Critical Questions: John Hawkes
Busy character actor breaks through.
John Hawkes has a large and varied body of work. To some, he will always be Sol Star, trailblazing Jewish merchant from the stunning HBO series Deadwood, but more recently, Hawkes received an Oscar nomination for his role as the menacing Teardrop in Winter's Bone. He continues to mix smaller parts in bigger movies (Contagion) with television work (Lost, Eastbound & Down) and meatier roles in independent films. We talked to the busy, thoughtful, multitalented Hawkes about his approach to his craft, and about playing the charismatic, but predatory, cult leader Patrick in writer-director Sean Durkin's festival hit, Martha Marcy May Marlene.
CM: How involved were you in developing the character of Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene? Did you base the character on any real cult leader?
JH: I would say I was pretty heavily involved in how the character of Patrick ultimately turned out. Luckily, Sean had written a really great script that just needed the actors to bring it to life. I didn't base the character on any real person at all. Even before I spoke to Sean, I had the idea that I really didn't want to play Patrick as the sort of typical cult leader that we see, who's inherently evil from the moment you meet them, and who's figuratively twirling their mustache, hypnotizing their victims or whatever. The movie is really about Lizzie Olsen's character, Martha. If my character was one-dimensional and you knew immediately when you looked at him, "This guy is no good. He's a manipulator. He's a con man"-if we saw that instantly, then I think she loses credibility, because we're not as interested in her story if we see that she's a person who would be that stupid to just fall for somebody. So the more layered and complex I could make Patrick, I would think, the more interesting and complex [Martha] would be.
Yeah, he's a very charismatic figure.
I guess so. I don't really know how to play that, as an actor, so much as just try to be engaged in the scenes and hope that he comes off that way.
Are you drawn to these darker, quiet, intense characters, or is it just a matter of choosing a role based on how the project looks overall?
I'm interested in trying to play roles that challenge me, but it always starts with the story as a whole, trying to find a really great story that's really well-written, and make sure that the people telling that story are going to be capable of it, and do a good job at it. The third thing is to make sure that it's a role that I could be effective at-that I'm right for. If I can think of someone else who would do it better, I usually don't want to do the part. But it's a combination of things. I've done a lot of different kinds of work. I guess in the last couple of years, the ones that have had the most attention have been a little on the darker side.
As a musician (Hawkes is a member of the band King Straggler), was it gratifying to be able to perform a song in Martha Marcy May Marlene? Did you feel constrained by having to do it in character?
No, it was kind of freeing, because I really didn't have to think about anything but what the character was trying to achieve in that moment. One of the thrills of doing it was that it was done live. What you see in the movie is one take, straight through, without any editing. You don't often see that in a movie, where the soundtrack is being brought to you live onscreen, so that was gratifying. It was a cold day. It was a tough guitar to play, with what they call "high action," meaning the strings are far from the frets, but it sounded quite good, I thought, in the movie. It was hard to keep it in tune. You can hear that. But it was really gratifying and fun to play, and I think that who ever Sean had cast as Patrick, he saw music as being a vital part. There's no television, no radio, and the people there would certainly entertain themselves, just as a relief from the hard work they do every day and all of the intellectual thought that's probably tossed around the dinner table and things like that. It seemed like a good idea. It seems to make sense in the film.
You're also on Eastbound & Down. How does your approach differ doing broad comedy versus doing something like Martha Marcy May Marlene?
My approach as an actor-and I'm sure most actors would say this-is really going to be different for every part. It's just going to be a different thing every time. The beginning is the same: What is the story, and how can my character best help tell that story. And then the story needs will dictate what happens after that. In a comedy, those needs are different than they are in a drama. It's the same ultimate approach, but it quickly changes into different directions once you're past the obvious.
Do you feel an added responsibility as a veteran actor working with first-time directors like Sean Durkin, Chris Ordal (Earthwork), or Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground)?
I don't know if I feel a responsibility as an actor. I knew Vera's work as an actress and just thought she was terrific, so I had an idea she would know how to tell a story. A lot of people have made some sort of short or something beforehand that you can watch and have an idea of what they do. I try to find people who know more about telling a story than I do, and have more of an eye towards the bigger picture. I guess I don't feel a special responsibility when working with a newer director. I often learn a lot from someone who isn't set hard and fast in their rules, and is kind of finding their voice on the way. That can be interesting, too.
Can you talk about who's influenced you as an actor, or if there are particular actors and directors you'd like to work with?
Before you said "actors," I had a lot of other things in mind that influenced my life and therefore my acting. Certainly all the members of my family and extended family, growing up in the Midwest were interesting, strong people-friends that I came up with, music that I heard. When I was in high school, getting on a bus to go to the Guthrie Theater and seeing a play for the first time, that was influential. Filmmakers, there are many out there that I'd love to work with. A short list would be Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, The Coen Brothers, on and on and on. There are so many actors that I dig. Off the top of my head, Sam Rockwell--always been a big fan of his. I hope to work again with Jennifer Lawrence and Lizzie Olsen. They're both really terrific.
|John Hawkes performs Jackson C. Frank's "Marcy's Song"|