The name John Hawkes may not ring a bell, but his face should. The 51-year-old character actor has starred in TV shows like 'Deadwood,' '24,' 'Lost' and most recently 'Eastbound and Down,' while his movie credits include 'The Perfect Storm,''Me and You and Everyone We Know' and 'American Gangster.'
But now recently receiving a Best Suppoting Actor Oscar nomination for his jarring performance in 'Winter's Bone,' the soft-spoken Hawkes has been jettisoned into the spotlight.
Starting out in Austin, TX, where he acted and was a musician, Hawkes has built his career by playing the dark, gruff everyman. However, in Debra Granik's 'Winter's Bone' (which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year), Hawkes' powerful performance as Teardrop -- a cocaine-snorting bad-ass who's out for blood after his brother disappears in the methamphetamine underworld of the Ozarks -- is one of the most memorable of 2010 (equal to his cast mate in the film, Jennifer Lawrence, who is also nominated for an Oscar).
Hawkes continues his good fortune at Sundance this year with the much talked about 'Martha Marcy May Marlene,' which Fox Searchlight picked up and will release later this year. (The film's director, Sean Durkin, won the Best Directing prize at the fest.) Playing Patrick, a "community leader" in upstate New York, we watch as he brainwashes young Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) into his newest disciple, including giving her the new name Marcy May, with his sweet talk and skills on the guitar. Though like with any Hawkes character, a darker side soon emerges.
We talked to Hawkes a few days after the Oscar nominations were announced about playing dark characters, why he doesn't like his most recent character being compared to Charles Manson and his music side project.
Cinematical: I believe it's safe to say the nomination was a surprise to you.
John Hawkes: It was a shock to me. I'd said to my sweetheart a couple of days before that the SAG and Spirit Award nomination was amazing and I had no attachment to the Academy Award. I knew I was an underdog so I just decided to sleep through the announcement. But it was a huge shock.
Teardrop is such a complex character. Was it fun to play him?
Complicated fun I think would be a way to put it. I think that some of those very dark roles take a piece of me as an actor somehow, but for a film like that with such an amazing director, and wonderful actors and such a great story, it's really worth the risk. Sometimes you do that kind of work and either nobody sees it or it ends up not coming out the way I would hope, but I had a good feeling that this would be something gratifying. Though it wasn't always easy to pretend to do the things Teardrop does.
Can you sense on set if something you're making will connect with an audience?
Not really. There were a lot of questions that I think Debra Granik and I both had of the story and of the character, so I had a good feeling even before we began that Debra was the kind of storyteller who I was interested in working with. On set, Jennifer Lawrence seemed to be bringing something special, and I have a lot of friends who aren't in the business and they told me later that 'Winter's Bone' must be something pretty good, because it was the first time I'd ever talked about my work to any of them.
Were you skeptical about taking the role of Patrick in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' because once again you would play a dark character?
I've passed through kind of feeling those things. I don't have any training as an actor, but I guess I'm an intense pretender. When you read something over and over, it gets into you a little bit. You can't help but begin to feel it, even if you're a healthy person as I think I am. You don't really ever thing you're that crazy person you're playing. But just imagining that over and over gets in you a little. I've learned over the years not to do that unless I'm reasonably certain that the project is going to be something that I'm going to be proud of later. And speaking to Sean Durkin on the phone before I had ever met him made me feel I wanted to do it.
Was there a bit of Teardrop still inside you when you went to go make 'Martha Marcy'?
I don't think so. There had been several roles in between. And one of the interesting things about Patrick that wasn't like Teardrop was Patrick was a leader of people, was someone who had a group and people looked up to him. Teardrop was more of a lone wolf kind of person.
I think people hear about this movie and see my character and they think "cult movie" and that Patrick is like Charles Manson, but I couldn't be less interested in Charles Manson, to be honest with you.
Does that annoy you if someone thinks you're playing a Manson-type character?
No. In fact, I've read two or three reviews and they didn't really lean to the Charles Manson thing. Certainly there are parallels, but hopefully we've carved our own story. And at the end of the day I don't really care what people say. Certainly, I want them to enjoy the work that we did, but if some people aren't smart enough to look beyond an obvious parallel and find the truth in the individuality of the whole project, it's more their problem.
Do you still play in a band?
Well, the band I was in, [King Straggler], didn't break up; we just quit playing, kinda. We got busy. I still know those guys; [we're] still friends, but we've been busy. I've been playing solo. I play with my sweetheart sometimes and some friends, but I have a bunch of songs recorded and I'm putting the finishing touches on them and plan to release something of my own this year. It's not going to be on a major label; I'll do it myself. But I've been making music that way since the early '80s in Austin, TX. But I do have one song that I'm proud of on the 'Winter's Bone' soundtrack. I wrote a song through the eyes of my brother, [titled 'Bred & Buttered']. I wrote it a year ago right at New Year's Eve I think, and recorded it a week later, and then gave it to Debra Granik as a gift before last year's Sundance. [I] just wanted her to have it, because she kept daring me while we were shooting to write something for the movie. But I was in a Teardrop state of mind.
Is it featured in the film?
It's not. What happened was, I gave it to Debra as a gift and then her husband ended up putting the music together. He liked it, along with the Missouri musicians, and they convinced him that it should be part of the soundtrack. I'm excited about it being in there.
And you play a song in 'Martha Marcy.' Is that one of yours?
It's not. When Sean was looking for music for the film, he typed in the words "Martha Marcy May" on the Internet and he found this '60s folk singer named Jackson C. Frank. He not only had a song called 'Martha,' but he also had a song called 'Marcy's Song' and they were back-to-back on his record that he put out. So I sang 'Marcy's Song' in the film. I kinda forgot the lines at one point but I made it through. I loved that it stayed in the movie. [Laughs]
You're starring next in Steven Soderbergh's 'Contagion'?
Yeah, that one is done for me. I have a small role but it's a huge cast. But being in one of my favorite filmmaker's films I couldn't be happier just to be a part of it.
And you shot a pilot for FX?
It's called 'Outlaw Country.' I don't know what's going to happen to it. Mary Steenburgen is in it and it deals with a fading country star, that would be Mary, and her daughter. My character is the leader of a small regional Dixie mafia with my nephew wanting to get out of the life. It turns into a Romeo and Juliet kind of story with the two younger characters.
Can you give any 'Eastbound and Down' season 3 news?
I have no idea what's happening. I heard there may be a third season. I don't know if I'm invited or not. I love those folks so whatever happens there is okay with me.
Would you like to be offered more "nice guy" roles similar to what you play on 'Eastbound'?
I kind of don't really have a specific plan in what I want to play. For the last 20 years of my life, I've had the mantra to do amazing parts with amazing people in amazing projects, so I'm attracted to good story, writing and character and good people. That's what I'm always searching for and I don't think that's ever going to change.