John Hawkes | Interview
After The Sessions, John Hawkes won’t stay anonymous for long.
Playing the role of Mark O’Brien—the late Northern California–based journalist and poet who spent most of his life in an iron lung—is restrictive in two senses. Taking on a character nearly paralyzed from the neck down would have to be constricting. And O’Brien left behind a screen legacy: “Breathing Lessons,” an Oscar-winning 1996 doc short on his life. Anyone hoping to capture O’Brien’s world would have to measure up to that.
Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, one of the breakout hits of Sundance, tells of O’Brien’s attempts, at 38, to lose his virginity. The protagonist (John Hawkes) is aided in this endeavor by sex-surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), who takes a liking to Mark. The film becomes an unusually frank story of empowerment and acceptance.
If you’ve seen the reedy, easygoing actor as Teardrop, the menacing uncle in Winter’s Bone, a Boston-accented poet in an iron lung might not seem like a logical step. “Ben watched Winter’s Bone and reportedly said, ‘That creepy old guy?’ ” Hawkes, 53, tells me on a recent visit to Chicago. But the Deadwood actor notes the roles he’s sometimes typecast in aren’t representative of all he’s done. “I’ve gotten to play a lot of characters in a wide range,” he says. “Some of these projects languish or disappear completely after you’ve worked on them.”
And that, Hawkes says, is what he feared might have happened with The Sessions. After his Oscar nod for Winter’s Bone, he was offered several parts; the role of O’Brien, he says, was “the lowest-budget on the stack.” Which makes the film’s current awards buzz that much more surreal. “When we made this movie, we couldn’t even find funding,” says Hawkes, an engaging conversationalist who’s consistently effusive about his collaborators. “I’m not thinking, this is going to win us Oscars. I’m thinking, I hope that this makes it into one festival somewhere some day.”
The Minnesota-born, L.A.-based star, who sang in the band Meat Joy, says that as a self-taught actor, he didn’t go the full Method route. (“If the question is, did I always remain horizontal throughout 22 days of shooting, I did not.”) He did watch “Breathing Lessons,” though, and to increase the spontaneity in his performance with Hunt, the two strove to spend as much of the shoot apart as possible.
“When Ben told us that we would be shooting the surrogate-session scenes chronologically, we really knew that to keep a distance would be smart,” Hawkes says. “Film does something that is unique. It captures moments happening between human beings for the very first time—and captures them for all time.”
Now, after acclaimed turns in Contagion and Martha Marcy May Marlene, Hawkes is facing the danger of overexposure. He stresses the importance of remaining as anonymous as possible. “If someone rents Winter’s Bone for the first time, and they say, ‘that’s the dude I saw on Jimmy Kimmel last night,’ they’re going to have a very different experience and less satisfying one than if they don’t know anything about me,” he explains.
With a role as a proto-lobbyist in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln, Hawkes’s awards-season gamut is far from over. He didn’t go Method on that film, either—but one of his costars did. “I had one day with Daniel Day-Lewis,” Hawkes says. “I never met Daniel Day-Lewis, but I got to hang out with Abraham Lincoln for ten hours.”
The Sessions opens Friday 26.