Many people were upset that directors Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper and Ben Affleck were overlooked at this year’s Oscars. There’s only room for so many nominations but one could argue there’s another person to add to the list who prevailed as Best Actor at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards.
John Hawkes has charmed critics with his performance as, Mark O’Brien, a man who has spent most of his life in an iron lung that is now determined to lose his virginity at age 38 in The Sessions. The film is based on a true story and Hawkes embodies the polio-stricken O’Brien’s physicality laying down, twisted and conveying his feelings through voice and facial expressions. Roger Ebert’s review sums up the situation.
He [O'Brien] has feeling all over his body. He has an instinct his time is running out. He would like to experience sexual intercourse with a woman at least once before he dies. At a time when sex is as common in the movies as automobiles, his need and his attempt to fulfill it requires an awesome dedication. The film is a reminder of how unique sexual intimacy is, and even how ennobling.
Although many fans are just starting to recognize Hawkes after his Oscar nominated performance in Winter’s Bone, he’s been acting in film and TV for decades. Tribeca Film examined his career which transitions from small scene-stealer roles to leading man material.
Hawkes broke into acting in the film Future-Kill (his debut performance alongside the returning players from the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and then steadily appeared in bit parts in movies such as D.O.A. and Johnny Be Good. In 1995, Hawkes had a small but memorable role in Congo alongside genre legend Bruce Campbell as the doomed Bob Driscoll who meets his untimely demise when he encounters some very ornery gorillas. The following year, he again made a small role memorable, playing Pete Bottoms in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn. As the liquor store clerk who must keep his calm as a sheriff stops in to buy a drink at the same time two crooks (Tarantino and George Clooney) are robbing the place, Hawkes was able to switch from cool customer to unhinged mad man in a single shootout scene.
I met Robert Rodriguez working on a movie called Roadracers. Showtime did a series where they took 10 young directors, and took old drive-in movie titles, and the director was given the title of the film, and they could either remake the old movie, or they could just completely make up their own movie. That’s what Robert did with his buddy Tommy Nix, make up a new one.
The audition for From Dusk Till Dawn was down to myself and another wonderful, wonderful actor, Duane Whitaker, whom I’ve subsequently gotten to know. Duane was Quentin Tarantino’s guy, because he’d been in Pulp Fiction, and I was Robert’s guy. I think Tim Roth was supposed to play the part originally, and when he dropped out, it was the two of us. Duane’s a wonderful actor; it was just my day to get lucky.I remember auditioning for Robert, and I put chew in my mouth, per the character, and he said, “Are you chewing, John?” and I said, “Yeah,” and he grabbed the wastebasket like a teacher and walked over holding it out, and I had to spit the chew out. I did end up chewing in the film, though. That’s not something I do normally, but I just thought it would be interesting for the character. I lived in Texas for 10 years. There were a lot of people chewing, including my dad.
So I auditioned, and he said, “Let me bring Quentin in,” and I remember them saying, “You’re the first actor who hasn’t played the ending of the scene.” Which is that there’s big trouble going on, and my life’s at stake, and I’m talking to the cop with two robbers in the store, and the cop doesn’t know. I got cast that afternoon, and they said something really sweet to the effect of, “You’re like a cross between Sean Penn and Robert De Niro.” Mark Twain once said, “You can live a week on a kind word.” Man, I think I lived several months on those words. When you’re just starting out, and someone you think is a real storyteller says something good about you, that helps.
The shooting itself was a ball. Robert was the first director I ever worked with who not only let me watch the monitor between takes, but encouraged it, and then would point to things and say, “This could be better,” or “Don’t do that,” or “Be sure to do that.” That kind of thing. But without over-directing. It just gave me a sense of what the scene was, and what it was really looking like. As an actor, you don’t often get a chance to know exactly the impact of what the audience is seeing, even though you can ask where the frame is. A move that feels tiny can be huge, and vice versa. It was good to watch, and he was interested in sharing that with his actors.
Hawkes has played a long list of characters but he feels he can be a bit typecast.
Well, if I ever wrote a book about my acting career, it would be called I Can’t Find Love And I Always Die. [Laughs.] It feels like I do play a lot of characters in peril and characters who meet an untimely end. I guess the thing I see as a common thread running through a lot of the work I’ve done is that I’ve made my home in the part of the house where the underdog lives. I play a lot of people who aren’t equipped to deal with what they need to deal with. But the best of them continue to forge fearlessly on. They keep trying.