Starring in Ben Lewin’s sex-surrogate dramedy The Sessions as the 36-year-old poet and journalist Mark O’Brien who, paralysed by childhood polio and living in an iron lung, decides he no longer wants to be a virgin, doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a distinctive actor like John Hawkes. But then, he has always been an elusive, unpretentious performer, ever since he first appeared in Ronald W. Moore’s 1985 sci-fi-horror-comedy Future-Kill. And after his long-standing relationship with television – most famously playing the merchant Sol Star in the HBO series Deadwood – and back-to-back supporting roles in successful American indie dramas such as Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, it made sense for Hawkes to take up the challenge of carrying a film on his own, portraying a real-life person who can barely move his head, but doesn’t give up.
Pamela Jahn talked to John Hawkes at the 60th San Sebastian International Film Festival in September 2012 about his approach to acting, the trouble with independent cinema, and why music helps to keep you sane in a sometimes insane world.
Pamela Jahn: Your part in The Sessions requires you to act with only your face for about 98% of the time. Was that what drew you into the role, or what fascinated you about this particular character?
John Hawkes: No, actually this was a reason for me to almost chicken out and not do it at all. Every actor says that what interests them is what scares them, and I think there is some truth in that. I knew it would be a challenge, but I was more taken with the story as a whole, with realising that this was an extraordinary life to try to portray on screen. And once I had figured out how to portray him physically, the interesting thing to me was the revelation that he was a human being. So ultimately, on some level, I approached the character like I would have done with any other acting role. What I have learned over the years, in terms of what works best for me to get into character, is to try and figure out what the story is as a whole, and to think about how the character I am playing can most effectively and interestingly and truthfully help to try to tell that story. What does the character want, what are his needs and his goals as a whole, as well as from moment to moment? I would study whatever the character calls for – like, in Mark’s case, it was learning to function with a mouth stick – but only to forget all that when the director calls ‘action’. Then you are just present with the other actor in the scene and whatever happens kind of happens, and Mark was no exception to this. He is ultimately a human being, and the two most important things for me were to avoid the temptation of acting with my face and also to avoid self-pity in Mark, because that’s never interesting to watch. It’s always more interesting to follow someone trying to accomplish their goals, whatever the goal may be.
In contrast to Mark, you played pretty tough, bad guys in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene.
I never liked to think of Patrick, who is my character in Martha Macy May Marlene, as a really bad guy. He’s misunderstood. (Laughs) No, but seriously, I wouldn’t approach a character in such broad terms. It would make no sense to myself, to my character or to the story to make that kind of judgement. I don’t believe anyone in this world is purely evil, or purely good. I think that we are all variations along the light and dark scale, some trend more towards one side, some more towards the other side. Like in Patrick’s case, on one level I thought it was important for him to believe that what he was doing was best for the people around him.
How did you approach Patrick’s backstory?
I love doing research. It’s just fun for me to overprepare, and if I spend two or three hundred hours in preparation outside the script, and get two seconds on film that are better off because of that time I spent researching, then it was worth it for me. Patrick was a very different case though. I thought of a very broad backstory and then kind of put it out of my mind. Since these people – as Sean Durkin, the director, had explained it in the script – had no calendars and no watches, it was interesting to me to think of Patrick as having fallen out of space and landing in the forest, and not really having a past or a future, but only the moment that he is in. I also didn’t want to get too much into the problems that the film addresses on a subtle level, like cults, the search for identity, etc., because it felt to me that that was already on the page – meaning that what was essential was already in the script. So I worked mainly by negation or subtraction. I wasn’t interested in creating another Charles Manson or Jim Jones type of character, in fact I tried to forget everything I’d ever heard about cults. I thought of them more as a community. And I also felt that in order to serve the story in the best possible way, that if I had been a recognisably evil guy from the moment that Elisabeth Olson’s character Martha meets me – which is obviously part of what the film is about, because it’s Martha’s story – so if, when she meets Patrick, the audience sees this kind of evil-incarnate-the-devil-in-the-flesh-mustache-twiddling-svengali-con-man, I don’t think it would have been credible enough for the audience to stay with her throughout the story. Whereas if they meet Patrick and, as the film goes on, they can at least begin to understand why she might hang out with this guy and have some sympathy for her joining up with this group of people, then they’re going to have a better journey alongside of her. So I was lucky, because I wasn’t interested in such a broad cliché kind of character anyway, and Sean agreed that it was best to make the layers peel off of my character as we went along.
Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene both turned out to be surprisingly successful films, but it is kind of hard to explain why these films in particular received so much more attention than many other great independent movies these days.
Part of the problem is, I think, that we are offered a bewildering amount of choices. Young people growing up have a much more chaotic lifestyle, it’s easier for them to be advertised to in every possible medium that exists, and I think it’s much harder for them to find something to focus on. And I don’t think that the many different devices available now make us any smarter or improve our taste, sadly. There is wonderful art being made because you can do it on your own and more cheaply, and I like the democracy of it, but I also feel that it makes for a lot of bad art and it makes it harder for people to find the good work. Like if everyone has the exact same-size megaphone and is yelling through it, how do you know who to listen to? That’s why it is hard for a small movie to find its audience, because there is just too much of everything. But that said, I also I feel there is kind of a rebirth around the world, as far as I can tell, of independent film and partly that might be because the digital revolution is making it easier for people without quite as much money to make movies. I think it’s a reaction to the American studio system and the studio films that are being made now, which have seemingly laid aside the kind of mid-level budget movie that they used to make in the 1970s for adults. Now it seems to me that it’s all about cartoons for kids and some of those are really wonderfully done. But I think there is still an audience for a more subtle, nuanced sort of story, and the only way to tell that story these days is independently. The studio system seems to guess what the audience might like and independent cinema doesn’t care much what the audience likes but wants to tell the story that they would want to see.
On the other hand, is seems more difficult now to only do independent movies in America, either as a director or as an actor?
Yes, it’s true, and I don’t only do independent movies. At the same time, I don’t fault anyone in this business for their decisions. I only know that I have kept a very low overhead, I don’t need to make a lot of money, I don’t have alimony or child support or a mansion that I have to pay off, I owe nobody nothing, which gives me more freedom to choose, and I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have to take on any roles that I don’t believe in. I’ve been around for 25 years now, and I guess if someone had told me right at the beginning of my career that I could be in a huge studio movie and make a lot of money, I would have probably been very excited about that prospect. Over time though, when you see how things work and if you have been burned a couple of times, like getting involved in productions that weren’t that good, you need to really trust your gut when you read a script, and you need to decide whether you want to be part of it or not. But again, I am not against studio movies at all. It’s just that most of the scripts that appeal to me, and that make me feel alive when I read them, are independent scripts. There are very few directors these days, like the Coen Brothers, who work within the studio system and create really vital, amazing work, and until those guys call me, I will stay in the independent world, simply because the stories are more interesting to me. It’s all about personal taste, I guess. Like, for example, I took on a small part in Soderbergh’s Contagion, which I haven’t seen yet, actually. This wasn’t exactly a studio movie but a quite expensive independent movie, and the reason I did it was because it was a wonderful script and because Soderbergh is a terrific filmmaker. Whereas after the Academy Awards, I got a stack of scripts to read and I chose the two lowest budget ones, not out of any kind of elitist sense, but because they were the two most interesting stories with the two most interesting roles for me.
Who or what made you want to become an actor?
That’s an interesting question. I’ve always been interested in Robert Duvall’s work. But before that, what made me want to be an actor was going on a school trip to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis when I was about 14. I am from a small town in Minnesota and, at that point, had never really seen a play before. I was amazed by that afternoon in the theatre and I kept wondering whether I could make people feel things like those people made me feel that day. But the first movie that really got under my skin and spun my head around was Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude. Like Ruth Gordon said, ‘Go out and live and give them something to talk about in the locker room.’ That kind of thing. It was a very inspiring movie to me that said in the most broad way, ‘Follow your dreams!’ So that, and reading Jack Kérouac’s On the Road and hearing Tom Waits’s music for the first time… all those things happened when I was 18 and less than a year later I was hitchhiking around.
Talking of Tom Waits, music still seems to play a very important role in your life as well?
Yeah definitely, but I see it more like a hobby, less than a career. I am not really putting stuff out there. But I’ve been playing in bands since the early 1980s. And when you’re doing a film or a play and you’re speaking someone else’s words, it’s kind of a joy to put your own thoughts down and out there. It’s like food for me, and it keeps me sane.
What kind of music do you compose and do you listen to?
Those are two different things to me, so there ought to be different answers to this in a way. The music I compose you’d probably call quite simple music. I am untrained, so I don’t sit down to write a song specifically. It’s more an idea that gets into my head and then I take a shower, and I am driving and walking around, and eventually it comes out when I can no longer stand carrying it around with me. The idea finally beats me into a corner and I get a pen and write it down and sing it. I guess you could call it folk music, I wish there was a better term, but I hope it has guts and humour and something to offer people. The kind of music that I hear, that would be the widest range. The genre doesn’t matter to me – if people are telling the truth, whether it is gangster rap or German polka or opera or straight ahead rock & roll, if it’s the real people making it and I hear it enough, I will understand it. I have always loved music, long before I started playing it. I started playing guitar in sixth grade, but just taught myself. I had no training either as an actor or as musician.
For someone who prefers working in the independent film sector and who likes keeping privacy, living in L.A. almost seems an odd choice.
I live in L.A., but I don’t go to the velvet rope clubs and I don’t know too many movie stars. I know the place has a reputation for being full of shallow people, but I don’t know that scene, because I don’t hang out with those people. My friends are generally unknown filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, mostly really talented and interesting people that I am inspired by, and I hope they feel that they can learn from me as well. There are certainly more people that I am amazed by than I can keep up with after 20 years living in L.A.. And there is also an awesome little music scene that still kind of happens away from the major labels. It’s that kind of thing that I love to be part of. I come from the post-punk scene in Austin, Texas, and there is a sensibility that I have as far as music and storytelling and theatre is concerned, which comes from the same kind of do-it-yourself approach that also tells you not to worry about the result too much, or who is watching. Just do it!
Interview by Pamela Jahn