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John Hawkes, 'Surrogate' Star, On His Tribeca Film, 'The Playroom,' And His Oscar Chances

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JOHN HAWKES
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John Hawkes is one of the best actors working today. Seriously, why are you reading the Internet right now? You should really be spending your free time watching John Hawkes act. Here's something else about John Hawkes: Not only is the former Oscar nominee a fantastic actor, he's also legitimately nice (at least in my experiences). Which will make it all the better the next time his name is mentioned for an Oscar nomination -- which could possibly happen this year for his role in the Sundance favorite, "The Surrogate."

In the meantime, Hawkes has an entry in this week's Tribeca Film Festival, "The Playroom." In "The Playroom," Hawkes plays a 1970s husband and father who slowly watches his family life disintegrate over the course of one dinner party.

Here, Hawkes discusses both his Tribeca film and "The Surrogate," the true life story where Hawkes plays a man nearly paralyzed from polio. ("The Surrogate" already has plenty of Oscar buzz.) But, for real film nerds (e.g. me), it's just interesting to hear what's going through Hawkes' mind as he approaches a scene. (Admittedly, it's not what I expected.)

It's nice to talk to you again.
Oh, good. I don't want to disappoint. Is everything good?

It is. And I just watched "The Playroom" and "The Avengers" back-to-back. Two very different movies. Spoiler alert.
[Laughs] How could you even tell them apart? You can pretty much come in and out of any scene in either of those.

Surprisingly, "The Avengers" is also about marital strife.
With the same budget, I'm certain. What a mash-up. I'm surprised no one has done that yet: taken these two movies and gone back and forth between the two of them.

"The Playroom" felt like watching a play. Is that a weird thing to say?
No, that's interesting. I can understand why. It all takes place in one spot. So, yeah, I think it's pretty effective that someone could watch it and think, this is based on a play. But I thought it was pretty effectively done -- with no money. It held my attention as a viewer, where a lot of one location ... how do I say this? I feel it transcended its single location, to me, on some level.

It's almost jarring at this point watching you play a guy who's a normal human being. I feel you're better known for your creepier roles.
Well, yeah, those jump from the screen. But I'm not sure he's on the right side -- he's kind of turned off to the world. In a way that men are slowly kind of getting away from. He's the last of a breed of guys who, you know, isn't necessarily comfortable with people. He's trying hold his family together and that's certainly something admirable.

Speaking of his family, as a child, I would have dreaded a nightly spelling quiz at dinner.
No kidding. You know, this guy is a lawyer and he's proud of his children. They are smart kids and it's a smart family. And it's a politically aware family that can have those type of conversations in depth. When you get to talking about the idea of dispassionately discussing what's really going on in our family, its not black and white. This lawyer wouldn't understand the world that way. But you either spell a word correctly or you don't. But when you get to your family, it becomes a much greyer area.

There's a scene that shows your character's son peering down on the dinner party from upstairs. That brought back a lot of memories of my parents' dinner parties that I wasn't welcome at.
Yeah, Mike, I related to that, too. The "sneak down and see what the adults are doing."

I was too scared to sneak down. I'm an only child so I was by myself.
Oh, no kidding. [Laughs] You had no partners in the playroom.

Except for a few Transformers.
Sure thing! I think it's part of the film, that there's a real solace that these kids have each other to work through this unusual family situation that they're dealing with.

I was at Sundance and I saw "The Surrogate."
Oh, man! Cool. What did you think? Tell me the truth. I'm not fishing here, I just want to have different opinions.

At the screening that I was at, people were using the word "Oscar" a lot.
Yeah, that's a little premature. But I've never had a film festival experience like that afternoon at the Eccles Auditorium. And the next morning, as well. Those were the two screenings that I was able to be a part of. But [director] Ben Lewin -- a guy who is 65 years old and hasn't made a movie in a long time -- it was really wonderful to be part of the experience with him. It was a charmed experience, unlike anything I've ever been a part of.

That performance is incredible. While you're filming, are you thinking, I'm doing a good job here.
Not so much. I'm thinking, I'm fucking this up, royally. You know? Or, How is this going to translate? Or, Is it interesting to watch your main character, for however long the film is, only be able to turn his head 90 degrees?

Well, when you put it that way, maybe not. But the film is a lot more interesting than that description. I mean, you're right, but it didn't feel that way.
Well, that's good. The goal for me and the thing that I was constantly trying to be aware of -- and was worried about -- was a cloying kind of sentiment that could easily be around that story. And I did try to ask myself constantly, "Am I giving into the situation? Am I giving into the pity?" Because I need to fight self-pity from frame one until the end of the film. Hopefully I did an OK job with a character who is trying to accomplish his goal. And he would have every right to wallow in self-pity, but that isn't a very interesting thing to see on-screen. You always have to see the character trying to solve their problems.

You should do more movies with William H. Macy. The rapport was great.
Yeah! I would do every movie with Bill Macy if I could. Believe me. Gosh, he's a great actor.

When you did the scenes in the iron lung, did you get claustrophobic?
It wasn't claustrophobic as it was often painful. If you could imagine being in an old iron lung trying to type with a mouth stick and do those type of things -- before we got pieces of foam rubber over sharp pieces of metal. You know [laughs], things like that, we found out on the way, weren't good that I had chosen. Because, in real life, it's mentioned in the story. Mark's spine is curved so horribly, he hasn't been able to see his genitals in 30 years. I mean, you have to honor that when you read that in the script. It wasn't something forced on me, I asked for it. But they would position a foam ball about the size of a soccer ball on the left side of my middle back so that it would curve me in the air. It also affected my speech because every frame of that movie had that "torture ball," as we called it.

The "torture ball." That's a frighting term.
Yeah, it was a term of endearment. And, sometime, I would have an internal groan as I saw it walking toward me. But it was something I helped design and insisted on. And something that I think helps the story. That's all I'm trying to do, help the story.

Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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