John Hawkes comes out of the indie shadows

Posted 11:08am on Sunday, Dec. 02, 2012

FORT WORTH -- It's not accurate to call John Hawkes an "up-and-coming" actor. After all, the 53-year-old has been working steadily for the past 27 years in TV ( Deadwood, Lost, Eastbound & Down) and movies ( American Gangster, Martha Marcy May Marlene). He even has had something of a music career with the disbanded King Straggler and is currently working on a solo disc.

But any character-actor anonymity the Minnesota-born former Austin resident may have enjoyed is being challenged by the Oscar buzz surrounding his last couple of roles.

Hawkes earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the 2010 indie film Winter's Bone. And this year, his lead role in The Sessions, in which he plays the late Mark O'Brien, a poet and polio survivor who spent most of his life in an iron lung, is generating more Oscar chatter. (He was just nominated for a Spirit Award last week.) The film, which co-stars Helen Hunt, chronicles O'Brien's attempt to lead a full life, which included his desire to have sex.

Hawkes, who can also be seen these days in a smaller role in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, was recently honored for his work at Fort Worth's Lone Star Film Festival. We caught up with him during his visit.

Did music bring you to Austin [in the late '70s]?

No, my brother moved his homebuilding operation down to Austin and I moved with him because I was a carpenter. I was interested in trying to do theater and never thought I'd be in bands or anything, but ended up doing both in Austin.

Do you get a different satisfaction from film versus music?

When you're acting in a play or a film, you're generally saying someone else's words. It's interesting to get to say your own thing as a songwriter.... I feel more comfortable acting, [but] playing music is thrilling. I would think of myself as an amateur in the French way, meaning someone who takes great joy [in it], it's a hobby. There's no expectation.

I don't think most people realize you've been around as long as you have. Did things feel different for you after Winter's Bone took your career to the next level?

I've never been looking for a next level. I was happy 20 years ago, 10 years, five years ago. The rise in visibility concerns me a little bit. It's nothing I've asked for. I'm not ungrateful, but I like the anonymous life I've lived, and I like when people see me onscreen, they don't have associations and expectations.... It's a double-edged sword.

For The Sessions, was there any wariness about taking the part?

Very much so. To play the lead role in a film with only 90-degree movement of your head gave me some concern. The main trepidation early on, when meeting with writer/director Ben Lewin, who I didn't realize was a polio survivor himself, and my first question to him was, 'Did you consider a disabled actor for the role?' Ben told me he'd spent several years auditioning otherly abled actors and able-bodied actors and hadn't found his Mark O'Brien.

How do you prepare for a role like this?

This one had some unique physical challenges. In preparation, I went to the hardware store and bought a dowel rod and made myself a mouse stick [like the one O'Brien operated using his mouth] and practiced making phone calls, turning pages of a book and typing with it.... Luckily, there were a lot of tools at my disposal [for research]. I didn't have to make up a lifetime for Mark O'Brien because he'd written an autobiography that described it very clearly. Jessica Yu made a documentary short [about O'Brien] in the '90s called Breathing Lessons; that was a wonderful tool as well. And Mark was a poet and a journalist. I read everything that I could that he'd written. He spoke about his physicality and how his body was twisted. I tried to emulate that, and in Yu's film it was there for me to see and his voice was there for me to hear.

You injured your back while filming?

That was blown out of proportion a little bit, but it isn't good for you to lay on a soccer ball. Mark's spine was horribly curved, so I helped make a soccer-sized piece of a foam that I placed midway under the left side of my back to give my back a horrible curve and make my ribs protrude and to look unhealthy, to not look as able as I am in real life. To lie on that for long periods, my chiropractor told me, was not a very good thing.

Now, you're in Lincoln as well.

What drew me to that project is what always draws me: The script was just phenomenal. Tony Kushner just wrote such a terrific script.

Some people might be surprised to see you in it since it's not an indie film.

Perfect Storm, American Gangster, Deadwood ... I'm not a snob. I'm not an elitist about doing only low-budget projects. It's just that in this day and age, and over the last 20 years, studios that make big movies seem less interested in making movies that are what I would call medium-budget movies for adults. That doesn't mean heavy or overly intellectual. But [these days] there are a lot of cartoons and things blowing up. There are a lot of wonderful studio films that get made. I just haven't been asked to be in them, and I feel that independent films fill a gap of stories that have a deeper nature than a lot of the other studio fare.

Do you pay attention to the Oscar talk about The Sessions?

It's hard not to. Again, it was a thrilling experience and glitz and glamour aren't why I do the job. And I'm not entirely comfortable with the whole operation. Trying to quantify a creative act is a strange thing. It's not a football game. To say one is better than the other is very subjective. But any nomination or buzz that brings more people to our little movie I'm happy for.

Cary Darling, 817-390-7571

Twitter: @carydar

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