Talking with John Hawkes, star of 'Winter's Bone'
John Hawkes is one of those actors who looks familiar, but that moviegoers and TV viewers can't always place. That's because -- after 20-plus years in the business -- he's played so many roles that it's almost impossible to tie him to just one.
A self-described character actor with a pretty vast range, he's appeared in studio pictures ("The Perfect Storm," "Identity," "Miami Vice"), indie films ("Me and You and Everyone We Know," "Wristcutters: A Love Story") and on numerous television series, including "Deadwood," "Eastbound and Down" and "Lost."
Most recently, he's been winning strong notices for his role in one of the summer's most well-received indie films, "Winter's Bone," a film that serves as a chilling, immersive antidote to the fantasy land of the summer movie season.
Hawkes, 50, recently called from Manhattan -- where he was taking a brief break from shooting "Higher Ground," the directorial debut from Vera Farmiga -- to talk about his role in "Winter's Bone" as Teardrop, an addled, potentially dangerous man faced with the opportunity to help his niece, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), escape a situation of extreme desperation. During the conversation, he discusses his work in "Winter's Bone" -- which is currently playing in select cities, and opens wider today -- and also explains why he doesn't use e-mail and reveals that even he had no idea what Lennon, his character on "Lost," was doing on the island.
What appealed to you about "Winter's Bone"? From what I’ve read, the director thought of you because of “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” is that right?
That’s, I think, one of the reasons she wanted me to do the job, yes. And that’s, you know, an unusual choice if you look at Teardrop. But I think she saw a vulnerability in the "Me and You and Everyone We Know" character that she thought might be interesting in Teardrop. And then we kind of had very healthy and wonderful debates, [director] Debra [Granik] and I, about how hard or not Teardrop should be. Earlier scripts had softened him a fair amount and I was in the camp that Teardrop should be a real obstacle to Ree’s journey, or a seeming obstacle.to Ree’s journey. And kind of, the more the audience would worry for her when she was with him, the better.
In the scene where we first meet Teardrop, the character has to respond to Ree in a violent way. Was that in the script originally, or was that one of the things you fought for to establish a sense of unease with the character? And secondly, what was it like shooting that scene? Was it difficult to have to do that?
Daniel Woodrell’s novel has a description of Teardrops miniature attack. Not a miniature attack, that’s a strange way to put it, but Teardrop’s initial going at her. And that was taken out of the … as the scripts went along … I guess it boils down to this: I don’t have e-mail. So everyone presumes you’re up on these scripts and things, and I was working off a script for several months that was maybe seven or eight rewrites old, and memorizing it and being all excited and ready to go.
Then another script showed up that was many drafts later and that [moment] was gone. And I guess fought for is a term that sounds like Debra and I were – it was a friendly fight and a friendly debate, and Debra was good with bringing that piece back into the film.
Shooting that scene was, uh, I guess it was midway through shooting so I guess I had a bit of a handle on the character. But the scene was important because I wanted to establish for the story that relationship really quickly, Teardrop’s and Ree’s. Jennifer was very game for the physicality of it. I don’t think it was a comfortable couple of hours for her, shooting through some of that stuff. But she was ready to go.
Was it ever uncomfortable for you to have to be that aggressive with her?
Yes, just from a human to human standpoint. As an actor you have to have a strong vivid imagination as you’re working and when the camera’s rolling, but there’s certainly a part of you that is aware of real life, that you’re making a movie. After pretty much every take, I would ask her if she was okay and if she wanted me to change anything. And I don’t think it was a comfortable thing for her, but she was very encouraging for me to do what it took to make the scene sing.
You said something intriguing a few minutes ago that I want to ask you about: You don’t have e-mail?
(Laughs) The only thing I do on a computer is play Texas Hold ‘Em, really. Obviously my cell phone is a computer. My car is a computer. I’m on computers every day without actively seeking them out. I’ve had a very odd anti-tech, Luddite … crusade for the last couple of years.
Is it a stand on principle, or just an “I don’t feel like dealing with this” type of thing?
A little of both. I’ve been around a little while and it was interesting how quickly we became a digital world. I mean, really quickly in the scheme of things. And it didn’t seem like there was any debate about whether this was good for us as a people or a planet. The dictums seemed to be, let’s put [computers] everywhere, in every school, in every remote tribal village we can find. It’s interesting. It was odd, now that I’m someone who didn’t join up I’m viewed as either, by some quaint, by others deluded and by others, kind of annoying.
Some friends of mine bothered me for a long time about getting on the social networking pages. They were close friends that I liked to mess with, and I think that I kind of enjoyed for a while that it bothered them so much. Now they’ve just kind of given up. I guess I’m seeing how much longer I can go. It’s hard to get concert tickets. You know, they don’t want you to talk to people when you book an airline flight – yeah, so it’s kind of more difficult on one level, but on the other hand it’s less a principled stance than it is I kind of enjoy my life as it is … I understand that it’s useful. But as a person who likes information a lot, I’m afraid it would be kind of a Pandora’s Box for me.
Back to “Winter’s Bone,” I am sure you saw in the New York Times that your work was chosen as one of the breakthrough performances of the summer. What do you make of it? Is it almost dangerous to read praise of that caliber?
You know, I’ve been doing this I think long enough to where it’s kind of an in one ear, out the other kind of thing. Because I’ve had some really bad reviews as well in my life. People have said unkind things and you kind of have to, if you happen to read it, you have to just, you know, move on. The New York Times thing … I think any actor would be thrilled to be profiled in that paper. I know I was. I know it was probably something I thought of 20 or 30 years ago. Wow, what if one day the New York Times mentioned me and there was a photograph of me?
And it’s shallow and silly but it’s kind of the paper to be mentioned in, I believe. It was really complimentary and it hopefully helps the movie be seen by more people. This is one of the rare, rare, rare movies I’ve worked on that I’m excited about and believe in so much. If it helps the movie, then it’s great.
There is one other dynamic alongside, I guess, the pride that I would feel through an article like that – and in speaking to you today a little bit – is the worry of becoming a little too known. I feel like it’s a great strength for a character actor to be someone that the audience maybe thinks they’ve seen before in other parts, but they can’t place it. Rather than, “Oh, that’s a movie star playing a construction worker,” they’ll think, "That guy’s a construction worker." If that makes any sense.
It’s probably odd for someone to read an interview where the interviewee is worried about exposure while they’re talking in an interview. That’s been one reason I can have some effectiveness in the storytelling I’m involved in because I’m not a guy like – oh, that guy’s got three Chihuahuas.
You’ve also played such a wide range of characters, it’s sort of hard to pin you down as always the good guy, or the bad guy, or the funny guy. You’ve done all of that.
That’s kind of the cool thing in this ... For ["Winter's Bone"], people are saying I don’t see you as much as the bad guy, and I think that’s probably [what I play] about half the time. It’s kind of good in a way that hopefully each performance make everyone forget the others.
Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about your work on "Lost." What was it like working on the show, sort of popping into a series that’s so pre-established and popping right back out?
Kind of maybe what you’d expect. I am sad to say, and I hope your readers don’t want to kill me, but I’m just not a huge fan of the show. I wouldn’t say I dislike it. I certainly knew it existed, but I just wasn’t overly involved in it before I came onboard.
And I thought, well, I’ll just watch it and catch up. And I realized at that point it was 99 hours of TV. So I thought, well, I’m going to approach it like a normal movie script, as though I didn’t know anything else and this is what I have in front of me and this is what I’ll work from. I think that’s not a bad idea because honestly, I don’t think a lot of people knew or know, to this day, what they were doing on the show.
It was okay. It was good. The people were nice. I’ve been on TV shows that I was a regular character, so to guest star on a show, the word “guest” is in there, it’s a key word I guess. That show was rolling along. I was a happy little cog in the wheel and certainly not allowed or encouraged to really have input, so that makes it kind of less fun, to not really be part of the storytelling process. But I figured out that was how it was going to be and so I just kind of went along and did it. I hadn’t worked in a while, it had been a slow time and I was looking for a job and that one came along.
I’m guessing I know the answer to this question, but did you ever have a broader sense of how Lennon fit into the narrative?
No, and I don’t think you would to this day. That’s one issue with the show I have is, why was I even there? What did it matter if I had been there or not? Again, I like to matter to the story.
This is no reflection on your performance. But as a fan of the show, I also never really understood why your character and Dogen were crucial characters.
Yeah, and maybe they had an idea that they were going to be. I don’t want to think too deeply about why that might not have happened but, you know, it was … it’s a hard show to talk about because I don’t really know what it was or what happened on it. My sweetheart is an avowed, alternately this is a silly show but I can’t stop watching it, kind of fan. At the end, she kind of couldn’t tell me either why I’d been part of it.
I wish I had more interesting things to say about that.
I was hoping you’d have the answer: finally, I’d understand why that character was there!
No. I had no clue what was going on over there. But [the story] was told in a way that made people want to keep watching, so that’s good. The other actors were nice people. It had its own particular challenges that I won’t go into. But it was a job. And the checks cleared. So that’s good.
To end on a somewhat happier note, are you seeing any new projects come your way because of “Winter’s Bone”?
Maybe because I’m on the road I don’t know about it. But kinda no, not yet. But I suspect that in the next couple of weeks as the movie gets more audience, that things will open up.
I’m not sure it’s due to the film, though I would assume it is. I got a call from my agents a month ago, and they said [Steven] Soderbergh wants you to be part of his film and we’re going to send you a script. I was very excited. That’s a director that’s on quite a short list of people that I want to work with and haven’t. I think he’s got such a range of big studio movies versus super-personal movies.
They said are you interested? I said: "I would sweep the floors for that guy. What’s the role? And they said Roger the janitor." So I will literally be sweeping the floor. It’s a small part but there’s a zillion small parts. It’s one of those with a couple of leads…
It is. It doesn’t shoot until, I think, next year ... That’s something really great that’s come but hopefully there’s a lot more around the bend.
| June 25, 2010; 10:50 AM ET
Categories: Lost, Movies, Pop Culture | Tags: Q&As
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