Instant recognizability can be a problem for actors, especially if they have grander ambitions than being a movie star. But John Hawkes somehow found a way to keep from being typecast – or even singularly associated with one role – while having one of the most interesting and unique faces in modern movies. For some viewers, he’s Richard, the shoe salesman who furtively connects with Miranda July in "Me and You and Everyone We Know"; for others, he’s Sol Star, the businessman, sheriff's best friend and town backbone in HBO’s “Deadwood;” and for still others, he’s the terrifying Ozark mountain uncle who helps his niece find her father in “Winter’s Bone.” And he’s inevitably going to be connected to his turn as Patrick, the charismatic, intimidating leader of a rural community in Sean Durkin’s intense, riveting feature debut, “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”
The Playlist sat down with Hawkes last week in Los Angeles, where the gifted, versatile actor talked about the challenges of creating a character that was both seductive and frightening. Additionally, he discussed the prospect of working with promising but untested new talents, and examined his own ambitions independent of audience or even industry expectations.
The Playlist: What's it like playing a character who has to communicate a certain amount of menace without losing his humanity, or someone who’s seductive but not quite trustworthy?
That’s a nice way to put it. Well, hopefully this gets to it, but I was interested in kind of charting new ground. For one thing, just the word "cult" throws me off; it’s never mentioned in the script as a cult, and I just thought of it as a community – maybe a misguided community, but staying away from all of the triggers and pre-associations that the word "cult" would bring, and strictures. It would just close off avenues in my mind, so I wanted to avoid the broad approach; I wanted to avoid what we would expect a cult leader to be. I was almost interested in seeing how bland I could make him....if the character, the moment that we meet him, the moment that Martha meets him, is obviously, inherently evil, a mustache-twirling Svengali that we can spot 100 yards away, then I think that her character loses a great deal of credibility. I feel like it’s her journey that we’re going on, and it makes her character a much more interesting person if she’s fallen for someone that we as an audience can relate to or at least sympathize with her falling in with this group of people and falling for this guy. So I guess the approach, the humanity as you mentioned, the believable, credible human being was toward an end to help the film as a whole. I wouldn’t have been interested in doing the film if Sean had wanted a more classic cult-leader type of approach.
How conscious do you have to be of the other elements a filmmaker might add to shape your performance or your character’s story?
I don’t have really control over that, but what I do have control over is helping shape that trajectory, as you say. Certainly I’m aware how the layers of the onion are being peeled off, and wanting to kind of hide the truth at the core if something’s written so strongly, as this character is, and the events around him are so strong to define him. As a storyteller, you don’t play the ending, and I did the same thing with Teardrop – I just tried to cover the truth as best I could and just have it kind of peek out in cracks and be revealed, I suppose. So yeah, I’m aware of it, but it’s out of my control how that’s manifested in the editing.
How comfortable or resistant have you become to playing these sorts of Midwestern characters? How similar do you think these characters are to one another, and how careful do you have to be to avoid becoming typecast especially when you do something well?
I’ve played a real variety of roles, many of them in obscure pieces that no one will see. But I’ve played really broad comedy, and I’ve played the weakest character you could find as well as these characters that obviously have some strength and ability to terrify hopefully and to frighten. But I don’t really think much about repeating myself or getting typecast or anything like that. I just look for a wonderful story with a capable story and a good group of people around he or she, and then a role that I feel I could do something with and that matters to the story a great deal. I probably get cast in more of flyover-states kind of role because that’s just where I’m from.
If you’re looking for a wealthy, blue-blooded Manhattanite, I’m certain that given time I could convincingly play that role, no problem, but I’m not going to be the first guy they would look for in that one. Although I’ve played some genteel, put-together, educated type of people as well, so again, I’m not too worried about it. Maybe I should be, but the thing is is I talked to an interviewer a few days ago on the phone and he just kept insisting that Teardrop and this guy were the same guy, and similar things. It was a little bit frustrating, but what that person doesn’t see is the six movies I shot in between that have no characters like that at all that for whatever reason haven’t jumped yet or are still being finished, or got lost between the cracks or whatever. These movies are the most successful, quote-unquote of the things I’ve done in the last few years, but hopefully some of these others will have a chance too. In the interim, I played a father driving his children across country in a kind of subtle family character-study kind of drama ["Arcadia"], and a real-life guy in an iron lung who could move his head 90 degrees, playing the lead of a film with a body that doesn’t work, and no movement at all ["The Surrogate"] So those are very different characters than the one we’re speaking about now, and maybe those characters will have a chance to live, and people will be a little less apt to think I only do one thing. It kind of doesn’t matter what they think, honestly; I’m just going to keep doing my work.
What’s your take on the ending of the movie, and how clearly was it defined either in the script or your discussions with Sean?
It was never defined more clearly than it is now, and if you’ve interviewed the other folks, I’m going to ape their answer, which is that any questions we have at that point are ones that Martha has herself. I think if you notice, the movie is often shot very subjectively and it really is this woman’s journey, interior in her mind and exterior watching her try to navigate this. It begins with one journey and ends with another. I don’t know that I’ve been part of a film that offers less answers, asks many questions that aren’t answered, and yet to me is a really fulfilling viewing experience. It’s not an easy movie; I think it’s the only film that I’ve worked on that I’ve been really haunted by, and not in a displeasing way. I know that I saw it at Sundance for the first time and I only saw it a couple of days ago, but in the interim I had the experience of having an image float into my mind; it’s not unsettling, but just kind of weighted, and haunting, and I think, what is that from, a play or from a film? And I realized it was from a film that I was in. I mean, I think that I got the movie so well as an audience member that I think of it as something I’m not part of, which is really unusual, and pretty cool. I wonder what people will think of it? It’s beyond our grasp now, but it’s a good ride.
On a film like this one, what do you contribute by having greater experience than many of the filmmakers?
These guys were pretty, adroit storytellers already. When you have Michelle Satter from the Sundance Lab, and Ted Hope, who ended up helping produce on the movie, calling your manager to tell you that these guys are a piece of the future of American filmmaking, you take notice. But maybe what I could bring is just another view as another storyteller. Certainly Sean Durkin gave a great gift to the actors that he had a specificity that he wanted, but he gave another great gift to the actors and in kind, the crew, to listen to other ideas, to be able to entertain other possibilities.
How hard is it to bet on the promise of a filmmaker? Can you easily throw yourself into a project that is authored by a filmmaker who is yet unproven?
It’s flattering, first off, to be thought of that way – to be sought out by a young filmmaker. It’s I suppose a bit of a risk, but again, these guys were pretty well-vetted prior to the experience and also I had the script in my hand of Sean’s that revealed an emerging talent. And if you can write that way and communicate well on the phone, then it’s probably going to work out alright. If you look at a previous film of his, and he works with all of these amazing guys who have a great little model for how they want to make their way in this world, all of those things are great. So that’s this case, but a few times you get burned; sometimes you get out there and you get with someone who’s maybe in over their head or has said they’re sure they wouldn’t make a Disney-like independent movie and they end up sort of doing it, or whatever. And it’s a leap of faith, but it’s always enjoyable. You just hope there’s some water down below.
One of the films you have coming up is Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln.” With “The Conspirator,” audiences saw a film that filtered Lincoln’s death through a prism of current events. Is Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic more of a straightforward biography or does it tell a story with some deliberate contemporary relevance?
There might be some of that in there, but I’m really not at liberty to sadly to talk about it much at all. I’ll just tell you that it’s a much different take than “The Conspirator.” I’ll tell you that [John Wilkes] Booth is a, I wouldn’t say a minor character in the grand scheme, but certainly in the film, a very small role. I’ll put it this way: it’s a small portion of Lincoln’s life, and one main event – but not his death – examined in full. But yeah, sorry man – they just don’t want me to talk about it.
Conversely, now that they have an “Arrested Development” movie, “Deadwood” is next, right?
I hope so, I hope so. That would be great. I would love it. But either way, man, that time with Milch and those other people and those 36 episodes I think we’re all just happy about them. And as disappointing as it was, it’s better having them than it never having happened.
"Martha Marcy May Marlene" opens in limited release today.