Who's that man in the iron lung?

Hollywood underdog

Early last year, the director Ben Lewin was looking for an actor to play the lead in The Sessions, a film he wrote based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet who had contracted polio as a young boy and spent most of his life in an iron lung. The casting director, Ronnie Yeskel, mentioned John Hawkes. “This is your man,” she assured him.

Unfamiliar with his work, Lewin watched Winter’s Bone, the drug thriller set in the Ozarks that won Hawkes an Oscar nomination. In it he plays a hard-mouthed meth dealer named Teardrop, a far cry from the severely disabled man of Lewin’s film, who with equal parts terror and courage seeks out a professional sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity. “What?” Lewin remembered thinking. “That creepy guy?” Only after Lewin decided to check out some of the actor’s other films did he catch John Hawkes fever. “I thought, this guy’s incredible, just the diversity of what he can do.”

Lewin wouldn’t be the only one to have spent years seeing Hawkes in untold film and television appearances without being able to put a name to his thin, expressive face.

Hawkes has worked steadily since the mid-‘80s (his TV credits include Wings, 24 and Deadwood), yet when he received his dark-horse supporting-actor Oscar nomination in 2011, one headline seemed to sum it up: Who Is John Hawkes, Anyway? Today it’s a different story: on the many blogs and websites devoted to predicting the winners of the 2013 Academy Awards, Hawkes’ name comes up frequently in conversations about best-actor nominations along with gold-star competition like Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) and Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln).

Hawkes likes to think of himself as an “overpreparer,” and he certainly went the distance for The Sessions, in which his character spends much of the film encased in a huge metal apparatus with only his head showing. To approximate O’Brien’s condition — he had feeling in his body but was paralysed except for one muscle in his right foot, a muscle in his neck and one in his jaw — Hawkes did everything from studying Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning documentary short (Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’ Brien) to devoting a week stretched out on a couch, teaching himself to punch in a phone number using a stick held in his mouth. Then there was the actual shoot, which required spending long days completely still with his neck craned at a 90-degree angle while co-stars like Helen Hunt and William H Macy hovered over him.

“Lying down and literally not having movement below your neck?” Hawkes said. “It was a particular challenge.” Hawkes did not see a finished version of The Sessions until its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where audience members leapt to their feet at the end. But Hawkes said he was most moved by what followed the applause: the sight of Lewin, who also had survived polio, coming to the front of the house for a postscreening discussion.

“Sundance is about the wunderkind in their 20s wowing the world with their first feature,” Hawkes said. He added that, to watch Lewin, who is 66, “make his way on his crutches with a large smile on his face to the stage — that made me so happy.” O’Brien, the subject of the film, died in 1999 at the age of 49.

The Sessions is a turning point for Hawkes not just because it is one of his largest roles but also because, in Lewin’s view, it is atypical for Hawkes, a big-eyed, soft-spoken 53-year-old, to play someone whose temperament is so similar to his own. “I don’t want to be presumptuous, but there was much less difference between John and Mark O’Brien than between John and Teardrop,” Lewin said, rattling off a few other qualities. “He’s very wry, funny and sweet. Like Mark O’Brien, John loves women. He loves to flirt and to joke. I felt that he was using his own personality a lot of the time.”

For much of his 26-year film career, Hawkes has specialised in playing men who are rumpled, rough around the edges and often their own worst enemies. “I’ve played a lot of people who you walk across the street to avoid,” said Hawkes, who thinks of his dramatic niche as underdogs, guys “who aren’t equipped to solve their problems but gamely and blithely keep punching — I find that interesting.”

“I wasn’t the golden boy when I was growing up,” said Hawkes, who discovered the joys of acting in high school when he was cast in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. “I was physically small. I was teased as a kid about having a big nose, too skinny, things like that. I have an innocence about me that people often have laughed at. None of this broke me down. But those feelings, they’re of use to me.”

After graduation, he moved to Austin, Texas, and soon became a respected fixture in that city’s theatre scene. Technically, his first film appearance was in Future-Kill, a 1985 slasher he would rather forget. He prefers to think of his role three years later as a snoozing student in the thriller D.O.A. as his feature debut. “I remember drooling a little bit — and they didn’t like that and the director made me stop,” said Hawkes, adding that the film’s star, Dennis Quaid, told him: “You’re a good actor. You should be in New York or LA.”

The offer to appear in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, in which Hawkes plays a lobbyist (along with James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson) trying to win votes to abolish slavery, came after The Sessions. “What I found out was that I’d be asleep through the only scene I’d have with Daniel Day-Lewis,” Hawkes said of the movie’s star. But that was before revisions by the screenwriter, Tony Kushner. “Luckily, Tony woke us up and I got to actually be present with him.”

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