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Why You Shouldn’t Say Hi to John Hawkes on the Street

Why You Shouldn't Say Hi to John Hawkes on the Street

Tell me about how the project came to you.

I’m trying to think if I’ve ever been called by producers to meet and talk about life, and what projects might happen. I don’t think before or since. Certainly I’ve spoken to the people about specific projects but [Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger are] the only people that sought me out, which meant a lot to me, because I love their work. As we sat and chatted that first day, they talked about several projects one, of which I hope will happen some day, but they also handed me this book, “Low Down,” Amy Albany’s memoir of life on the Hollywood streets in the ’70s growing up with her drug addicted jazz father. As I read the book, it was a harrowing, difficult read but fascinating nonetheless. I stayed in touch with those guys trying to get other projects going, then eventually this one finally looked like it was going to happen and they had lost their original guy and they asked me if I would do it. 

Had you had any experience with music beforehand; are you a musician yourself?

I do play music. I’ve gotten to play in several films which is cool. I actually play live in some movies, but piano is not my forte. I’ve played music in front of people in bands since the early ’80s in Austin, Texas and solo. Just the idea of live performance and recording of music itself is pretty helpful. You have an idea of rhythm, dynamics of tone and vibe, things like that. But I wasn’t really at all versed in the jazz world particularly. I’ve loved a lot of kinds of music in my life. I’d never heard of Albany until that book; I didn’t really know much about him. But being a musician was helpful in trying to play the part.

The book and the film in some sense are told from Amy Albany’s perspective, so how did you find your character going beyond that perspective?

It really is Elle Fanning/Amy Albany’s story. She’s the classic definition of the lead character as the person who changes. Joe doesn’t really change and she does. There is a lot in the memoir about him because it’s really a story about her relationship with her father, so I learned a lot that way. Beyond the book, Amy was really generous with sharing her memories and stories of her father and in fact wrote a long letter, which spoke of things about her father that she hadn’t mentioned in the book, and that weren’t in the screenplay but that were helpful in terms of explaining him and helping me understand who he was.

Working with Elle and forging a father-daughter relationship, did you cull from any experiences of your own or from parental figures in your life?

I was a child once. [Laughs] And I have nieces and nephews that I’ve loved. Elle was a real honor to love, because I was a fan of her work before we began. She didn’t disappoint beyond my greatest hopes as far as a partner in this film. She is really sweet, and funny. She’s a fascinating human being that you can talk to for hours and not be bored with, unlike some teenage kids. It’s easy to admire someone on screen, if you already admire them already. Some of my favorite moments in film aren’t dialogue moments, they’re stillness or a person thinking or listening, or walking down the street. It’s watching a person think and having them be able to convey some sort of meaning without words is really exciting to me. I think she’s particularly gifted in that respect.

Had you worked with Glenn Close before?

No, no. I’d always wanted to meet her, and you know you just want to meet your heroes. Because sometimes you’re let down by people. She’s really sweet and really a pro and such an effective team member and worker. She is kind and then she just brought so much to the role, I mean to play her son was a real dream and gift it was fantastic. We’re only as good as the people around us when we’re trying to participate in a new active creation, and so I was lucky to be surrounded by such amazing people.

You’ve been acting for quite a few years now, do you feel in the past couple of years you’ve been getting more and more recognition especially with the awards nominations you’ve gotten for things like, “Winter’s Bone” and “The Sessions”?

It’s been really cool. It has led to more man-on-the-street recognition, which is not as pleasant. I don’t mean to be a stick in the mud but I’m private and kind of shy. I also want to be a mystery to the world. There are so many actors I think who are terrific but I know so much about their personal lives that I can’t buy into them playing characters always. I’ll be watching a film and be thinking, wow, that movie star is doing a really incredible job pretending to be a cab driver. When I come on-screen, in a yellow car, I want people to go, “There’s a cab driver,” instead of, “That guy’s got three chihuahuas and fights against hunger in Tahiti or something.” Those are great things, both are not describing me personally by the way, but the less people know about me the better. Along with the recognition is kind of a trepidation or a nervousness about people knowing too much about me, and in the digital age it’s getting harder and harder to maintain some sort of mystery about yourself so I try to avoid talk shows, as much as I like watching them, I don’t want someone to rent a movie after seeing me on watching Jimmy Kimmel and have a different experience. It’s always best when someone is like, “I think I know who that person is but I’m not really sure,” and then they just forget and hopefully just believe you in the character.

When it comes to your role offers or casting, you must be getting more phone calls.

For sure. Definitely. It’s been really wonderful. That said I was really happy 30 years ago when I was acting, 20 years ago when I was acting, 10, five— whatever. I’ve really enjoyed the whole thing and I always felt like, or hoped, that I had something to bring in. That the work I do would somehow connect with people and make them laugh or make them recognize something in themselves or those around them or just feel less alone in the world, somehow. Connect, I guess is the easiest way of putting it. I guess I felt like I’ve always hopefully done that but you know. To have more opportunity is fantastic and more chances to connect with people is great.

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is “Lost,” and you also had a great role in “Deadwood.” Can you tell me a bit about your dips into TV and what kind of TV you like to do?

It’s the same as film, I just want to find a really great story that’s well written, great part in that story that I feel I can be of value to the project in, and great people telling the story. Something like “Lost” is hard because you don’t know what it’s going to be and in truth, I could never figure out why the character was even there! But I’m super proud of “Eastbound and Down.” I don’t really see it as a different medium. I watch a lot of sports and crap on TV but I do seek out art and good things. The only series I’ve ever seen all the way
through is “Arrested Development.” I just happened to find that years after it
was on, and really fell for it. I must say I don’t love commercials, and I know you can watch DVDs without the commercials. I’ve done a lot of pilots for networks that haven’t gotten picked up, I won’t say the network, but they had commercials. And in a weird way it’s a relief because even though the content of the show is amazing, there is caveat that there’s advertisers and that’s just going to make for a different show. There’s just certain things you’re not going to be able to do or say. I can see the frustration. You’re not able to express yourself freely because it might confuse or offend or something like that, so generally no commercials and film is where it’s at for me. There are a bunch of great shows on TV that have commercials, I just would rather not be part of that if I can avoid it.

What’s the difference for you between acting in big studio films versus the tiny indies that you seem to like to do?

Better food generally. [Laughs] And more standing around. I’m not against big movies by any means. Generally the stories that interest me are usually told in a smaller form, I suppose. There’s the adage that: the less the money, the more the fun, and there is some truth to that in a way. Not hanging around, joking fun but an intense kind of get-the-work-done fun and not come to set and sit for 12 hours and go home without working. Happens sometimes on the big ones, particularly when you’re playing a role that’s not the lead. I think the more money, the more there are people who are going to have their fingers in the pie. The more people who are going to have a stake in things, and who are going to want to get their way. I think the only art that’s ever changed the world is by an individual or small group who have a vision. Basically it feels like, and hopefully not the ones I’m in, large movies by nature, in order to make money, have to guess what the audience might like. Sometimes it takes years for people to catch up to those ideas, or that chapter or that piece of art or that piece of music or whatever, but that’s the art that I’m interested in. It’s not the one that people guess what people might like but rather do what they like and the rest be damned.

READ MORE: Watch: John Hawkes is Elle Fanning’s Heroin-Addicted Father In ‘Low Down’

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