Despite a career that dates back to 1985, it took actor John Hawkes until he was well into his forties to land on most folks’ radars thanks to his Oscar-nominated supporting turn in the surprise indie smash “Winter’s Bone.” While he hasn’t attained the level of fame his “Bone” co-star (and fellow Oscar-nominee) Jennifer Lawrence has, he’s sure to become more of a household name with the release of his Sundance hit “The Sessions” — a drama that’s been courting a wealth of awards buzz for his commanding lead performance.
The film, inspired by a true story, centers on Mark O’Brien (Hawkes), a Berkeley author confined to an iron lung because of childhood polio. At 38, O’Brien, who can’t move any of his limbs and yet is not impotent, decides he wants to lose his virginity. Enter Helen Hunt as Cheryl Cohen Green, the sex surrogate O’Brien calls on to aid him in the process.
Hawkes recently sat down with Indiewire in Manhattan to compare the awards push of “Bone” to the current one for “The Sessions,” and the effect playing O’Brien had on his life.
This circuit you’re on right now no doubt mirrors the one you were on while promoting “Winter’s Bone,” which also premiered at Sundance and went on to become an awards magnet. How do the two experiences differ?
I was not the lead in “Winter’s Bone” — I had a much lighter load. Press that is this intensive and this drawn-out — five weeks with just a day or two off — is new to me. I’m one of the main faces of the movie.
How is navigating that side of what comes with your job?
On the negative side — and I don’t want to seem ungrateful in the least — the increased visibility makes me nervous as a private person. But moreso, and less selfishly, it can be detrimental to my career. While it offers some more choices, to be an unknown actor is a great weapon — people believe you when you walk on screen. When people know too much about you, they associate too much about you with the role you’re playing. Someone who watches “Winter’s Bone” is going to have a different experience if they had seen me on a talk show beforehand. I lament the fact that now people will have expectations of an actor that’s become more well known. If I can’t be part of a crowd in an invisible way, I can’t observe human behavior, learn from it and translate it to the screen.
I love my life as it is. I loved it before “Winter’s Bone” happened. My trip isn’t to climb over everyone else’s shoulders and get to the top of the ladder, grab the brass ring and scream, “I am the king of the world!” It’s just not interesting to me. I don’t own a new car, I don’t own a house — I actually just bought a new house for my mother. I live cheaply. I don’t need a lot of money. I don’t have children. It affords me to take on small projects and allows me to not sell out and go where the money is. I want to try to continue to live that way.
And yet by taking part in a small indie production, you attained a level of fame you didn’t actively seek out.
It’s more that it’s chasing me down on some level. But it’s okay! It’s validating to meet someone you’ve admired your whole life and have them look at you and say, “Wow, you’re great at what you do.” That’s a phenomenal thing right there. So there’s good things about it.
Another upside is that it happened relatively late in your career.
It’s true. It’s a slower burn.
You must have known that in taking on “The Sessions” your profile would no doubt grow.
Of course not. When you make a film like this — this was self-financed — there’s no guarantee that the movie will be seen. When you take a role like this you don’t know if the role will languish, if the film will be any good, or if it will be seen in any public arena. You just don’t know. So there’s no feeling of, ‘Wow this is an Academy Award type of role.’ It’s more just a leap of faith.
Let’s talk about the fears associated with taking a role like this one on, given its physical limitations. Were there any on your part?
The first bit of trepidation was really the idea of playing a disabled guy when there’s a whole range of under-represented disabled actors out there suited to play this part. When I met [writer-director] Ben [Lewin] and it turned out he was a polio survivor, my first question was: “Why not a disabled actor?” He told me he was interested in just finding the actor that he felt would best portray Mark, able-bodied or disabled.
But yeah, playing the lead in a movie and only being able to move my head 90 degrees, it’s a leap of faith. But in meeting Ben and reading and re-reading his script, I thought he’d be a really capable storyteller and a delightful person to be around. He was very inclusive of me in all facets of casting and editing. There were fears, but when a story’s so well drawn, you just have to trust that the work you do will be captured by the camera. I’m always just reminding myself that a thought registers on film — you don’t have to do a great deal.
Did playing Mark leave a lasting effect on you?
I think so. It’s been a long time since we wrapped. But I know I got to discover a great poet whose work I didn’t know before. I think the main thing is how I view disabled people. The discomfort I’ve had around disabled people has disappeared — it’s all been demystified a little more. I was lucky enough to be taught, growing up, that people of all colors are equal, and everyone has got gifts that they bring. But in my school, while I was being taught, the disabled kids were in other rooms. I was sadly not taught at an early age the story of people with disabilities — each one obviously very different. Hopefully this film has taught me to see people more clearly, and, as I’ve always tried to do in my life, be unafraid of those that are different from me.
I know that when I watched “Breathing Lessons” [a documentary about O’Brien], for the first minute I thought, ‘Wow, poor guy,’ and then when it ended, I thought, ‘Wow, amazing guy.’ Hopefully people have some of that same feeling with our film.
Watch “Breathing Lessons” for free below: