'I'd Rather Be A Mystery': John Hawkes On Keeping His Hat Pulled Down

Jan 23, 2012
Originally published on January 23, 2012 5:25 pm

John Hawkes' conversation with Melissa Block on today's All Things Considered begins as many of his conversations might: with her noting that when she told people she was coming to talk to him and rattled off his credits, she got a response that he undoubtedly gets a lot: "Ohhh, he's that guy."

Hawkes has been in the HBO show Deadwood, last year's Oscar nominee Winter's Bone, and this year's Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which he played a cult leader. He's done regular television — Lost and Psych and Monk and The X-Files and CSI. But still, to many people, he's "ohhh, that guy." Melissa Block asks him whether he thinks it's a drawback to be a character actor rather than a huge star. "I think to kind of be thought of as 'that guy,' or 'I think I know you from somewhere' kind of guy, is an asset for me," Hawkes explains. "I have a difficult time sometimes believing movie stars playing characters." He says even if he had the face to be a household name, he wouldn't care to be one: "I'd rather be invisible. I'd rather be a mystery."

While he generally gravitates to smaller films, Hawkes does have a role in Steven Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln. Whatever he's doing, he explains that big movies don't always satisfy his desire for storytelling. "I feel like the art that changes the world, which is what I want to be part of," he says, "is never the storyteller guessing what the audience would like, but rather the storyteller telling the story they would want to tell it. Audience be damned, in a way."

Ultimately, Hawkes says, given the mix of projects in which he tends to become involved, encountering the public isn't always easy for a guy who's somewhere between recognizable and not. "If someone comes up and says, 'I saw you in Winter's Bone, I'm usually thrilled. If someone comes up and says, 'My friend said you were in a movie, what movies were you in?' and things like that? It becomes more difficult to begin listing things — 'Well, I haven't seen that' 'Well, I haven't seen that.' Sometimes, it's easier just to keep your hat pulled down and move about and live a normal life."

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

You might see John Hawkes on screen - focus on his intensity, his wiry form, piercing blue eyes and long nose - and think, oh, it's that guy. Now, what's his name? Well, again, it's John Hawkes. And now, a brief survey of his most memorable characters. In the notoriously foul-mouthed HBO series "Deadwood" - set in the muck and mire of the Dakota territories in 1870s - he played the Jewish merchant Sol Star, in love with a hot-tempered whore, Trixie.


BLOCK: John Hawkes is mostly drawn to indie movies, like "Winter's Bone" from a couple of years back. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the tattooed Ozark meth addict Teardrop.


BLOCK: And in the recent indie "Martha Marcy May Marlene," he's terrifying as a charismatic cult leader who mixes tenderness with extreme violence.


BLOCK: Now, John Hawkes is veering briefly away from small indie films. He plays a supporting role in Steven Spielberg's next movie "Lincoln," a big-budget, big-cast production. They were shooting recently in Richmond, Virginia, and that's where I met up with John Hawkes to talk about his acting career and his deliberate choice to keep to the fringes.

When I was telling people that I was coming to talk with you and explaining who I was talking with and explaining some of the roles you've been on, I'd say, you know, he was Teardrop in "Winter's Bone," he was Sol Star in "Deadwood," he was in the "Perfect Storm" and those sort of things, and they'll go, oh, he's that guy. Is that appealing to you in any way? Is it - does it feel pejorative in some way?

: No. I think to kind of be thought of as that guy or I think I know you from somewhere kind of guy is an asset for me. I have a difficult time sometimes believing movie stars playing characters. I often think when you get to know so much about someone and their personal life and their wives and, you know, the charity work they do or the - for appearances they made on all the talk shows the week before or whatever, I often think, wow, that movie star is doing a pretty credible job pretending to be a waiter.

And when I walk on screen, I want people to say there's a waiter - believe that's a waiter. So I have no kind of desire to be a household name, for sure. I don't think I have the face for it, anyway. So I don't think I have to worry too much about it. But I'd rather be invisible. I'd rather be a mystery. As I said, you're doing an interview on NPR with you.

BLOCK: As menacing as he's been on screen, John Hawkes is surprisingly elfin in person, his whole face crinkling when he smiles. He's 52. He comes from the tiny town of Alexandria, Minnesota.

: Bit like a Bergman movie in the winter...

BLOCK: Yeah.

: ...total black and white and chilly.

BLOCK: Hawkes started acting in school plays. Everyone got in, he says. They needed warm bodies. And he says that's where he discovered he really felt at home: on stage. He went to college for a year but then headed South, to Austin, Texas.

: A buddy and I hitchhiked around thousands of miles, and those were the best acting lessons, I think, I've ever had.

BLOCK: Hitchhiking?

: Yes.


: Oh, you have to play a character. If it's driving rain or really cold out and someone picks you up whose worldview you may disagree with, I found that in order to keep from getting kicked out of the car, I had to kind of pretend that I'm agreed with certain people that I didn't really agree with. It's a great character study. You're in a small room hurtling down the road and got someone there to listen to, to exchange with, and I don't have really formal training as an actor, but that was probably the best I could get.

BLOCK: And slowly, the roles started coming as he washed dishes, bused tables and did carpentry. Now, with appearances in dozens of films and TV shows behind him, including "From Dusk Till Dawn," "The X-Files" and "24," John Hawkes likes being able to be choosy.

: I feel like the art that changes the world, which is what I want to be part of, is never the storyteller guessing what the audience would like, but rather the storyteller telling the story the way they would want to tell it, audience be damned in a way. And that always is more compelling to me, and I feel like a lot of larger movies seemed to guess what the audience wants, and I'm never too satisfied as a viewer. I think I'd rather see someone have a point of view. And I don't need to sound so highfalutin. I'm lucky to have a job.

Believe me, I'm lucky that I've gotten anywhere in this business. But I'm always happiest when I choose projects that seem to have, again, a storyteller who has a story they want to tell in a unique way.

BLOCK: And that's what led John Hawkes to "Winter's Bone" and the character of Teardrop, that coiled ball of menace who becomes his niece's savior.


BLOCK: Did you find there was something that kind of unlocked that character for you, a small thing?

: I did a lot of research for that one. There was a novel to read. There was learning about methamphetamine. There was learning about that particular area of the Ozarks. There was a book called, I believe, "Almost Midnight" that told of a murder around methamphetamine that was different from our story, but that book told about bars that you wouldn't go into if you were a tourist. So part of my challenge was to get there a week early and find clothes that I could pass as a local person and try to go into a couple of those places.

And I wasn't trying to be haughty or daring or cocky about it. In fact, I was pretty terrified in a couple of those places, but just to go in and sit and drink a beer for an hour and try to pass...

BLOCK: Did it work?

: Yeah. Yeah. I listened a lot and tried not to talk too much, but shoot pool with people and just kind of see how people moved and spoke.

BLOCK: And there's the trick because the more films John Hawkes is in and the better known he becomes, the harder it is to pass unnoticed.

: If someone comes up and says, I saw you in "Winter's Bone," I'm usually thrilled. If someone comes up and said, my friend said you were in a movie, what movies were you in, and things like that, it becomes more difficult to begin listing things. Well, I haven't seen that. Well, I haven't seen that. So sometimes it's easier just to keep your hat pulled down and move about and live a normal life.

BLOCK: You've chosen a very public line of work for a very private person, Mr. Hawkes.

: I think there are many of us out there probably who have, yes.

BLOCK: Have you figured out a graceful exit line for those encounters on the street that you really don't want to have?

: No. If you think of one, let me know.

BLOCK: It's not my problem.

: I'm the guy who's, you know, who's 20 minutes late and still talking to a family or something like that.

BLOCK: And sure enough, after our interview, as we were walking down the streets in Richmond, John Hawkes got that guy. Hey, aren't you an actor? Hawkes posed for a photo and quietly asked that it not be posted on social media. His next film is titled "The Surrogate." He plays a polio survivor in an iron lung, basically motionless, who starts a relationship with a sex surrogate. And, yes, it's an indie. A tiny, little movie, he says with pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.