John Hawkes may be an Oscar-nominated actor now, but 18 years ago he was just another struggling actor looking for a break.
One of those early breaks came for him in 1994 with “Roadracers,” an homage to the cheap teen exploitation films of the 1950s directed by new-to-Hollywood helmer Robert Rodriguez in his first paying showbiz gig. Hawkes was put to great use, not as the hero – that role went to David Arquette – but as his somewhat profane, somewhat philosophical sidekick.
What did this film mean for your career at that time? Where were you in your career at that point and what happened as a result of the film?
I don't think I'd gotten a lot of traction here, but I think I was earning a meager living, so I think it was great to have a job – but it was even better to have a job that I was really excited to do. I loved the script. I didn't know Robert [Rodriguez] in Austin, but he did a daily comic for the college paper. I didn't go to school there, but I would pick that up and read that paper and I'd see his stuff. And I loved 'El Mariachi,' loved the script and so it was a great job and also a great project. At that point I was kind of doing everything, but when you do something that you believed in it was a good thing. I just didn't have a lot of choices in those days.
Once you got on set with the rest of the actors, did you feel like you'd found a band of kindred spirits?
Very much so, and in Robert and in Tommy Nix – his co-writer who my character The Nixer was loosely based on. I liked the music of that period. I liked the kind of outlaw style we were going for. There was a kinship for sure. I got along really well with David Arquette and Salma [Hayek]. It was her first American film, I believe, or first English-speaking role. She's a beautiful woman, but there was also a lot of light coming from inside her, too. That's always a good thing.
The speed at which this movie was made must've been interesting. We're you seasoned enough to know that it was unusual for a movie to be shot as fast as Robert shot it?
I wasn't, really. I would hear them say, '58 setups,' or whatever at the end of the day and realize – it got into the 70s, actually – that was impressive. I could see people around me were impressed, but it felt pretty normal to me. It just felt like it moved right along, and in fact, at times I think it was frustrating for Robert because he wanted to go faster and couldn't always because he wasn't used to working with a large crew and that kind of almost slowed him down at times, I think. He hadn't really learned how to work with a large crew and how to put that to use. But he moved quickly.
You were one of the few actors cast in another of the 'Rebel Highway' films, 'The Cool and the Crazy.'
Indeed, and that almost precluded my involvement in this one. No actor was to be in more than one episode in that series, and I guess, thankfully, Robert was insistent and they came around to it.
What was it like working for the legendary animator Ralph Bakshi, who was doing his first full-on live action movie?
That was a ball, too. It was really a lot of fun. It was a young Jared Leto and a young Alicia Silverstone. Ralph was kind of a madman. He was not a Hollywood guy and I liked that. He wanted to make his way also. I think I got in with a couple of pretty iconoclastic, pretty individualistic filmmakers within a year. It was great, a lot of fun.
You've worked consistently from 1994 until now, but 'Winter's Bone' made your name known much more to the general public. Is there a difference now in your life as an actor since you're more recognizable, or do you just feel like a jobbing actor who's plugging away?
Certainly there's the thing of people knowing who you are a little bit. I'm not famous, but I'm known enough in this town and certain places that I go, I guess, where people are interested. But work-wise it's very different. I don't at this point get to do everything that I want to do, but over the years I've been able to pick and choose and not do any that I don't want to do anymore. Mainly, it's the independent world which is a place that I love to be, I'm getting a fair amount of scripts being sent my way. That's a change, offers, like, 'Do you want to play this part?' So, that's a great thing. It can be tricky, though, because they can hand you the job and you've never auditioned or showed them what you want to do with it, but it's fantastic and great. I'm enjoying it.
I remember at the time of your Oscar nomination and speaking to you about being maybe TOO recognizable as a result and not being able to submerge into a character. Are you still comfortable being a chameleon?
I'm trying to be. It's still a concern. It probably always will be, so I'm trying to limit these sorts of talks. I believe in this movie and want to help it out, but I'm kind of avoiding talk shows, and again, yeah, I want to be an effective actor. I don't need to be the most popular one. I just want to be as effective as I can be.
You've got some interesting projects coming up, but I'm interested in what your experience was making 'Lincoln' and working with a director like Steven Spielberg. Can you talk about that?
It was terrific. I was working as a part of a trio with Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader. Daniel Day Lewis is phenomenal, but what really drew me to that project was not the role. It's not a great part, but just that the script was one of the best studio scripts – if not the best – that I'd read in the last dozen years, so my involvement in that, I think, is very from a supportive category. It's probably not a movie that I'll be in a lot, but I can't wait to see it because of how interesting it was to watch them shoot with Daniel Day Lewis. Steven Spielberg is phenomenal and he's still really, really excited to make movies. I think he really enjoyed that project. It was a large one. I hadn't been on a really large one for a while, but that was a good large one to be a part of, for sure.
I understand on 'Switch' – which is adapted from Elmore Leonard’s sequel novel to Rum Punch, which was turned into the Quentin Tarantino film “Jackie Brown” – that you're not looking at Robert De Niro's performance as the older version of your character Louis Gara, but you’re really coming at it from your own direction. Did you wrestle with that decision?
That's one of the only Tarantino movies that I've not seen. I really love Quentin's work, but I'm kind of thankful that I somehow missed that one. I'll watch it later, but yeah, I don't want to do any kind of impression. I think that Robert De Niro is obviously a fantastic actor, but I don't feel the need to try to be like him. This is a separate project to me, and on some level I hope people let go of expectation and just treat it as it's own piece. I can't wait – and check out 'The Surrogate.' I'm really excited about that. Hopefully that'll come out later this year.