Though you still may not know him by name, John Hawkes has become a fixture on the festival and awards circuits over the past three years. It all started with 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner "Winter's Bone," which introduced the world to a fierce young actress named Jennifer Lawrence. Hawkes gave a terrifying, Oscar-nominated performance as Lawrence's Uncle Teardrop, whose aura of back-woods menace conceals -- wait for it -- a heart of gold. A year later, Hawkes returned to the festival with "Martha Marcy May Marlene," in which he played opposite Elizabeth Olsen as an even scarier character: the sinister cult leader Patrick, whose love-one-another schtick disguises a thirst for rape and murder.
This year, Hawkes returned to Sundance yet again, this time with a lead role -- as a very nice guy. In "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate"), Hawkes portrays Mark O'Brien, a poet and journalist paralyzed from the neck down by polio. The film covers O'Brien's sexual awakening, at age 38, and subsequent effort to lose his virginity with the help of a "sexual surrogate" played by a frequently naked Helen Hunt. Along the way, O'Brien shares his hopes and doubts with his priest, the blessedly open-minded Father Brendan (William H. Macy). This is a gentle film, set in a gently free-wheeling world -- Berkeley, CA, in the 80s -- and it presents an entirely different challenge than Hawkes' earlier roles. Instead of striking fear into our hearts, he needs to seduce us -- using only his head.
Hawkes, who has a minor role in "Lincoln" and a long list of credits including "The Perfect Storm," "Deadwood" and "Eastbound and Down," is in the running for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. And yet, even after being profiled in "The New York Times," he remains something of a cipher. I recently asked him why that is -- and found out it's 100-percent intentional.
Michael Hogan: The word that keeps getting used to describe Helen Hunt's performance is "brave." Are we too quick to say that about actresses who take their clothes off?
John Hawkes: That word is thrown about a little too freely, but I think it certainly applies in this case. It's a very courageous performance on many levels. The way that she handles the graphic nudity in the film -- the way she and [writer-director] Ben [Lewin] handle it -- is that it never feels exploitative or dirty. It's such a frank and refreshing approach to our bodies, to talking about our bodies, talking about sex, that you just don't see in too many movies.
Was it difficult for you? Or are you such a pro now that it doesn't phase you.
Being naked? I wasn't so naked, you know. It's a double standard in America here, but I think to show an erect penis would pretty much make it pornography, you know, sadly. Although I have no desire to show off. There's so little privacy of any kind or mystery in the digital age that at least one part of me still remains a mystery. And I'm sort of relieved about that.
You're very private -- kind of famously private. Is there one thing that you'd feel comfortable having people know about you?
One thing? That people don't already know about me? Oh, um, no. As little of me as possible is good. The more people learn about me, the less effective I'll be able to be as an actor. If I do a talk show, and the next day someone rents "Winter's Bone" for the first time, that is not as interesting an experience as if this character is grown out of the earth in the Ozarks. The more visible I am, the less I can be invisible or be a normal part of the crowd or group of people and be able to observe human behavior, which is my job. So it's a double-edged sword. The plus part is more opportunity and ... um, I can't really think of what else the plus part is. But the negative sides are many. I'm happy with my life. I don't need to climb to the top of the mountain top and beat my chest and say I'm the king of the world. I'm just not interested in that. I don't need a lot of money. I don't own a home. I've never owned a new car. The suit that I'm wearing is something that someone loaned to me and they never asked for it back. My needs are simple and I don't have children. And I'm able to be free to do work that doesn't pay any money and that matters to me. I'm in a very, very lucky position -- don't get me wrong. But it doesn't mean that I have to pretend to love the machine. I've been TMZed at airports. I don't enjoy it. That's not why I'm in this business. I understand it's part of it, I guess. But it's a relatively new part of it. The digital age has brought on a new kind of psychosis as far as chasing famous people around
Some stars say it's just not fun to be famous anymore.
Well, I can imagine. I'm not a Movie Star with capital letters or anything like that, but I just want to have a normal life as best I can and friendships that aren't interrupted, dinners that aren't constantly interrupted. If I meet someone on the street that's been affected by the work I've done, and they want to tell me that, I'm flattered and I'm thankful that I've realized that someone's life was changed slightly by something I did. That's really cool. It's people who are just, who want to get next to somebody just for that sake, or have some other odd agenda or something bad, those are the things that make me nervous.
Do you think the overexposure of actors has had an effect on films?
Probably, I find it difficult to believe a lot of movie stars who are wonderful actors because I know too much about them. So it's hard for me to disassociate those facts from them trying to play a character. It ends up going like this: "That movie star is doing an incredible job pretending to be an entertainment reporter." Hopefully, when I walk on screen, they go, "That's an entertainment reporter." You have models -- Daniel Day-Lewis seems to do it gracefully. There are people that seem to stay out of the trades and things.
Did you spend any time with Day-Lewis while shooting "Lincoln"?
I only got to work with him for one day -- about 10 hours' worth. And I don't think I really met Daniel Day-Lewis, but I got to hang out with Abraham Lincoln for 10 hours and that was thrilling. I was quite amazed by him.
When you worked with Jennifer Lawrence, did you have a sense that she was going to take off like a meteor?
I don't always know what the camera sees. I just know that she seemed like a really dedicated and interesting individual and a talented actress and someone who is able to play some real heavy emotion, and the instant that they call "Cut" be back to her 18-year-old self. I thought she was a special human being, and of course she is. And I loved working with her. We didn't get really close -- I wanted to put a distance between our characters and a slight unfamiliarity and a slight awkwardness even. We didn't pal around or anything, but I've gotten to know her a little bit afterwards and her family. They are wonderful people and I wish her well. I think that her ride right now is a very challenging one for someone who just wants to do good work. I've got a feeling that she's probably chased around a little more than she wants to be. I can't say for sure but that would be what I think.
Did you see "The Hunger Games"?
I haven't. I haven't seen a lot of movies in the last couple of years.
Is that a strategy on your part?
No, just laziness, or I'm probably more apt to watch boxing or poker, if it's on TV, or play poker or read a book or play guitar. I'm just gonna write a song called "432 Movies I Want to See Before Next Week," and it would be just a list of titles.
You tend to play characters who aren't what they seem at first. Even Mark O'Brien is a guy who seems to be totally incapacitated, and yet you find out he's got this incredible lust for life. Are you looking for that kind of journey when you are choosing roles?
Generally, I like to just don't play the ending. If you're telling a story, don't play the ending. For example, "Winter's Bone" is a young woman's perilous journey through the wilds of the Ozarks, and I felt like my job as Teardrop was to be an obstacle to that journey. I don't kill her, rape her, get her killed, but why not think those things are going to happen? Why not build her character up and make it even more interesting by placing her alongside this ally that doesn't seem capable of any good? I wanted people to worry about her, because it turns out OK in the end. The opposite was the case for the guy Patrick in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," because he turns out to be evil incarnate. So at the top of it, I wanted him to seem like a really fairly normal guy. It was also really important for the wonderful Elizabeth Olsen's character -- if we're going to believe her, and we need to be behind this woman's journey, then if my character's some obvious, mustache-twirling Svengali, then the audience would say, "Well, this girl is pretty stupid to fall in love with this guy. Why couldn't she see right through him at the top?" It has to do with the other characters and making sure that I'm supporting them while I'm walking alongside them or whatever the case may be.
For Mark, it's already there -- the heaviness of the situation. And so why play that? It's not as interesting to watch a character wallow in self pity even if they have every right to. It's much more interesting to watch people solve their problems, particularly someone who is ill-equipped to solve that problem.
What do you think happens at the end of "Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene"?
I think that Sean Durkin, the director, would never answer that. And I think the idea wasn't to write any of the answers but moreso to show what would it be like for a person in the broadest sense to get out of an incredibly harrowing situation that humiliates them. What would the next month of their life be like? Who would they tell and not tell? How would they live? And so the questions that you are asking as an audience member, and I was asking as a reader of the script of the film, are the same questions that she may be asking herself, and Sean wrote it that way.
"The Sessions," distributed by Fox Searchlight, opens October 19.