meticulously, because things were changing when they brought the actors in, in terms of how it would work. But yeah, they had scouted their locations, figuring out what the shot would be, yeah.
VINYARD: A movie like this, the shots are so precise, and the compositions, there’s a lot of camera movements that end up in very precise places in rapid succession. Was it hard to keep all that in your head during these really, really long takes?
HAWKES: The crew, particularly the camera crew, were called, at moments, to be in the perfect spot in the perfect time. It was a lot of attempted precision, certainly. It was interesting. It was kinda like doing a play, as an actor, but not, because there’s a camera, and certain things you’d have to do would have to be artificial in order to get to a spot for the camera, in order to make it smooth and things like that. It was sorta doing a play, but you’re very aware that there’s a camera around, and you need to be in a certain place on this line. Very precise, I guess would be a good way to say it.
VINYARD: Was it hard to stay in the scene with all that going on?
HAWKES: Sometimes, but not usually. There’s such an intense focus going on, it’s a real rush of emotions and senses and minds and brains all in one. In a weird way, you could get lost in it. There’s moments. (laughs) And then moments where…it’s hard to describe them, but yeah, it was fun as an actor to shoot that way. You could maintain more of a throughline to the scene, because there’s no edits.
VINYARD: That immediacy, that sort of theatrical quality, does give the film a lot of its signature vibe.
HAWKES: So much happens in real-time, it starts to get kinda real in moments when the film doesn’t really attempt to be kinda hardcore realistic. Ridiculous situations played out over time…it’s got a real sense of a stylized film with a really realistic tone, in moments, it’s interesting; a hyper-realistic tone mixed in with a stylized film.
I come out of theater. I started out with a theater company, that’s how I became an actor. Long takes, I look foward to them. They were exciting. Real interesting way to make a film. Real challenging.
VINYARD: You mentioned last night that you were a little hesitant to take it on initially, until Dennis had a few meetings with you and you guys went over the script a few times. I think he a made a few additions. What exactly did he add or change, or what did you come to with the script, that eventually made you want to do this?
HAWKES: It’s interesting, Vincent, I don’t remember what the changes were. I got the script, I thought it was interesting. I would read it every couple of months, probably. Dennis would call, and I would ultimately pass, but he kinda hung on and said, “Let me give you one another script.” This came over a couple of years, I think. Then a script came that wasn’t radically different, but had been punched up enough to where it felt suddenly like it had possibility. It was a while ago, so I don’t recall exactly what changed in the script. Dennis could probably address that. Over time…I grew in the idea, I guess, over time.
VINYARD: I’d imagine one of the things that attracted you was the chance to play this kind of character, this kind of cool private eye.
HAWKES: Very alone, sort of an alone…person. A very private eye. (laughs) No, the character was never the issue. The idea of the character was great, it was just not my kinda thing until I’d grown into the script, and the script changed in a way that made it an attractive prospect.
VINYARD: I’ve seen you in a bunch of stuff, but I wouldn’t have pegged you for this role necessarily, but as soon as I saw you in the movie, I thought you were not only great but you seemed to be having a great time. Was it fun to deliver pulpy dialogue like that?
HAWKES: It was, it was enjoyable. It was challenging, ‘cause again, a lot of it is pretty stylized and a lot of is realism. Those ideas can co-exist, I guess is what I’m saying, and the trick is to figure out how to make that happen.
VINYARD: It’s a character who holds his cards pretty close to his chest, but like you said, he’s not detached, he’s very emotionally invested. Was that something you had to balance, keeping his sincerity and his good intentions there while still giving him a little mystery?
HAWKES: That’s the thing, he’s carrying a huge mystery inside of him. He’s carrying a secret through the whole film. There are other secrets, or plot points, that the audience figures out along the way, but as far as Sampson’s concerned he’s carrying a secret for years, and that informs everything he does in his life.
VINYARD: And the scenes were always constructed as they are, the non-linear format, etc., right?
HAWKES: Yes. When I got the script, it was in that order. That was part of the enjoyment of it, too, because it is clever, how things are revealed.
VINYARD: Aside from playing a detective, is there anything else that people haven’t necessarily seen you do that you’ve always wanted to do? Any archetypes or anything like that?
HAWKES: I wouldn’t think of it in terms of “archetype” or what character I want to play. I’m always trying to find a story that I’m interested in, and a character that kinda matters to that story, and finding really good people to try and tell the story. It doesn’t genre doesn’t so much matter, though I guess I have some favorites over others. It doesn’t matter, it just needs to be a good story and a decent role, or a character that I feel I could play that could help tell the story. And like I said, good people. I don’t really have a character I’m looking to play, or a genre of film I’m looking to be part of, per se.
VINYARD: I guess that comes across in your diverse filmography.
HAWKES: That’s good I think. Nothing wrong with that. I like working, but I also want to choose things that let me be a value to whatever I’m working on
VINYARD: Was there ever a performance that you were kind of unhappy with when you saw the final product?
HAWKES: Sure, yeah. All the time. (laughs) Hopefully a lot of those don’t get seen, but some do. That’s part of the deal. That’s okay. I don’t want to just do roles I know that I can do. I have to begin each time honestly, to say, “I don’t know how to do this.” And that’s how you start when you accept a part. You work with the director, or maybe a lot is done by yourself, but you ask a lot of questions to figure out how to do it. Sometimes you take on a challenge and you’re short of the mark, but that’s how you learn. There’s no other way to do it.
VINYARD: Dennis mentioned last night that during your meetings, you’d always have a notebook and were very closely taking notes and studying the script very closely. Do you always find this preparation to be important in every role you take?
HAWKES: Yeah, for me. I know some really wonderful actors who have a different process, that is great for them. I like to overprepare, and then try and forget everything when the director calls, “Action!” or if the curtain comes up if I’m doing a play, and just be present with the other peopleand see what happens. It’s vital to me. It’s also very enjoyable, the preparation.
For every role there’s something new to learn, so for this, rather than only watching old film noir, which I did a little bit, and imitating it- I did watch a couple of those movies, DETOUR and some others, because I just enjoy them, I just think they’re interesting films, and then at the director’s behest, I read Raymond Chandler novels. But mainly, for me, it was about figuring out the life of a private detective. I bought books on how to be a private detective, just like the character in the film does. I practiced tailing people around in my neighborhood, strangely- not for long periods (laughs), just following them down the street and seeing where they go without them seeing me. Not in a creepy way, but just trying it, following people around in a car, not in any dangerous or weird way. To get the idea of what a private detective does was just interesting to me to try and figure out. Like he says in the film, tail-jobs were never his specialty, so I thought I should learn something about it.
VINYARD: Have you ever banged your head against the wall trying to prepare for a character, and you just couldn’t crack it? Was there a director who you really wanted to dig into it with, and the director wasn’t as interested?
HAWKES: Probably. I couldn’t name specifics, because those are things I maybe don’t dwell on so much. But yeah, there’s always frustration, and certain directors along the way may have hoped from me. We just do our best, and then…then it’s done. We learn from it hopefully, or not, I guess.
VINYARD: You’ve worked with some incredible A-list directors, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, Steven Soderbergh, the list goes on. Has there been anyone you wanted to work with that you still haven’t gotten a chance to?
HAWKES: Oh, yeah, that’s a long list. Coen Brothers…you could name all the great directors, there’s a lot. Sofia Coppola, I love her work. Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson. Those are just kind of the obvious, top-of-the-listers that I hope to get to work with.
VINYARD: You just did EVEREST. That wrapped a while ago, I guess.
HAWKES: That wrapped a year ago or something like that, roughly.
VINYARD: Was that a crazy, arduous experience?
HAWKES: We were in Nepal, we were in Italy, and we were in England at Pinewood shooting the interiors you can’t really shoot on the side of a mountain properly. We did do a lot of work on the side of mountains, and it was enjoyable.
VINYARD: Was that something you had to get physically prepared for?
HAWKES: Yeah, for sure, a good bit. You can only do so much, then you get there, and you hope that what you’ve done will get you through. We all held up pretty well. We were at some extremely high altitudes, and without some minor exceptions, we were able to get through it unscathed.
VINYARD: The last thing I saw you in before TOO LATE was in the 12 ANGRY MEN sketch on INSIDE AMY SCHUMER. Could you talk a little about that and how you got involved?
HAWKES: For sure. I was doing a play in New York last fall. I’d always admired Amy Schumer, so I was thrilled to meet her. I had dinner with her one night, with my niece’s husband and his buddy, who are friends of her’s. The four of us had dinner, then she said, “I gotta work on some stuff, do you wanna come?” So we went to a little underground New York comedy club and watched her work with Chris Rock, different people, just kind of going up. Comics performing for comics kinda thing, people working out their material for a real small audience. That was thrilling.
I didn’t see her again, but we kept in touch, and around December or January she asked if I wanted to be on the show, and I jumped at the opportunity.
VINYARD: What was that shoot like? How long did it take? ’Cause it’s a whole episode.
HAWKES: The shoot took two days. It was really fun, it was really great. The movie is so terrific, and yet you’re trying to pay homage to it pretty directly, with the shots lifted directly from the film. The other actors, Amy, and her crew on the show, were all delightful. We shot quickly, but it was really, really fun.
VINYARD: And you had to play the straight man, as the Henry Fonda character.
HAWKES: It was daunting! To follow the footsteps of such a great actor, and do it for comedy. My hair was long at the time, and I couldn’t cut it, so there were things I’d try and do differently. It’s not exactly 12 ANGRY MEN, it’s got its tongue in its cheek, and yet to try and figure out how to serve the Amy Schumer version of the story and the other actors around, I thought it was a challenge.
VINYARD: Was it hard to keep a straight face, with the dildo and stuff like that?
HAWKES: Yeah, for sure. The outtake is in the credits where Amy’s in the room and plants a long kiss on Paul Giamatti. They’d worked together before. Paul’s a phenomenal actor, he’s always been one of my favorite actors, and Amy finished, and he just kinda kept it. He didn’t break! It was incredible, the rest of us broke and he was ready to continue when they cut.
VINYARD: It’s great they included that in the credits.
HAWKES: I agree. It was a really enjoyable moment on set, so to be able to see it again was enjoyable.