And “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Identity” and so many other films. He’s been around for years and years, and every now and then I’m flipping the dial and there he is in another film that I hadn’t realized he was in. “Winter’s Bone” changed his profile and MADE us notice.
The roles that made John Hawkes famous — in “Winter’s Bone,” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — had the rawboned Minnesotan showing off a frightening and fierce charisma. He was playing men you just knew were capable of violence.
So he wasn’t on director Ben Lewin’s short list for “The Sessions,” a biographical tale of a sympathetic, quirky quadriplegic poet and journalist who wrote about losing his virginity at 36, by hiring a sexual surrogate. But casting director Ronnie Yeskel insisted that Lewin take a look.
“I saw this creepy old guy who scares the wits out of you and thought, ‘What IS she thinking?'” Lewin recalls. “When I met him, it was quite clear, he isn’t creepy. In many ways, he’s much more like the real Mark O’Brien — witty, warm. You get past ‘Winter’s Bone,’ and his whole body of work makes you appreciate just what a chameleon he really is.”
Hawkes, whose career as a character actor only picked up as he hit 50 (he’s 53, now), connected with O’Brien, a San Francisco polio survivor who longed to find physical and emotional love “before my expiration date,” as he puts it in the film. And Lewin, a polio survivor himself, gambled on that connection.
“He’s a guy who lives in his head a lot of the time,” Hawkes says. “Actors do that, too. Creative people spend a lot of time ruminating. We’re a thoughtful, analytical bunch.”
Director and star wanted to avoid, as Lewin put it, “any ‘Cripple of the Week’ touches in the story.” Hawkes would read O’Brien’s writings to get “inside his head,” and Lewin would make sure that the man’s sense of humor — something the writer-director shares — shone through.
“John took getting this fellow right personally,” Lewin marvels “It went far beyond professionalism.”
The story of “The Sessions” is set in 1980s San Francisco. O’Brien writes poetry and essays and journalistic pieces for local publications. He does this from his bed, or the gurney he has to be pushed about in. Each night, he sleeps in an iron lung, which keeps him breathing. His heart and his body are telling him that he wants more out of life. He wants to experience love. After getting the go-ahead from his hipster-priest (William H. Macy), O’Brien contacts a sexual surrogate (Oscar winner Helen Hunt) who counsels and instructs him in all matters sexual.
It’s a film of clinical, awkward, romantic and quite frank sex scenes.
“You can’t get embarrassed,” Hawkes says. “A good story makes you forget about how raw the situation is.”
Lewin’s way of making his actors feel comfortable with those scenes was to make them uncomfortable. He kept them apart and didn’t let them rehearse the physical stuff.
“They didn’t know each other,” Lewin (“Paperback Romance”) says “They’d never worked together. And there was a kind of natural anxiety that both of them had about what this was going to be like. That mirrored the reality of the situation. So I kept them apart to take advantage of that electricity. That first scene, where she had to undress him, was tempting to rehearse. But it was so much more effective when she showed up without having any real idea of how it would be done.”
The result is one of the year’s most critically-acclaimed films, with Hawkes praised for his “full-bodied vocal and emotional characterization” of a character with a “frail corporal presence.” (The Hollywood Reporter).
Hollywood is sending Hawkes plenty of studio picture feelers these days. But even though he’ll never get rich working on the indie side of things, that’s where he likes it. “I’m paid with experiences, with the friendships I make.
The greatest pleasure of this job is learning about things you didn’t know much about, whether it’s longline fishing (“The Perfect Storm”), running a hardware store in the gold rush (“Deadwood”), scalping tickets at Wrigley Field (“Hardball”) or learning to play the drums (“A Slipping Down Life”).
“And working this way, every role is one you just HAVE to do, because every film that’s hard to find financing for, becomes your dream dream role.”