John Hawkes on Elizabeth Olsen & His Battle to Remain Anonymous

The buzz out of Sundance was that Elizabeth Olsen gave a career-making performance in the subdued cult drama Martha Marcy May Marlene. While that turned out to be true, Olsen’s work isn’t the only acting jewel the film has to offer. The supernaturally reliable John Hawkes—who, after years of solid character work finally got his due with an Oscar nomination in last year’s Winter’s Bone—turns in a quietly menacing performance as Patrick, the magnetic leader of a cult-like”family” that Olsen’s character flees.

Next up, he’ll segue into blockbuster filmmkaing, with a part in Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic, Lincoln. When we recently sat down with Hawkes at the Greenwich Hotel, we found the 52-year-old actor lamenting some of the trappings of his recent success. Here he is on paparazzi encounters, giving interviews, and playing the bad guy.

I know that you don’t like to use the word “cult” when referring to this film. It’s funny that this has gotten around, that’s so amazing. It’s like, boom! That and the “press shy” thing. And that I don’t want to do big movies. It’s interesting how it all gets started.

Have you been slapped with the press shy label? A tiny bit. Doing press is the least interesting part of the job, no offense. I’d rather the work speak for itself. And it is odd to be here talking to you, but I’m talking to you because I’m trying to help this film. My micro amount of fame is about more than I can handle. I am a private person and there are guys on bicycles, paparazzi, chasing me around in New York, which is bizarre. Were the big stars all out of town? I kept discouraging them, and finally I said I’m a private person, and they kind of left me alone.

Is this a result of your Oscar nomination? Oh, I suppose. Little pieces before that, I was in Deadwood, and people love Eastbound and Down; I’ve been working for many years, but, yes, when your name suddenly gets tossed around with the big boys and they consider you part of the club….

Does your desire for anonymity color your decisions at all? No, it doesn’t color my decisions so much as, you know, I’ve been kindly invited to talk shows and things, but look, it’s all for selfish reasons. I just want to be believable on screen. It’s really hard for me to believe someone that I know too much about, I like to retain an air of mystery about myself, which is great to talk about in an interview because it’s all very ironic! I’m here against my will! I’m tied to the chair! But really, I want to help this movie and it’s a joy to discuss things, but we live in an age where things travel so quickly. It used to be you could do an interview for the Peoria newspaper, and it wasn’t going to go anywhere. But now everything you say or do is potential fodder taken out of context. It’s hard for me to believe a movie star in a role role, no matter how great an actor they are. Especially if I know too much about them.

What about acting opposite movie stars? No problem. They’re wonderful actors. It’s just that when I go to a movie, even the best of stars, if I know too much about them, I associate. And so, wow, that movie star is doing an incredible job playing a busboy. But hopefully if they see me, they see a busboy. I’m not interested in too much hype because, it’ll be like “Oh, I saw that guy in Jimmy Kimmel last night.” I love that show, but I’m trying to be effective in my work and I don’t know how else to do it other than to try and duck the light as much I can.

You’ve had success at Sundance before with two films in particular. This is your third. Are you now able to tell beforehand when a film is going to break through at that festival? No, I wish I could. There have been many, many disappointments along the way, and surprises for certain films that get in, that you think don’t have a hope in hell. I like to think I’m a decent judge of material. I think that I’ve come around to being able to find things that I don’t regret doing. I’m not going to do any small movies and later on regret it because I’m a slow decider and I’ve got to really make sure it’s something to put time into, and I guess large movies are the same. I’ve turned down a lot of average sort of roles in average studio movies.

Is Lincoln something you chose because it’s a Spielberg film, and you just don’t say no to Spielberg? Partly that, but I’m also really fascinated with that period and I’m a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis. Now there’s a movie star who is such a cipher, I know that I can still look at him and believe him and he can disappear in his roles. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against movie stars. Some of them are terrific actors. And I don’t think the general audience may feel the same, but for me personally, I just don’t like knowing much about someone if I’m going to watch them act. For the Spielberg thing, it’s a large cast, a lot of supporting roles, people with more visibility than myself playing a lot of those supporting roles. It’s a fantastic script and a great chance to learn more about the period.

What kind of preparation did you do for Martha Marcy May Marlene? I read not much. Yes, that’s true, but I may be selling myself short a little bit. I did a great deal of thinking, but a lot of it was subtraction. It’s always, what is the story and how can the character I’m playing best tell that story. It felt like a lot of it then was just trying to figure out the best way to actually make Lizzie’s character a credible person you would want to follow for an hour and forty minutes. If the character of Patrick is too obviously a cult leader, an evil Svengali, then I think it’s less interesting for us if she can fall under the spell of someone like that. Now an audience member could think, That guy has decent ideas. He just needs to be credible rather than her just falling under the spell of the cliché. There had to be more nuance, more depth and surprise behind it.

He’s sort of a likable guy. I hope so.

But at the same time… He’s just misunderstood, really (Laughs).

He’s frightening, too. Was that in the script, or was that all you? No, it’s just in the script. It’s whatever the scene calls for. If the scene calls for him to figuratively take a character and shake them and throw them against the wall to get them to shape up or listen, all to the greater good by the way, then so be it. And if the scene requires a figurative caress and smooch on the cheek, that’s fine too. It’s really what the story wants.

When during shooting did you realize that Elizabeth Olsen was giving the kind of performance that would be talked about as one of the year’s best? I think as soon as the camera rolled, to be honest. We didn’t rehearse a great deal, but I know that I enjoyed meeting her and I didn’t know her family history, or who her sisters were. I came early, getting the lay of the land, spending time with our director and other crew members, and as soon as we began to work, she surprised and amazed me in a similar way Jennifer Lawrence had a year and a half before. You could just see that something was going on. There was an element of truth that was surprising and an element of just proficiency at the craft at such an early age, which are things most of us strive for our whole acting lives, and to see someone bringing it like that is shocking and beautiful. It was great.

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