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SUNDANCE Q&A: John Hawkes Praises Vera Farmiga for Directing with 'Grace and Skill'

John Hawkes
John Hawkes

It seems John Hawkes is everywhere these days. The star of  Winter’s Bone, a role for which he’s been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and SAG Award, and co-star of HBO’s Eastbound and Down (yep, that’s him playing Danny McBride’s brother) is back at Sundance 2011 with two films, T. Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene and Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground

Here Hawkes muses about life after Winter’s Bone, being labeled a "character actor" and how hitchhiking was great training for his craft.

THR: You’ve been very busy since Winter’s Bone first premiered at Sundance a year ago. You just wrapped another film, this one in Texas?

John Hawkes: Yes, it’s called The Playroom. It’s a very independent film. Molly Parker, a dear friend from Deadwood, and I play husband and wife, but it’s more of a story of our four children set in 1975. Then I’m going to work with Steven Soderbergh to finish up something that I started with him, Contagion.

THR: Martha Marcy May Marlene has garnered a lot of buzz this year. What is your role in the film?

Hawkes: I’m the leader of a, well, group that’s kind of a cult. It’s an odd bunch of people who are living off the land on a farm in upstate N.Y. It’s really interesting role and it’s not often I play a leader. I generally play strong people and scary people.

THR: Did you research cult leaders for your role?

Hawkes: I didn’t. The material is so rich, I more studied what the character was interested in, which was Buddhism. Mostly though, the film also came together really quickly. There wasn’t a lot of time to research.

THR: What was it like working with Vera Farmiga as your director in Higher Ground?

Hawkes: It was fantastic. Again, a very much low-to-the-ground classic independent film. Vera was months pregnant, starring and directing all at the same time with grace and skill. I’m such a fan of hers anyway.

THR: You’ve been a busy character actor for over two decades, but many people now know you best from Winter’s Bone. How has your life changed this year?

Hawkes: It’s busier! I’m trying to remain as effective as I can be on screen. There are some amazing actors who are "movie stars," but sometimes it is distracting for me to watch them because I often say, wow, that movie star is doing a good job pretending to be whatever, and hopefully when I come on screen they just buy me as that person and I want that to continue.

THR: Did you at some point make a conscious choice to be what many people see you as, a "character actor"?

Hawkes: I think so. I’ve always wanted to do things that were soulful, and meant something to me. I guess you can say that every actor is a "character actor" on some level. But I think some actors have a wider range. I think that’s how you get that mantle. I’m definitely fine with it.

THR: How in the world did you land the role of Kenny Powers’ brother on Eastbound and Down?

Hawkes: [Laughs]. I think because those guys were fans of Deadwood. I’m not sure! I was quite surprised to be cast. It didn’t fit in my wheelhouse, and I’m often confused as to whether I’m supposed to improvise along or be straight. My main chore on that show is not to laugh because the people around me are so funny.

THR: How many times have you been to Sundance?

Hawkes: Wow. I’ve been here twice for music and six or seven times with movies since 1999. I always felt kind of alone and like I didn’t know anyone here over the years, but suddenly the peer group that I’m part of is always getting into the festival. It’s pretty great.

THR: What do you remember most about seeing Winter’s Bone for the first time last year?

Hawkes: It was with a large audience at the Eccles. I felt at the end of the film, and it’s a very subjective thing, but it may be the favorite film I’ve ever been a part of.

THR: The authenticity of the film is so striking, from the extras, to the clothes, to the landscapes.

Hawkes: Yeah, they didn’t try too hard to art direct it. It’s not to say that they just showed up and shot exactly what they saw, but they were smart to leave things alone that were telling the story before we got there. Some of the wardrobe pieces came from local people who traded in their old Carhartt jackets for brand new ones. We were pretty low impact there in a negative way and hopefully high impact on some people’s lives there in a positive way.

THR: When you see yourself on-screen, are you very self-critical?

Hawkes: When you first see yourself, it’s probably not uncommon to be surprised that that’s what you look and sound like. I do like watching the finished product not only to see what I did, but all the other crafts people put together and just kind of what the story is and how we all fit in and made it happen. It’s more of a study of how to be an effective actor and character in films.

THR: What life experiences do you think have most shaped your craft?

Hawkes: Hitchhiking was actually the best acting training. You learn a lot about people and how to agree with things you don’t agree with in order to be in a car and not get dropped off 300 miles from where you need to be.