For three years in a row, John Hawkes found himself the center of attention at the Sundance Film Festival. That's an incredible winning streak for any actor, but an especially sweet victory for someone like Hawkes, who toiled for years in thankless roles in thankless movies like Home Fries and I Know What You Did Last Summer before seeming to emerge out of nowhere as the terrifying Teardrop in Winter's Bone, which was a Sundance sensation and eventually earned Hawkes an Oscar nomination. He learned of that nomination while back at Sundance a year later, with another terrifying supporting performance in the acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene.
But as he completed his Sundance hat trick earlier this year, Hawkes was getting attention for a very different, very challenging kind of role, playing the disabled poet and writer Mark O'Brien in the quiet little drama once titled The Surrogate, now being released as The Sessions. O'Brien contracted polio when he was six years old and spent most of his life inside an iron lung, but near the end of his life sought out a sex surrogate-- yes, this was a real job in 1970s San Francisco-- to help him lose his virginity. It's the kind of story that can easily veer off into easy sentiment, but Hawkes's deeply committed performance really grounds it, as does the remarkable rapport he has with co-star Helen Hunt, with whom he shares some of the most awkward but tender sex scenes you've ever seen on screen.
Even back at Sundance, Hawkes's Oscar nomination for this role seemed guaranteed, but what's fun about doing interviews there is both you and the actor are still figuring out how to talk about the movie, and the conversation can be more wide-ranging and open than midway through a massive publicity tour. When I talked to Hawkes at Sundance I asked him about his supporting turn in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which he had just finished shooting, plus his incredible winning streak at Sundance, the physical challenges of playing a man whose spine was twisted by scoliosis, and the fact that he's probably the first actor in history to wish he was less muscular in a nude scene (he stopped working out entirely months before The Sessions began shooting). Usually it's hard to read tone in a printed interview, but the fact that he refers to "Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lewis" when talking about Lincoln, and is the first to bring up the idea that a disabled actor could have played his part-- I think it's pretty easy to tell this guy is a top-tier gentleman.
Check out our conversation below, and please see Hawkes, Hunt and William H. Macy in The Sessions as it opens in limited release this weekend.
This is kind of your third year in a row coming to Sundance and having this excellent reception. What happens if you come without a hit?
I've been here with movies that didn't take the festival by storm, but I've been lucky the last few years to have movies that were deemed interesting and important to this festival. It's an incredibly lucky run. There's nowhere to go but down from here, unfortunately. But it's been lovely. The Surrogate was chosen out of a fairly large stack after my good luck during the awards season last year, and I had one other script that I chose called Arcadia, which were two of probably the lowest budget of the stack. I've got very understanding agents, manager and lawyer who allow me to just continue to do work which doesn't pay much to any of us, but rewards us hopefully in other ways.
I hadn't realized that you were in Lincoln, which is kind of the opposite of this, it's humongous. Is it important for you to keep that balance now that you've got that stack of options?
I don't really think of it as a balance, I just look for story. And to be honest, Lincoln I'm a very small part in, and wasn't paid big studio money. It was basically a scale job. But when guys like Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg can get guys to come for not much money because they make such interesting films. But what drew me to Lincoln, besides Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lewis, who's unbelievable, was the script. Tony Kushner wrote a phenomenal script. I'm looking forward toe eyeing the movie beyond my involvement. In fact I'll probably be less interested in the scenes I'm in. [In fact, Hawkes has a nice, comedic supporting turn in the film that's very fun to watch. Lincoln comes to theaters November 9]
What made The Surrogate emerge to the top of that stack of scripts?
Just wonderful writing, a great script and a great story. And also a really interesting, challenging role for me. My trepidation before accepting the project was twofold. When you play a real person, particularly someone who has passed away and is beloved by many people, there's a huge weight of responsibility to try to get that right and do right by that person and do right by the survivors of that person. Beyond that, in the very first meeting I had with Ben [Lewin, the film's writer/director], before he'd offered me the role and before I'd accepted the role, my first question to Ben was "Why not a disabled actor play Mark?" Ben is a polio survivor himself, and he assured me he'd seen several polio survivors himself, and some of them very talented people. But he didn't quite seem them as fitting for Mark. He did cast several disabled actors he'd seen in the film.
Is the idea of a role scaring you important in how you choose them?
I don't have to be frightened by the role, but it makes it more interesting if you can do a role justice that you have no idea how to do. There's appeal in that for sure. But I'm not that much of a daredevil. I want to do good work and I don't want to waste peoples' time by being ineffective in roles. That's going to happen from time to time, but roles like this-- I was going to say it's lightning in a bottle, but that's three years in a row of lightning in a bottle.
I suppose it's just what your career is now.
I suppose it is. I've been lucky, but I've also been incredibly judicious and thoughtful about what I'm going to do. I always try to find an amazing script, an amazing story, told by very talented people, in a role for me that's interesting, that matters to the piece as a whole.
Had you had that choice in previous years? You've been in good stuff, but actors always have to say they don't have much of a choice.
I still don't have a choice, but it is different from when I began. I was an actor for 10 years for free, doing theater in Austin, Texas with wonderful, wonderful people, then having a slow rise for about 10 years in Los Angeles before things really began to click. I'm used to having a low overhead, so to speak. I've worked my whole life, as a waiter and a carpenter-- that's noble work, but I took any acting job that came along. That's not really a recommended path. I know a lot of people who show up and already have discernment about them. I didn't. I just took what I could to pay rent and eat. Now I don't get to do all the parts I want to do, but I don't have to do parts I don't want to do anymore.
Did that make you better as an actor, doing all that work and working with so many people?
Sure, I think you learn every time. It's not all Shakespeare. I came across some scripts and directors and things who maybe aren't at the top of their game, but you learn that way too, to try and find life, try and find soul in pieces that lack them.