John Hawkes: ‘I play a lot of characters who you might want to avoid’

·8-min read
<p>John Hawkes: ‘I’ve always pulled for the underdog, and the underdog rarely wins'</p> (Frazer Harrison/Getty)

John Hawkes: ‘I’ve always pulled for the underdog, and the underdog rarely wins'

(Frazer Harrison/Getty)

John Hawkes hasn’t written his memoir yet, but he already has its title. “I Can’t Find Love and I Always Die,” the 61-year-old star of Winter’s Bone, Deadwood and The Sessions proudly declares. It will be named after the kind of men he seemed to play when he was still a struggling actor, before the Oscar nominations and the acclaim. “I feel like a lot of those characters were loveless and lonely,” he explains. “And in the first, I don’t know, 50 or 60 films I made, I died so often that friends would joke about it. Like, ‘Oh yeah, you made it 20 minutes in that one – that’s pretty good!’”

The first 25 years of Hawkes’s movie career were full of those bit-parts. He was “Mugger”, “Liquor Store Clerk” or “Thief #2” – cannon fodder so unimportant that screenwriters often didn’t bother naming them. Then, like an invisible man suddenly made corporeal, Hawkes became a movie star at the age of 50. He found a speciality in both the creepy and the helpless: the backwoods addict tangling with Jennifer Lawrence in 2010’s Winter’s Bone (for which he received an Oscar nod); a seductive cult leader in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene; a paralysed poet eager to lose his virginity in The Sessions (his second Oscar nomination in 2012); Frances McDormand’s abusive ex in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2017. His new film, the father-son drama End of Sentence, marks another leading role in a career that has never gone the way movie careers are meant to go.

Hawkes is calling over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles, his disembodied voice full of nervous chuckles and midwest niceties. He’s opted not to switch his camera on, which makes a certain kind of sense knowing his history. If there’s one thing that past interviews with Hawkes make clear, it’s that he’s not the most comfortable when it comes to the press. On video, particularly around the time of Winter’s Bone, he’s a bit like a deer in the headlights. He’s also never done a late-night talk show, and practically every journalist who’s encountered him has written of his eagerness to wriggle out of their clutches.

“Oh gosh, I’m sorry,” he says today. “I hope that’s not in every article, good lord.” Is publicity easier than it used to be? “I feel less strange about it. It’s great to do a few. When you’re in a hotel room and you’re speaking for eight hours a day, for a few days in a row, it can be difficult. Talking has never been the happiest part of creativity for me.” He pauses. “But I’m happy to be talking to you! You’re catching me at a good time.”

He sounds legit. It also might be because he’s very proud of End of Sentence. He plays Frank, a withdrawn widower who meticulously irons his shirts and puts too much gel in his hair. His son, Logan Lerman’s troubled and brutish Sean, is the polar opposite. When we meet Sean, he’s just been released from prison on parole and finds himself unhappily paired with his father on a road trip to Ireland to scatter his mother’s ashes. They clash, grieve, and sing folk songs.

The film is moving and heartfelt, with Hawkes and Lerman’s tense dynamic papering over some of the flimsier plot turns. One scene in particular is tough to watch. It involves Sean punching and slapping Frank in a hotel room – a misjudged attempt to get him to defend himself. It’s hard not to want to jump into the fray and help him. Hawkes says he isn’t used to that kind of reaction from audiences.

“I play a lot of characters who you might want to avoid,” he jokes. “I like that you can get behind a guy like Frank, because he’s an easy guy to judge or pass over. But he’s got such an awkward decency and a strange calm about him. There’s a lot of honour there, but you also see a guy that could drive you a little nuts sitting next to him on a road trip.”

The film’s casting is also interesting. Based on the roles we tend to associate with Hawkes, and with Lerman – of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Percy Jackson movies – you could easily imagine both actors playing each other’s parts: Hawkes the volatile son, Lerman the sensitive father. “Yeah, definitely,” he says. “We could, if our ages were reversed. Certainly in both characters there is a lot of grief, which I’ve felt in my life. Frustration and rage. They’re similar in some ways. They just present differently.”

Was he as angry as Sean when he was in his twenties? “I think so, but I was working it through creatively,” says Hawkes. “I guess inequity bothered me a good deal. I’ve always pulled for the underdog, and the underdog rarely wins. I’m always pulling for the people who are unpopular or judged harshly. At that point [in the early Eighties], I was in a band that was touring around America in a broken-down van, and also doing a lot of plays and getting roped into modern dance and making visual art and flyers for the band... I was lucky. I found a purpose.”

Growing up, Hawkes knew that he wanted to see more of the world than the sleepy farm town in which he was born and raised. After high school, he swapped Alexandria, Minnesota for the bustle of Austin, Texas. Rents were cheap, and a generation of hungry artists had begun to flock there. “When you have a sheltered upbringing, you’re just looking for life experiences that you weren’t able to have when you were in a small town,” Hawkes recalls. In Austin, Hawkes met artists and musicians, appeared in plays, and found a local agent who got him acting work in films being shot in the area.

At the behest of Dennis Quaid, with whom Hawkes worked on the 1988 film DOA, he left Austin for Los Angeles in 1990, assuming that there’d be more opportunities there. There were, but only to an extent. “I’ve always just wanted to work and save enough money to take care of my mother,” he says. “Early on, I also realised that the word ‘typecast’ has a bad connotation, but the word ‘cast’ is in there, too. So I just did everything.”

Throughout the following 15 years, Hawkes briefly appeared in a litany of high-profile movies, including Rush Hour, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Perfect Storm and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer – but fame, or perhaps merely interesting parts, always evaded him. Miranda July’s indie hit Me and You and Everyone We Know in 2005, and the HBO series Deadwood, in which he played one of the show’s few kindly leads, both boosted his status in Hollywood, yet it wasn’t until Winter’s Bone that Hawkes was able to be more selective with his projects.

He says that he’s become more “mindful” of the stories he gets involved with now. “I do think a little more about what I’m bringing to the world,” he explains. “Not so much in a do-gooder kind of way. But just more with the time I have left. What do I want to be part of, I guess?”

Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence in the Oscar-nominated ‘Winter’s Bone’Moviestore/Shutterstock
Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence in the Oscar-nominated ‘Winter’s Bone’Moviestore/Shutterstock

It may soon be a return to music. Venture down a YouTube rabbit hole and in a clip from local television in Austin in 1984, you can see Hawkes playing bass in his old punk band, Meat Joy. Their sound could be described as hazy and beguiling, or noise pop along the lines of The Magnetic Fields or My Bloody Valentine. He is also sporting some kind of gloopy make-up on his face during that performance. “It was meant to be old-age make-up, but it just made us look like zombies,” he says. “I didn’t have the greatest training in stage make-up back then, but I had tried. I recall there was oatmeal involved.”

“Meat Joy was probably the most freeing creative experience I’ve ever been a part of,” he continues. “There was no real leader. Everyone played every instrument, there was no aggregation of songs, it was just ‘Meat Joy’. There was just utter freedom. We could begin a gig with a 10-minute sketch or something. We entertained all notions. Everything was tried.” The quiet of the last year has made him surprisingly nostalgic for those days, he says. “It was a very interesting time,” he sighs. “We even got a write-up in New Musical Express, which is hilarious. We loved that.”

Hawkes says that he’s never had any precise plan for his artistic life. “I guess it all served the whole,” he explains. “I just wanted to work and make things and – gosh, I’m 61 now.” He stifles a laugh, before returning to his train of thought. “I feel like all of art and creativity really informs each other. If you’re a writer and you go see a dance performance, you walk out a better writer. If you’re a sculptor and you go see a film, you walk out a better sculptor. So to me, the more I could try, the more I could experience, and the better I’d be.”

He says that, coincidentally, labels have been “sniffing around” Meat Joy’s old recordings, and that the band has been “reassessing and relistening” to their material. A reunion may even be on the cards. For Hawkes to become a rock star in his sixties would be an unexpected move. But as proven by an actor who became famous at 50, stranger things have happened.

End of Sentence is released on digital platforms on 10 May

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