For many mainstream actors, a role like real-life polio survivor Mark O'Brien would be considered a career offshoot—a "brave" and "quirky" endeavor for sought-after street cred. But for John Hawkes, a Hollywood outlier who brings O'Brien to life in The Sessions, the character marks a first-ever break into accessible, leading-man territory, after years of dependable and oft-gritty work as a side player. Hawkes hasn't had a typical career trajectory, and for a while, he didn't seem the sort to headline his own project. Making bold peripheral impressions alongside bigger marquee names, he grew into a scene-stealer cinephiles latched onto, bringing guileless conviction to everything from Congo to Identity. It took a riveting part in Winter's Bone to fully broadcast his unswerving gifts, with his turn as Ozark uncle Teardrop netting him an Oscar nomination. The performance had the depth and the vehicle to bring Hawkes his first mad rush of praise, but it wasn't a huge departure from what he'd been offering for years: pluck, lack of compromise, and ample believability. It's fitting that his inaugural ascent to carrying a film poses a character actor's challenge, with frank material, weighty themes, and physical limitations.
For a recent interview in SoHo's Crosby Street Hotel, Hawkes shows up reflecting his new role's warmth and his past work's murk, flashing a welcoming smile but dressed entirely in black, like he's indie film's answer to Johnny Cash. He's shaken off any prior characters' dog-eared lack of finish, and though he's modest, he looks at home in a tailored suit—lithe, sharp, and confident. At 53, Hawkes has only now adopted all the trimmings of a movie-star life, juggling press appearances and getting, as he tells it, far more public recognition. In true artist form, the actor observes the change as a double-edged sword.
"It's validating on some level, but I'm not incredibly comfortable with it," Hawkes says of the attention. "I'm a private person and not a very extroverted person. It's really wonderful if someone has seen a project that you've been in and it means something to them on some deep level. That's what art is supposed to do—connect somehow. But I've enjoyed anonymity. I've enjoyed being an underdog. It makes me a little nervous to have more visibility, and along with that comes associations, expectations, and things that can make you less effective in your work. If I do a bunch of talk shows, which I may have to do to promote this film, it makes me nervous because someone'll rent a movie and, suddenly, I'm the guy they saw on Jimmy Fallon the night before. And as they watch Winter's Bone, it's gonna take away from the experience of seeing me as Teardrop. So I don't love all the attention and all that, but it's flattering to have climbed the ladder enough that people want to talk to about [my] work. That's great."
Hawkes admits that the scripts came pouring in after Winter's Bone's success. He couldn't have known that The Sessions, then dubbed The Surrogate, would yield such rapturous attention, including two Sundance prizes and awards-season buzz, but when he came across the screenplay, it rose to the top of his heap. Telling of O'Brien's quest to lose his virginity in his late 30s, despite complete immobility from the neck down, the movie, written and directed by Ben Lewin (also a polio survivor), sees its hero call in the help of Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who aids the disabled between the sheets. Hawkes saw a unique underdog he could relate to, and found inspiration in O'Brien's "push to live life despite every reason to give up." He and Lewin hit it off, but not before an actual disabled actor was sought.
"I wonder what Mark would have thought of an able-bodied person playing him," Hawkes says. "Ben [Lewin] looked for his Mark O'Brien in the disabled community and there [were] a lot of wonderful actors, but some were just the wrong age or whatnot. When I first met Ben, I found that he's a disabled guy who doesn't seem disabled, and that's kind of how I'm hoping Mark will be viewed. Mark wanted to blur the line. As a writer, he didn't just want to write articles about disabled people; he wanted to write about the world. So maybe he'd have a broad-minded view of the whole thing. I hope we did right by him. There's an extra weight of responsibility playing a nonfiction character, so I hope his survivors and family see something of their loved one in the work I did."
As his roles have evolved, Hawkes has had growing opportunities to bring strong empathy to his characters, particularly in movies like Me and You and Everyone We Know, a "life-changer," he says, that cast him as a distraught father and Miranda July's eccentric love interest. It's that empathy that makes Hawkes such a fine fit for O'Brien, who, as depicted in the film, uses his humor and knack for reading people as a means of defeating social tension. Hawkes, in turn, uses this trait as a way into a persona, and as a means to add vitality to a man who cannot move.
"A sense of humor's a good thing," Hawkes says. "I hope on my best days I'm as funny and witty as a guy like Mark. I love to laugh, I love to make people laugh, I love odd humor, and I love off-the-cuff wit. Yeah. I can certainly relate to that social approach on some level, and respect and admire it. Mark did it to put people at ease around him, but I think it was probably for his own enjoyment too. It's fun to be funny, it's fun to banter."
Along with his youthful-looking build, Hawkes's buoyant handling of the comedy helps him channel someone 15 years his junior, a move that's a further testament to that chameleonic quality he cherishes. Among his other embodiments? Merchant Sol Starr on HBO's Deadwood, Dustin Powers on the same network's Eastbound & Down, and cult leader Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene (though Hawkes is swift to correct the term "cult" with "community"). With Patrick preaching to his followers, and O'Brien seeking counsel from a preacher (William H. Macy plays the eager-to-listen Father Brendan), there's a faith-based link between the buzz-worthy roles, one that brings out the philosopher in Hawkes.
"Ben calls himself a fundamentalist atheist, which I think is kind of a great term, but I have no flag to wave either way when it comes to religion," Hawkes says. "There's a quote from someone—I'm guessing it's a Buddhist statement that I read from one of the modern masters—that made sense to me. The quote is 'My only religion is kindness.' Religion's a very personal thing, and I haven't studied much about it, but I think that's the religion I would embrace."
Hawkes's quote is from the Dalai Lama, and as he says it, he seems to morph back into the benevolent O'Brien for a flash, as if he can slip into character on a whim. He may be getting stopped more on the sidewalk, and headed for Oscar nomination number two, but Hawkes shows no signs of losing his transformative powers, despite all that concern.
"I don't want to trade what I have to have a lot of money or be big megastar," Hawkes says. "I like my life as it is. I like my life as it was before Winter's Bone. There's no top of the mountain for me to reach and say, 'I'm the king of the world.' I don't need or want that. I don't have children, I don't have a mortgage, I don't own a home, I've never had a new car, and I live cheaply so that I can do the work I want to do. If I can't be sort of invisible in a crowd of people, I can't observe human behavior, which is my job. But I love this movie and I want people to know about it. And I'm happy to be talking with you today. I'm grateful."