Sixteen years’ worth of professional acting experience has given John Hawkes the unique distinction of being “that guy.” You know, the talented actor who’s co-starred in several of your favorite movies, as well as films that you’ve stumbled across on cable, but who has yet to become a traditional leading man. And that’s a compliment.
First catching astute filmgoers’ eyes in the opening sequence of 1996’s George Clooney/Quentin Tarantino horror mash-up From Dusk Till Dawn, Hawkes has jacked scenes in flicks such as Identity, Miami Vice, and American Gangster; he’s also bettered must-see TV shows like Deadwood, Lost, and Eastbound & Down. Clearly, dude works his ass off, but since earning his first Academy Award nomination for last year’s indie darling Winter’s Bone, the Texas native, by way of Minnesota, has seen his Hollywood stock rise considerably.
Driven more by art than commerce, Hawkes hasn’t abandoned the independent world, though. His latest small-scale flick, Martha Marcy May Marlene (which opened in limited release yesterday), is an even stronger piece of dark, psychological minimalism than Winter’s Bone. It’s also set to change Hawkes’ reputation to “that guy who creeped me the hell out.” In the mind-screwing debut from writer-director Sean Durkin, Hawkes plays the soft-spoken but cunningly malevolent cult leader responsible for damaging the psyche of Martha (breakout star Elizabeth Olsen). Without raising his voice or flashing any evil eyes, Hawkes’ performance is an unsettling stunner—he’s reason enough alone to make us want to avoid cults forever.
Complex recently chatted with the Oscar nominee to explore the subtle power of Martha Marcy May Marlene, why he’s always asked to play serial killer types, and his rationale behind favoring indies over majors.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Complex: I’ve seen Martha Marcy May Marlene two times now, and it’s even more impressive the second time around. It’s so layered with subtle touches and small details that you don’t even pick up on the first time. Have you had the opportunity to see it more than once yet?
John Hawkes: Yeah, I got to see it for the second time when we screened it at the New York Film Festival. The first time was when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, and, to be honest, when you go to Sundance and see a film that you’re in for the very first time, it’s pretty surreal to begin with—it’s always surreal, 20 or so years in, to watch something that you’re a part of. With this one in particular, the film having a surreal quality to begin with, yeah, the second time I was able to pick up on more things and appreciate it even more. It’s intense, that’s for sure.
When you first read the script, did it read the same way—so multilayered and intense?
Yeah, it kind of did. It’s never quite the same as when the music and the photography and editing and the craft-work have all been added in, as well as seeing it with an audience—all of that makes it quite different from reading a script. But it had a similar impact, in that it’s such an amazingly elusive and ethereal and kind of dreamlike existence; it’s a world that you go to while reading it and certainly when you watch it, as well.
What’s so interesting about your character, Patrick, is that, yes, he’s this evil cult leader, but he’s also a very average-looking guy. A guy you’d see on the street and think nothing of him. Usually, in movies about cults, the leaders are much more grandiose in style and personality. Was that how he read in the script, or is that more in how you interpreted the character?
I think it may have partly been there in the script, because Sean Durkin is a great writer and storyteller, even more so impressive when you realize that he wrote this with a huge lack of experience, being that it was his first feature. That’s there a bit, but it was important for me to avoid what we’ve seen over and over, and what we’ve come to kind of see as the cliché cult leader.
I wasn’t interested in being in that movie, being part of something that called for that. Before we started making the film, I spoke to Sean about it, and both agreed that, from a story standpoint, it was important that Patrick be credible, and not an obvious charlatan. That way, we can, as an audience, find Martha—Lizzy Olsen’s character—a more interesting person. If Patrick is so over-the-top and obvious, I think that would take away from her a bit, and we wouldn’t want to really follow a person who’s fallen for such an easy make. One thing I love about her performance is that she fights “victim status” throughout, and she’s kind of trying to solve her problem, which is much more interesting than someone who’s rolling in self-pity.
It worked out well, I think, our attempt to find dimension and depth in Patrick, and to make him believable—someone who you can’t put your finger on immediately.
Did you draw inspiration from anyone you know, or any real-life cult figures?
The story was so rich on the page, and I’m an over-preparer by nature—I love to over-think and to over-research, and then to forget it all once the camera rolls. This one, it was an unusual approach for me, which was to work by negation almost. Sean said, “These are things that I’m not interested in and I don’t want in the character.” It really doesn’t draw from any influence that I can think of.
Through my approach, it felt like Patrick was dropped from outer space and landed in the Catskills. I wasn’t super-interested in his back-story, which is normally essential for me when I play a character. I certainly thought about it, but I did put all of that out of my mind once the camera started rolling—I just had to present with the other actors and play out the situation with them, without too much pre-planning or preconceived notions.
During the post-screening Q&A at the NY Film Festival, you mentioned that you’re always sent scripts with serial killer roles, or really dark and sinister characters. Has that been going on throughout your whole career?
You know, it’s funny, when I started out acting I was in Texas, and I was perceived as pretty normal—the guy next door, I guess. When I moved to L.A., I noticed that I was being asked to play a lot of psychos, so I don’t know what that says about Texas actors. [Laughs.] So that was normal there, but by the time I got out west they thought I was out of my mind! [Laughs.]
Even early on, I did a lot of comedy and played a lot of nerdy people, and then once I went to L.A., it was psychos who were funny and nerdy psychos. This character [in Martha Marcy May Marlene] was most interesting to me because I haven’t really played a leader of men too often; I’m usually relegated…well, not relegated, but I’m usually playing sidekick roles and supporting parts.
It’s just that character-y parts are more interesting to me than the lead, and that’s not sour grapes; if the lead role is really well-written, then I’d be interested, and in a good movie it is, but there are so many films that aren’t particularly good but at least the characters are interesting on the side, as opposed to the young male lead and main female ingénue.
I only try to seek out great material and great people, and of course a great character—beyond that, the subject matter is less important to me. Style and genre is less important to me than just finding something that I’m excited to be a part of and that I can believe in.
Has that amplified or changed at all after the reception, and Oscar nomination, for your performance in Winter’s Bone last year?
Yeah, it’s kind of almost dovetailed, or honed more to my ideal. The studio scripts that came after Winter’s Bone weren’t even disappointing to me—I kind of expected them to be a lot of the same thing I was auditioning for and getting cast in 10 years previous. Now, they were offers. I wasn’t really expecting them to throw James Bond roles my way, or anything in a huge franchise movie—that’s just never gonna be my thing.
I’m just interested in the best stories. I have nothing against studio movies; they just don’t make too many mid-budget movies like they did when I was growing up. Now, it seems to really be about popcorn movies, which certainly have their place. It’s about big franchise films with stuff blowing up today, or stuff for kids. So to find something challenging as an audience and as an actor is definitely what I’m after. That’s why I’ve gravitated toward the independent film. It’s really kind of picking up the slack of what the studio have left behind in favor of more lucrative type of films.
Absolutely. A film like Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn’t seem like one that any bigger studio would ever touch. If they did, it’d turn into something like the remake of The Wicker Man.
I agree. I think there are wonderful directors working for studios, too; again, I don’t dismiss studio movies out of hand, or say that my way is the right way. It’s just the most interesting way to me. It’s my objective opinion. I can't really imagine any Hollywood studio taking a look at this and thinking “blockbuster.” If they’d have found it in some other form and made it, it’d be a much different film.
I must say, after the Academy Award nomination, while I was getting kind of retreads on parts I’ve played or on the sizes of roles I’ve done in the past, the independent film role offers for great parts really increased a great deal. The whole joy of the Academy Awards, and all of that awards stuff, is that it brought people to a movie I love, Winter’s Bone. I just love the idea that any hype and any press is hopefully going to get more people to see the movie. That’s most important.
The cool thing about how it’s worked out is that I get more offers for great roles in smaller movies, and that’s what I’ve been doing. I enjoy the process and kind of lack of commercial interference and interruption that exists in the independent world.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)