John Hawkes

The actor: John Hawkes, whose soft voice and angular features were distinctive enough to land him steady work as a bit player and character actor throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Over the past decade, Hawkes has increasingly moved out of the background, playing more substantial parts in blockbuster movies like The Perfect Storm and TV series like Deadwood, and even taking the lead in indies like Me And You And Everyone We Know. Hawkes can currently be seen in the backwoods noir Winter’s Bone, playing a hard-bitten thug who reluctantly helps a tenacious young relative look for her missing father.

Future-Kill (1985)—“The Light Man”

John Hawkes: [Laughs.] Wow. I can’t remember much about that one. It’s the kind of thing where you’re a stage actor in Austin, Texas and you’ve been doing it for 10 years, and you haven’t made any money, and sure, money isn’t your main concern, but a movie—you know, a movie—wants you. I must’ve auditioned or something. I had a really embarrassing line, but I can’t remember what it was, luckily. I also can’t remember if I was cut out of the movie or not. I feel like maybe I was chopped out, but my name was in the credits. I think some of the people from Texas Chainsaw Massacre were involved, so that was enough for me. But yeah, I don’t know that the movie was a real Citizen Kane

D.O.A. (1988)—“Sloane”

JH: That was again one of those living-in-Austin things, and Hollywood comes to make a movie, and they ask you to say, “They went thataway!” or whatever. I was just starting out. I had done a play professionally, so I guess I already considered myself a professional actor. It was an Actor’s Equity deal, where you have to join the union and declare yourself as a pro, so maybe buoyed by that, I felt confident enough to go into these movie auditions for one-line roles. But it was actually an interesting part, and Dennis Quaid was really nice to me, and Rob Knepper, too. When I was in Austin, I maybe did eight or 10 small parts in Hollywood movies over a few years, and a couple of times, actors I’d seen on the screen would take me aside and say, “What are you doing here? If you’re an actor, you can’t be here.” I thought I would never really want to live in L.A. or New York. Why would I leave Austin? But it was always encouraging to hear those words. They echoed in my head. When I realized that you can’t necessarily be cast in a really great part living in Austin, even when Hollywood comes to town, I got a demo reel together and headed out west.

The A.V. Club: How long were you living in Austin before you made the move?

JH: Ten years. I moved there in the late ’70s and left in ’89. 

AVC: Did you go there to go to college?

JH: No, no. I went there to retire. [Laughs.] At the age of 19. It was kind of a retirement home for 19-year-olds. I felt like I’d worked enough already. [Laughs.] No, I’m just kidding, but it was kind of like that. It was the cheapest city to live in in America at the time. With the population hitting over 100,000, Austin in ’78, ’79 was the cheapest place. It already had an interesting bunch of people. There were Ph.D.s driving cabs, because they couldn’t find work in their field, but they just wanted to be in Austin, so they didn’t care. I think everyone there tried to work as little as they could to be able to do all of the other things they wanted to do, which for me was making music and acting and whatever else I could get my hands in.

AVC: You were in a band for a while, weren’t you?

JH: Yeah, yeah. Starting in the mid-’80s, I played in a band called Meat Joy, and we made our own record, toured. Played with The Meat Puppets once. Sonic Youth said they liked us. We were very much a fucked-up experimental band. We weren’t trying to be arty, we just didn’t really know how to play our instruments. [Laughs.] I learned slowly to kind of play. I still don’t have any training, but I make use of what I know, and I still record, things like that. It’s tough being an actor making music, because even I have a knee-jerk reaction to that. “How big’s your ego got to be?” I’ve got to remind myself when I hear about an actor that’s in a band that I’m the same. If a musician wants to be an actor, everyone thinks that’s pretty cool. But if an actor wants to play a song, even if they’ve been doing it for 40 years, that’s bad news. [Laughs.]

AVC: Did you ever consider getting an all-Meat tour together? Weren’t The Meatmen around then, too?

JH: The Meatmen were around. Yeah, that would have been nice. We were all excited to meet The Meat Puppets, though. I’d seen them play a bunch of times, and it was always something. They were either the best band you’d ever seen, or it was like some drunk dudes had gotten together and were playing Meat Puppets covers. It was always different every time they played. We were all excited to meet them and stuff, but they breezed in before their set, played, and then cruised. But that was okay; we didn’t think any less of them. They were such a fantastic band. Our stuff sounded nothing like them, but we did well in Austin. It was a time when there was no rock ’n’ roll on TV, really, unless you watched Midnight Special. I don’t know how old you are, but there was a time when there wasn’t MTV yet. You had to go out to see music, so people did. I did.

Congo (1995)—“Bob Driscoll”

JH: Oh, yeah. You’re asking about all my favorites now. This could take hours, Congo. [Laughs.] The best part of the job, I think, was the other actors. A lot of people I admired a great deal and got to know and hang with. I didn’t have much to do in the movie, and the main thing I had to do—which was die—we did in Los Angeles, simulating the African jungle. Then we went to Costa Rica, which was why I took the job. We went to Costa Rica for nearly a month to do the rest of the movie. For myself and Taylor Nichols and Bruce Campbell, our function in Costa Rica for three months was to work about five days total, and that was mainly just shots of us hiking along with backpacks, heading into the jungle. We had a ton of time off there, so Bruce Campbell and I would rent cars, and his wife was there for a while, but when she went back to America, he and I toured around the country and went to pay phones every couple of days and called the production office and said, “Do you need us yet?” And they’d say, “No.” And we would drive somewhere else and hang out. [Laughs.] He was such a funny, funny man, Bruce. I’ve lost touch with him over the years, but we had a ball. That was a lot of fun.

Tim Curry was in that cast, who was a hero of mine from his stage and screen work and the Rocky Horror stuff. And Ernie Hudson and Laura Linney. They were all really nice people. I was kind of intimidated, being on a big Hollywood movie like that and not having much to do, but those people were… It’s one of those times where you realize that these are just normal people, and they’re also really kind to their underlings, which I thought was pretty nice. So yeah, not much to do on the acting side of it, but more the experience of going to Costa Rica and hanging out. It’s a lovely country.

AVC: You met Bruce Campbell doing The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr., didn’t you?

JH: Exactly. I already knew him and Ida, his wife. Really nice people. I wish I could say some bad things, but I don’t really have dirt on them. 

AVC: What did you think of Congo as a movie?

JH: Personally, I thought the book was atrocious, and the film also. I wasn’t doing that one for the art. They say an artist is part angel and part prostitute. I guess at that time in particular, I didn’t want to work as a waiter or carpenter anymore. I’d done that for 10 years in Austin, and I’d enjoyed it, but I wasn’t that great at either job, and I made more money being an actor, so I was focusing on anything that would pay. That was one of those jobs, and it included a trip. I was doing a lot of things that didn’t pay at that time, and still do. If it’s something that’s amazing and feels like—and it’s kind of a weighty term—a piece of art, then I’ll do it for nothing. I guess you shouldn’t spread that around; it’ll drive down my quote. [Laughs.]

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)—“Pete Bottoms, Liquor Store Clerk”

JH: Now we’re getting somewhere. I met Robert Rodriguez working on a movie called Roadracers. Showtime did a series where they took 10 young directors, and took old drive-in movie titles, and the director was given the title of the film, and they could either remake the old movie, or they could just completely make up their own movie. That’s what Robert did with his buddy Tommy Nix, make up a new one. So I’d been in that, and already knew him. The audition for From Dusk Till Dawn was down to myself and another wonderful, wonderful actor, Duane Whitaker, whom I’ve subsequently gotten to know. Duane was Quentin Tarantino’s guy, because he’d been in Pulp Fiction, and I was Robert’s guy. I think Tim Roth was supposed to play the part originally, and when he dropped out, it was the two of us. Duane’s a wonderful actor; it was just my day to get lucky. I remember auditioning for Robert, and I put chew in my mouth, per the character, and he said, “Are you chewing, John?” and I said, “Yeah,” and he grabbed the wastebasket like a teacher and walked over holding it out, and I had to spit the chew out. I did end up chewing in the film, though. That’s not something I do normally, but I just thought it would be interesting for the character. I lived in Texas for 10 years. There were a lot of people chewing, including my dad.

So I auditioned, and he said, “Let me bring Quentin in,” and I remember them saying, “You’re the first actor who hasn’t played the ending of the scene.” Which is that there’s big trouble going on, and my life’s at stake, and I’m talking to the cop with two robbers in the store, and the cop doesn’t know. I got cast that afternoon, and they said something really sweet to the effect of, “You’re like a cross between Sean Penn and Robert De Niro.” Mark Twain once said, “You can live a week on a kind word.” Man, I think I lived several months on those words. When you’re just starting out, and someone you think is a real storyteller says something good about you, that helps.

The shooting itself was a ball. Robert was the first director I ever worked with who not only let me watch the monitor between takes, but encouraged it, and then would point to things and say, “This could be better,” or “Don’t do that,” or “Be sure to do that.” That kind of thing. But without over-directing. It just gave me a sense of what the scene was, and what it was really looking like. As an actor, you don’t often get a chance to know exactly the impact of what the audience is seeing, even though you can ask where the frame is. A move that feels tiny can be huge, and vice versa. It was good to watch, and he was interested in sharing that with his actors. 

AVC: That’s such a great scene, too. The movie’s kind of hit-and-miss, but that scene really sets everything off. 

JH: Yeah. Robert always said it was its own little short film. It kind of is, in a weird way, ending with the store exploding and those guys walking away. 

The Perfect Storm (2000)—“Mike ‘Bugsy’ Moran”

JH: That was a big deal for me, because that was a good part in a Hollywood blockbuster. And yeah, I died, but so did everyone. [Laughs.] At least I got to stay to the end. The actress, Rusty Schwimmer, and I met at an audition, and they put us in touch and said, “We want to screen-test you guys for the parts.” So she and I went and had a beer or two and worked on the scene without anyone knowing we were doing it. We went in the next day, and it was one of those rare occasions where two actors screen-test together and both get the part. She was terrific.

Again, there were a lot of people on that movie who I really admire. Mark Wahlberg, I didn’t know what to expect, although I’d seen him be good in Basketball Diaries. I’m not really a fan of those pop-music videos he was doing, but man, what a dedicated, sincere, just really quietly supportive person to those around him, and a really, really dedicated and hard worker. George Clooney was a practical joker who nailed us all several times. Very funny. And John C. Reilly, Bill Fichtner, who are wonderful actors. It was cool being invited into the club, just for starters. To start playing better roles. Not bigger movies—I wasn’t so interested in that. Although that one made sure I didn’t have to have a day job. I was in pretty good shape after that. But for a studio movie, it was an amazing set, a lot of work, and really great.

AVC: What’s it like to work with an actor more than once, like with Bruce Campbell and George Clooney?

JH: It was the third time for me and George. I’d had a tiny part in the live ER episode. So yeah, I’d gotten to know George. It just makes it easier. When someone’s on the cover of magazines, you don’t know necessarily what kind of people they’re going to be, but I already knew what kind of guy George was. It just lent comfort, I guess, to be free to do what you need to do without worrying about someone freaking out on you. It helps. It creates comfort and shorthand. 

AVC: Is it like that too when you’re working on a TV series? 

JH: Very much so. It’s such a different medium. Film is a real director’s medium, and I think with a TV series, where directors come and go, it’s really the producers’ medium, and the actors’ as well. You get to know your characters so well, it’s hard for a director to come in and tell you anything about your character that you don’t already know. Now that said, it’s a crucial, crucial job, I think, directing on a TV series. It’s got to be difficult, because it’s not really your baby. With Deadwood and Eastbound & Down, we got lucky to have mostly really great directors, and with those characters, eventually we weren’t even really so much thinking about what we’d have to do. Even for an over-analyzer like me, it just becomes about putting on your boots every morning.

Deadwood (2004-2006)—“Sol Star”

JH: I think that was the best job I’ve ever had. Amazing group of actors, and [creator] David Milch is a genius. I don’t know how else to put it. He’s by turns intimidating and altruistic; it’s all a bundle of contradictions. He’s never mean or anything, but he’s just such a smart, confident man. It was great. It felt like he really knew how to tell a story. He really oversaw all the writing on the show, I would say. Although a lot of people’s names are on scripts, I think every line of dialogue on that show went through his filter. All the story points and things like that.

He would come on the set and—I guess he’s legendary for this from other shows he’s been on—he would “Milch it.” He would come on the set and watch a scene, and then he’d quote Blake, or tell a story of trying to wrongfully sue a casino, or a joke about a drug buy, or he’d recite a piece of a Shakespeare sonnet. You just never knew what it was going to be. I know every actor on that show has the experience of getting the scene they’re about to do the next day, making some decisions, figuring out what they were going to do, and then having David come in and just by telling an anecdote that seemingly had nothing to do with the scene, everything would change. The dialogue wouldn’t change, but suddenly the scene would mean something totally different to you that you never ever could have imagined. It’s kind of thrilling, the way he works. And then he would leave, once the scene was in a place he wanted it to be. At first it was like, “Well, we’ve got one director, and now this guy’s coming on the set and messing with things.” Then later, we’d be freaking out if he wasn’t showing up right before the camera was rolling. We wanted him there. 

AVC: Between the sets, the cast, and the writing on Deadwood, it probably wasn’t so hard to get into character. 

JH: You could just put on the wardrobe! It was so amazingly done by Jane Bryant, who does Mad Men now. She’s one of the most amazing wardrobe designers I’ve ever met. You’d get your stuff on, and if you were lucky, you had an early call. I think it was Molly Parker who said that if you walked out on that street before anyone was there, and the sun was just rising, there was a strange, palpable sense of transportation to another time. I know that myself, sometimes I’d shoot for 14 or 15 hours, and then I’d go back to my home in the armpit of Hollywood and walk to the 7-Eleven with cars screaming by on Sunset, and even at 35 miles per hour, it felt like they were going 90. It felt loud and crazy. [Laughs.] I’m not a Method guy, but sometimes I’d come home from work and feel like I’d been displaced and dropped from an old time to a new time.

It was just an unbelievably great job. I don’t have anything but positive things to say about that cast and that whole experience. Great cast and great stories and great crew. The Perfect Storm was an impressive set—and I’ve worked on a lot of Hollywood movies with bloated budgets and big sets—but Deadwood was a set unto its own. It was several blocks of deer carcasses hanging and bleeding, and horseshit everywhere. People would come to the set to visit, and if they wanted to watch a scene, they had to walk through mud and urine. [Laughs.] A lot of people made short visits. It was just fantastic. We shot, I think, 25 miles north of L.A. on the old Gene Autry Melody Ranch, and I never once drove onto that set without a smile on my face.

AVC: It’s too bad the show ended so soon.

JH: Yeah, man. I agree. That one would have been a lovely feature film, I think. It’s too bad they didn’t make one of those. Wrap it all up in two hours. But I don’t think that’s happening. The sets are all gone. [Laughs.] Even though not a week goes that someone doesn’t ask about it still, years later, wondering if it will come back.

Eastbound & Down (2009)—“Dustin Powers”

AVC: Are you going to be involved with season two?

JH: No, it doesn’t look like it. As I understand it, the show is going to transport Kenny Powers to a different town, or something like that. I think several cast members are going away. But that was a lot of fun. Honestly, I could never… It was one of those roles where I was really surprised I was cast. There were a lot of other people who looked more like Danny [McBride] at the audition, and a lot that seemed more like construction guys. And he and I were to play brothers, and when someone called and said I had the job, I thought it was some kind of mistake or something. The challenge for me in that one—which I never quite figured out, I don’t think—was, “Do I improvise along and be funny alongside these guys, or am I here as a straight man?” I love playing the straight man; I just wasn’t exactly sure in any given instance what to do. But the show was funny, and I’m looking forward to watching more.

AVC: What was the schedule on that? It almost feels like one long feature film cut up into six half-hours.

JH: Well, the pilot was shot first, but you’re correct in that after the pilot, it was five half-hours shot all back-to-back, mostly with David Gordon Green, but with different directors coming and going, too. Adam McKay directed some, and it was really thrilling to meet him and Will Ferrell and to try and keep a straight face during scenes. It was tough. A lot of laughing. There would come a silent moment in a scene, and one of the actors—well, Danny—would let out the loudest fart for real in the middle of an otherwise sort of serious scene. At a perfect time. That was a goofy one, but I admire all those guys a great deal.

Lost (2010)—“Lennon”

JH: Oh, I don’t know. I never knew much about the show. When I got cast, I thought, “Well, I should watch it,” but then I realized it was like 99 hours of television, and I didn’t really have that kind of time, so I approached it more like a movie and just read the script and played the character. I still haven’t even… I’ve seen just one of the episodes that I was in. And that was only because I was visiting my father in Texas, and we had a family thing, and I didn’t really watch it. I guess that would be sort of like what I was saying about coming onto the set on Deadwood, except I wasn’t on the side of the people who were on it all the time. I was just coming in as a guest. It was a big machine, I’ll put it that way. I was helping turn the cogs.

AVC: Do you have any idea why they wanted you? It’s such a small part. Is it just because they loved Deadwood so much? They had a lot of other Deadwood actors on the show.

JH: I guess so. They’d asked me several times over the years, and… I don’t know, I’ve always felt like if I’m going to do a TV show, I should be one of the people who’s on it all the time. But they offered me three or four episodes, and work had kind of dried up for me, honestly, so I took it. It was a money gig, really. I’m sorry if you’re a huge fan of the show, but I just don’t really know it at all. I heard it was like Gilligan’s Island, and I really loved Gilligan’s Island, so I figured… [Laughs.] No, no. But yeah, man, it’s tough for an actor. It’s not always autographs and sunglasses, as they say. A lot of times, you just don’t get the jobs you want to get. You try for them, and you don’t get them, or you don’t have a chance to try for them. It was slow here in town, honestly, for a while. I look at my favorite actors, like Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman, and those guys didn’t partway through their careers start guest-starring on TV shows, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and do it.

Me And You And Everyone We Know (2005)—“Richard Swersey”

JH: Yeah, that was so amazing. Miranda July did a great job with that one. The script, when I read it, I was just hugely bowled over. I was doing Deadwood at the time, and Sundance was going to have a staged reading. Those are big events; I’ve done them before, and it’s the best audition you could possibly have to try and get the role, because you’ve rehearsed all day, and yeah, you’ve got a script in your hand, but there’s an audience there, and you do it. I was crestfallen a little bit when they had that, because I couldn’t do it. Deadwood’s schedules were such that you couldn’t really say, “Yeah, I’ll be able to be there Monday night,” because you didn’t know Friday what Monday was going to hold. You wouldn’t know until Monday night what Monday night was going to hold. It was kind of like being a doctor with a beeper, being on Deadwood. You always were ready to go to work. Things were always shifting.

Then I met with Miranda and auditioned, and she wanted to put me in the movie, which was the greatest thing, but then it didn’t look like it was going to work out, because Deadwood was starting back up again. So I took a different movie called The Amateurs, a small part, and Miranda came back and said, “We can somehow make it work.” So I think that time, I went off and did Amateurs, and the next day, put two weeks into Me And You And Everyone We Know, and the weekend after that, started back on Deadwood’s last season. It was great. It’s fun to be praised when you’re working on things you like. That was a part I really felt like I could do, and I was pretty overjoyed when I was able to finally do it. When the world saw the movie, and I guess felt moved by it, that was a cool thing. 

AVC: It’s a quirky little movie, but your part is much more down-to-earth.

JH: I guess so. Yeah, for sure. There wasn’t a lot of lightness about that character. He was a tortured guy.

AVC: Do you feel like you’ve been typed at all? Do you feel like you have more range than you’ve been allowed to show so far?

JH: Well, if I ever wrote a book about my acting career, it would be called I Can’t Find Love And I Always Die. [Laughs.] It feels like I do play a lot of characters in peril and characters who meet an untimely end. I guess the thing I see as a common thread running through a lot of the work I’ve done is that I’ve made my home in the part of the house where the underdog lives. I play a lot of people who aren’t equipped to deal with what they need to deal with. But the best of them continue to forge fearlessly on. They keep trying.

American Gangster (2007)—“Freddie Spearman”

JH: I’m proud of that credit. There’s some good people in that. For a Hollywood movie, that was a decent film, I thought. That’s hard to do when you have movie stars and a huge budget. Harder, almost. I don’t know how I got cast. I just got sent a script. They said, “Do you want to play this part?” I don’t think my manager and agent even really know for sure how it all happened. They must have seen something, I don’t know. It was amazing to live in New York for a few months and work.

Ridley Scott was an interesting director. Not only did I not receive any acting direction from him, I didn’t see him directing any other actor over three months. I think he just casts people and trusts them. It was more like, “Try it again,” as opposed to “Do this, specifically.” And when he liked it, it was done. Pieces of the set were walking away, and lights were moved, and all that stuff. You’d say, “You got it? Can I have one more?” He’s like, “Nope, we’ve got it.” I do think he cares a great deal about actors. I don’t think he’s just a camera director, although he is a genius at figuring out shots and how to maximize each shot. But it’s the actor’s dream, in a way, to be left alone. There’s always part of you that needs some hand-holding now and then, but you have to figure that if they’re moving on, then what you did must be good.

Winter’s Bone (2010)—“Teardrop”

JH: That’s an amazing novel by Daniel Woodrell. I was approached by [director] Debra Granik through my manager on the phone. We talked about it, and she wanted me to play the part, I think because of Me And You And Everyone We Know. The character was a super-heavy, dark person, and she thought I would bring some light to it. The interesting thing was that I was working off of the wrong script for probably three months. Had it memorized, was all ready to go. But I don’t have a computer, and I’m sure it was my own fault that I hadn’t kept up, because I’m sure people were constantly e-mailing around saying, “This is this,” and, “That is that.” But I didn’t get the updates. I don’t have e-mail, so I don’t know how they would have gotten it to me. The upshot is that when I read the script they were working from on the set, I was sorely let down. I felt like they cut Teardrop off at the knees. He seemed kind of toothless. There were scenes that were powerful in the original script, and it felt to me that the book had been watered down.

But Debra and I talked about it a lot, and it’s so refreshing when you can work with someone and have a push-pull with them and a dialogue. I think most actors would agree with me when I say that I don’t need to be right or have my way, but I do want to be heard before a scene shoots. I want to at least be able to express ideas and offer alternatives. It’s very rare to be able to work with someone like Debra and her partner Anne Rosellini, who produced and wrote it with her. They’re just extraordinary storytellers, and so assured, yet willing to listen to other viewpoints and sometimes make decisions quickly. We talked that one out for a long time, and a lot of the old Teardrop crept back in.

The whole reason I was disappointed that Teardrop had been rounded off was that for this story, the heroine Ree—Jennifer Lawrence—if her journey is going to be dangerous and perilous, and she’s going to be hanging with this guy, I felt like you shouldn’t know what’s going to happen. You shouldn’t know if he’s going to molest her, if he’s going to kill her, if he’s going to get her killed by accident through his own idiocy, if he’s going to be killed and she’s going to be left alone somewhere dealing with things. In the book, you find out that this is a guy who’s done time, and this is a guy who’s killed people before. That was even part of the original monologues that were in the first script I read, and those things don’t need to be there, but he had a line that’s not in the movie that said, “You’ve got to be ready to die every day. Then you’ve got a chance.” That really sums the film and the character up for me. 

So, Debra Granik, I can’t say enough about what an amazing person and storyteller she is. It was kind of her to listen. Again, I don’t always need to get my way, but I think she saw too that Teardrop needed to be pretty awful and pretty ugly. My favorite part about this character is, I don’t think he changes at all, but I think the audience’s perception of him changes, and I like that. I don’t think he has some kind of epiphany and changes in the least, but we view him differently. I think when you get to know more about someone, you can’t help but be interested in them. If you really know their story, you can’t help but love them on some level. That’s what great movies do. And novels.

AVC: You mentioned before that you wish you had something bad to say about certain jobs. Do you have any really dishy stories that you want to make sure get told?

JH: I guess Lost was the closest I came to intimating an experience that wasn’t maybe… that didn’t feel stellar. And that isn’t anyone’s fault or anything. The people on Lost are all perfectly nice. It’s just some jobs, you don’t feel them. I don’t know man, I think you kind of get what you ask for. I’ve asked to work with talented people and kind people, though it hasn’t always been that way. I don’t really care, for example, if the director’s really nice, so long as they’re great and know how to tell a story. I don’t need for it to be all sweet and happy all the time. But it’s fun when it’s both—when someone’s talented and kind. I don’t know. There’s a couple of people who died over the years that weren’t so nice, but I’d never talk about them. And the people alive? I don’t really see a point of it. Y’know, some jobs, you fly, and some, you push the rock up the hill.