The indie actor discusses his stellar turns in Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Surrogate. 
31 Jan 2012 - 3:03 PM  UPDATED 12 Jun 2020 - 10:26 AM

John Hawkes is an affable, gentle kind of man who is the most unlikely person to play unsavoury characters. Yet he does it so well. In person he more resembles the guy Miranda July fell in love with in Me and You and Everyone We Know or his lovable polio victim in this year's Sundance hit, The Surrogate.

Directed by expat Australian Ben Lewin (Georgia, The Dunera Boys), The Surrogate last Saturday took out two Sundance prizes, receiving the festival's only acting award for the film's ensemble cast, which also includes Helen Hunt and William H. Macy.

“It was my most fulfilling experience of working with an actor,” said Lewin, following the awards ceremony. “I really thought of John more as a friend, who happened to be acting in my movie. He's completely lacking in pretension.”

Hawkes was not only taken with Lewin's screenplay but by the wonderfully good-natured 65-year-old Jewish-Australian. “I just thought he was an extraordinarily interesting man, a polio survivor himself and very uniquely qualified to tell the story and to inform the character I play.”

As for the reaction in Sundance, Hawkes says it was surreal. (Variety critic Peter Debruge wrote: “If it were running in this year's Oscar race, the Artist would be toast.”) Incredibly the film, which garnered two standing ovations at its premiere—one for Lewin and one for Hawkes—had impressed Fox Searchlight too as they paid $6 million for international distribution rights, the highest price paid for any Sundance film.

Read review of The Surrogate ]

“Fox Searchlight did a wonderful job with Martha Marcy May Marlene and they're great people, so hopefully our little movie is in good hands,” Hawkes says.

Finally, and deservedly, Hawkes is in the limelight all by himself. In the past two years at Sundance he has played second fiddle to two young rising actresses, and in fact has been mean to both of them on screen. He went on to receive a best supporting actor nomination for his portrayal as Teardrop, a meth addict who threatens to kill Jennifer Lawrence in Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, while last year he was Patrick, the quietly manipulative cult leader who beds Elizabeth Olsen in Sean Durkin's debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene.

In the latter film, which now releases here, Olsen's Martha is based on a friend of Durkin's. She too had joined a cult and had managed to physically escape, and like Martha has been haunted by the charismatic leader ever since.

“The first few weeks she didn't remember anything," says Durkin. “All she could remember was imaging that she saw the man everywhere she went. She was basically in survival mode, lying to everyone, and she still doesn't remember everything that happened. I tried to be true to her experiences and to get into the character's state of mind.”

Read review of Martha Marcy May Marlene ]

Hawkes, who strives to find the humanity in all his characters, wanted Patrick to be different from anyone we'd ever met.

“I wanted to avoid any cult cliché,” he explains. “My research was by subtraction in a way, I tried to forget everything I had learnt about cults and cult leaders. I wanted Patrick to be a real human being. I didn't want him to be a guy in white flowing robes with people genuflecting and kissing. Being a person who considers himself a storyteller, I never play the ending. If Patrick turns out to be a pretty horrible monster my work would be to try to fight that as much as I could. The people who follow him are not idiots. So the more convincing he could be as a human being the better it reflected on his followers.”

[ Watch a scene clip from Martha Marcy May Marlene ]

Interestingly, as Lawrence had been deemed Sundance It Girl in 2010, Olsen wore the mantle last year. Admirably, the scrawny, craggy-featured Hawkes managed to hold his own in both films.

“Yes! And to abuse them, unfortunately,” the 52-year-old chuckles, “but that's part of the trip.” The actor who doesn't dole out praise lightly was incredibly impressed by the skill Lawrence and Olsen brought to their roles.

“There's an ease, there's a wisdom beyond their years, there's a clarity in what they do, that allows them to give convincing and truthful performances,” he says. “It's a special and rare thing to have it come out of these young beautiful women. You just hope you're able to be giving back to them as the cameras are rolling.”

Both actresses have commended Hawkes for helping them get through difficult, demanding roles. “Oh,” he says, embarrassed, in his formal kind of way. “I hope I've helped them on their journeys as actors have helped me along the way. I'm getting to a point in my career where I feel like some kind of mentor, which is something I'm not really comfortable with necessarily but I'm flattered by. People are interested not only in how I would help them play the role but how they can make a life in this wonderful business.”

Born John Marvin Perkins in Alexandria, Minnesota, Hawkes has played many characters close to his roots, perhaps most famously the merchant Sol Star in the HBO series Deadwood. Even if he soon will be seen in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (where Daniel Day-Lewis plays the sixteenth American President) he has long been a fierce defender of independent cinema.

“I'm interested in the best stories. I have nothing against studio movies; they just don't make too many mid-budget movies like they did when I was growing up. Now it seems to really be about popcorn movies, which certainly have their place. It's about big franchise films with stuff blowing, or stuff for kids. So to find something challenging as an audience member and as an actor is definitely what I'm after.

“Independent film is picking up the slack of what the studios have left behind in favor of more lucrative type of films. The cool thing about how it's worked out is that I get more offers for great roles in smaller movies. I enjoy the process and the lack of commercial interference.”


Watch 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

Tuesday 16 June, 9:40pm on SBS World Movies
Wednesday 17 June, 11:40pm on SBS World Movies

USA, 2011
Genre: Thriller
Language: English
Director: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, Sarah Paulson
What's it about?
A young woman, Martha (Olsen), flees her life in an abusive cult. Seeking help from her estranged older sister and brother-in-law, Martha is unable and unwilling to reveal the truth about her disappearance. Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, Martha struggles to re-assimilate with her family. Winner of the directing award (for Sean Durkin) at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Martha Marcy May Marlene Review

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