John Hawkes wasn’t supposed to be a leading man.
With his squinty eyes, pronounced nose, and scraggy build, he found himself being typecast as various lowlife hoods, from a liquor store clerk who gets lit on fire and showered with bullets by a tattooed George Clooney in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn to a sketchy mugger in the oft-derided Shaquille O’Neal star vehicle, Steel.
Then, at the age of 51, something crazy happened to him.
Winter’s Bone, a tiny independent film made for $2 million, was released in 2010. Centered on an abandoned teenage girl (Jennifer Lawrence) forced to navigate the seedy meth underworld of the Ozarks in search of her missing father, the movie was the belle of the 2011 Oscars ball, racking up four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (Lawrence), and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod for Hawkes, who spooked audiences as Lawrence’s imposing Uncle Teardrop. In arguably the film’s most memorable moment, a shotgun-wielding Teardrop squares off with the local sheriff after he’s stopped on the side of the road, coolly stating, “Is this gonna be our time?” And his performance impressed Steven Spielberg so much that he not only personally congratulated, but cast Hawkes in a small part in his upcoming epic, Lincoln.
“To be invited to [the Oscars] is a huge thing for anyone and a dream come true on some level, but it wasn’t something that was very important to me when I was making theater,” he says. “It’s been a long journey but if you told me when I was a kid that I’d even be on an episode of a TV show I’d have been over the moon.”
In The Sessions, opening Friday, Hawkes has finally emerged as not only a bona fide leading man, but a charming, romantic lead. He plays Mark O’Brien—a real-life, polio-stricken poet confined to an iron lung who hires a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, to help him lose his virginity. Directed by Ben Lewin, the film was the toast of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival where it won numerous awards and was scooped up by Fox Searchlight for $6 million—the fest’s priciest acquisition. And Hawkes’s performance was so captivating it had awards pundits throwing around the word “Oscar”—in January.
“When I saw Winter’s Bone I thought, ‘What? This creepy old guy?’” said Lewin. “After spending a couple of hours with him, I didn’t have any doubt that he would bring something extraordinary to it. Innately, he’s much more like the Mark O’Brien character—very wry, witty, and warm-hearted. It is strange how people sometimes get cast as the bad guy.”
Born John Marvin Perkins, the Minnesota native caught the acting bug after starring in his high school’s theater rendition of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. At 19, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he performed in various post-punk acts until his group, Meat Joy, was forced to split when, according to Hawkes, their drummer got poached by the Butthole Surfers.
He then decided to focus his energies on acting, and decided to change his name to John Hawkes.
“It was a SAG thing,” he explains. “There was already a John Perkins around, plus there were a lot of actors with three-word names in the ’80s, like Anthony Michael Hall. So I reached out to my great-aunt to see if we had any interesting family names and chose ‘Hawkes.’”
During the early 1990s, he had a plethora of bit parts on TV shows like Wings and Touched By an Angel before transitioning into film. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that he garnered a reputation as a consummate character actor, appearing as a sailor opposite Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in The Perfect Storm and a marked man in the 2003 horror film Identity. Then, he was cast in the meaty supporting role of Sol Star, the only Jewish cowboy in town, in the critically acclaimed HBO series Deadwood. The show, which ran from 2004 to 2006, showcased a different side of Hawkes—a tender, gentler side. In one of the series’ most compelling storylines, Star engages in a secretive love affair with an abused prostitute.
In 2005, Hawkes starred as a lonely and depressed shoe salesman/father of two who finds romance with a quirky artist, played by Miranda July, in her film Me and You and Everyone We Know. The film, which Hawkes concedes was “my first lead in an independent feature that people actually saw,” won several prizes at Sundance and Cannes and was beloved by critics.
“I like casting someone who might be unappealing or have an edge to them and you’re not quite sure what to make of them,” July told The Daily Beast. “It’s moving to me that he’s not an obvious leading man.”
“It’s good to be a dark horse, man.”
With The Sessions, director Lewin first auditioned several disabled people for the central role of O’Brien who, despite being horizontal, appears in almost every scene of the film.
“I had this pipe dream that maybe there would be someone who would be in the condition Mark was who could do it, but that was not a reality,” he says. “Anyone as incapacitated as that would be too frail to go through the ordeal of making a movie.”
His casting director then suggested Hawkes, who immediately won Lewin over with his commitment to the role of O’Brien, who is paralyzed from the neck down and writes his poetry by placing a pointer in his mouth and pressing down on computer keys. To capture O’Brien’s paralyzed state, Hawkes went through a grueling physical transformation that took about 20 minutes:
“Go home and make a soccer ball-sized piece of firm, hard foam, put it midway up your back, turn your head to the right, turn your palm up and your other palm in, lay your hands together, then lay on top it and find the most uncomfortable way to lay, and try not to move any muscle at all for 15 minutes,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t recommend it.” He adds, “People deal with this in their lives every day so it wasn’t a heroic effort, but it was necessary to make the character work. The character says, ‘I haven’t seen my penis in 15 years because my spine is so curved,’ so you can’t disregard that.”
That Hawkes’s performance is so enthralling, despite his character’s physical limitations—only being able to express movement and emotion through his face and voice—is a testament to not only the actor, but also the character’s infectious, self-deprecating sense of humor.
“Mark’s brand of humor is incisive, ironic, witty, and gentle,” says Hawkes. “The humor itself was key to me because it’s such a potentially tragic situation and you don’t want to club the audience over the head with a sledgehammer, but you want to do the opposite, which is to make people feel some true emotion, and the best way to do that is disarm them with laughter.”
Much of the film’s comedy stems from O’Brien’s titular sex “sessions” with his hired hand, a sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt (in another gripping turn, no pun intended). The director intentionally had Hawkes and Hunt not meet prior to shooting the first “session,” and shot the surrogate scenes chronologically so the actors’ relationship mirrored the growth of the characters onscreen.
“It was odd!” says Hawkes, with a laugh. “It was unwieldy, uncomfortable, and awkward, but that’s what the scene required. If you consider, though, that the only way you’ve been touched in your whole fucking life is to have your teeth brushed, and then to have a whole hour where someone is touching you in a pleasurable way after 30-something years of being starved of that, it would be a very deep experience for him.”
This year, Hawkes has had his name thrown in the mix for the Best Actor Oscar alongside luminaries like Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), and Denzel Washington (Flight). When asked about his chances, he chuckles to himself, pauses, and says:
“It’s good to be a dark horse, man.”