The rising career of John Hawkes

July 22, 2013

Nat (Ryan Simpkins) and Tom (John Hawkes) in ARCADIA
Photo/Film Movement

It takes a while to get a focus on Tom, the central character of Olivia Silver’s sometimes edgy family drama, “Arcadia,” debuting on DVD Tuesday (7/23/13).

Which is what attracted actor John Hawkes to the role: the fact that Tom tends to make people uncomfortable because you don’t know his full story.

“That’s one of the things I liked when I read the script,” Hawkes says in a telephone interview. “Here’s a father, ostensibly kidnapping his own children. I liked the fact that there wasn’t this big ‘Aha!’ reveal and yet there was another dimension to him.

“Eventually, you realize this is the kids’ story. Obviously, it’s important we go along with them. It’s (actress Ryan Simpkins) story, it’s her film. We’re inside her head. I just tried to find a way to make him a human being.”

In “Arcadia,” Tom packs up his three kids in the car late one day and leaves Connecticut, bound for California. Simpkins is the middle child, the most resentful and the most questioning. Why can’t they take their dog? Why isn’t Mom along? Why can’t they even call Mom?

Through it all, Tom keeps telling them stories about how great things will be in the town of Arcadia, Calif. But his stories begin to ring hollow. And, as Hawkes notes, “He really is slightly delusional.”

The film is one of a number of independent films that Hawkes, a native of Alexandria, Minn., has worked in during the past decade. At the age of 53, Hawkes has been acting in movies since the mid-1980s, building his reputation in films such as “A Slipping Down Life” and “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” cementing it by playing one of the few thoughtful, nonviolent characters on HBO’s “Deadwood.”

“Well, there were a lot of things that feel like I definitely climbed a rung on the ladder,” Hawkes allows. “Then you get more choices in what’s available to you.”

Hawkes started acting in high school, taking drama mostly so he could share a class with his older sister: “She and her friends took it because they thought it would be a goof,” he says. “But I ended up really liking it and taking it seriously. The turning point was when a teacher put us on a bus and we drove 150 miles and saw ‘The Crucible’ at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. I was just stunned.

“I wasn’t sure I could be part of that world but there was definitely something happening. I thought it might be possible to do work that would make people think and feel that way.”

Hawkes began auditioning (and being cast) in plays in high school and, after a year of college, took off for Austin, Texas, where he helped start a theater company. By his mid-20s, he was regularly getting roles in Hollywood films being shot in Texas. Eventually, he took the plunge and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a carpenter, a waiter and any other job that would pay the rent while he went on auditions. Not that those day jobs stood a chance if he actually was cast – no matter how small the role.

“If there was a choice between taking a restaurant job and a crappy job in a situation comedy, I didn’t think twice,” he says. “I didn’t turn anything down.”

The parts got bigger as Hawkes developed a reputation as a character actor with the skills to play everything from goofy to menacing. He worked more and more – and his choices expanded after he earned an Oscar nomination for 2010’s “Winter’s Bone.”

Still, even he was surprised when he was cast in a romantic lead – although one in which he played a character who was partially paralyzed – in 2012’s “The Sessions,” for which he won an Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe nomination.

“I’ve never seen myself as a classic leading man,” he says. “But then Dustin Hoffman cut a path for those of us who aren’t conventionally handsome. And in ‘The Sessions,’ it was a very unconventional leading man.”

He heard about his Oscar nomination for “Winter’s Bone,” which had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, at the 2011 Sundance, where he was appearing in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”

“That changed things a great deal,” he says. “I went from a limited amount of offers and more auditions to more offers that don’t require auditions. Maybe I’ve become more discerning now in what I do because I have more choices. I’m trying to ride it a little because I’ve been having kind of a streak. But I think I have to schedule myself some time off, too.”

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