John Hawkes Interview: performing in Martha Marcy May Marlene, subtle villainy and more

As the haunting drama Martha Marcy May Marlene arrives in UK cinemas, actor John Hawkes chats about his subtle approach to playing a disturbing character…

In person, John Hawkes is a really nice guy. Effortlessly cool, too, even if the word ‘cool’ went out of style around the same time as the Fonz jumped the shark or Smash Hits magazine came to the end of its shelf life. Had Jeff Bridges not cornered the market already, he could surely stake a claim for being a real life El Duderino.

But, on screen, and specifically on screen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, he’s not very nice. Not at all. Yet Hawkes doing “not nice” still carries a magnetism that few other actors could pull off. As the cult leader in Sean Durkin’s festival-blazer, he’s so quietly menacing that he’ll stay with you long after the credits roll. He can even carry a tune, as witnessed when his Patrick serenades Martha, acoustic-style.

We caught ten minutes with him in London, sans guitar, to talk about the film and how, sometimes, it’s better not to twirl a moustache.

I’ve been humming the song you sing in the film for the last few days – I even caught it on the internet just before I left this morning. You actually recorded it for an MTV slot, is that right?

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Yeah, I was going to the studio to do some of my own stuff and they asked if I would do that song again. It was a kind of a risk because I had already done it in the movie and I was trying to see the value in going in and doing the exact same song in a more sanitised version. But I think it came out okay.

It did, it’s a beautiful song.

It is a great song.

But in the context of the film, it’s a beautiful song but with an added…

It feels like that’s where its power lies. It seemed like lose-lose kind of situation, like it was lightning in a bottle that day, you know?

But I saw the film a few days ago now and it’s stayed with me ever since…

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Yeah, it stayed with me a long time, almost beyond my involvement, which is odd because it doesn’t often happen months after seeing the film I was part of. I think, “What was that from? Oh, my God, that’s the movie I was in”.

I’m almost … in retrospect I’ve removed myself from the movie and experiencing it as an audience, which is unusual.

I was trying to describe it to a friend, to tell them what it’s about, and I think I took about five minutes to describe it to do it justice.

Truly, truly, it’s been difficult to speak about it in this way because it asks more questions than it offers answers.

Is that something that jumps out of the script, then? That tone. Or does it come out when you’re shooting?

Yeah, I think that in talking to Sean [Durkin, director] it had a kind of elusive and kind of slippery nature in reading it as well, which is a good sign, I think.

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You’ve played a lot of nice guys over the years, the kinds of characters you want to hang around with and spend a lot of time with. And you kind of get to play on that here. It’s a fascinating tightrope walk you do, where you’re really charming but also incredibly scary. I wanted to see more of you, but as soon as you’re on screen it’s quite unsettling. How do you approach playing that?

Yeah, well… you know, if he’s charming it was for good reason. At least in America, we’ve seen a certain type of cult leader character a lot of times, and it’s usually maniacal, kind of over the top moustache-twirling, scenery-chewing approach. And I wasn’t interested, on a personal level, and as an actor, playing the role that way or even that kind of role. But what the story needs in order to serve the story that would be a good approach for this movie we need to… the movie’s about Martha, about Lizzie Olsen’s character Martha, and about us staying with her through this journey in present and retrospect.

But if Patrick tipped his hand too easily and too early then her character loses all credibility if the moment she meets Patrick, and at the same time the audience really is introduced to him… if he is the personification of evil or the Devil incarnate or just such a con man, if we see that easily and immediately I think that we are much less interested in her as a person and staying with her.

If on the other hand we sympathise, or can at least understand why she might have gotten with this group of people and fallen for this guy, so to speak, then I think we’re more apt to think of her as a complex and interesting individual. So, you know, the kind of more subtle and nuanced slow burn and slow reveal approach on the character was more satisfying for me as an actor, but more importantly, just served the story much more effectively, which is what my job is.

And there’s a real balance in the film of your performance, the sound track and the camera work. They all seem to coalesce to make the situation what it was. Was there an element of trust on your part to say, I can be quite nice here, because there’s an eeriness to the way the camera is and the soundtrack. Is that something you discussed with Sean?

Yeah, I was aware… as an actor, you want to be aware of where the camera is and what it’s doing, but you want to balance that with not being too aware of where the camera is and what it’s doing, I think. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk there.

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But I was surprised at the way they shot it. You know, you get used to a form of shooting that isn’t lazy, it’s effective, where they shoot a wide shot and then they get closer and something really … sometimes magical happens when they set up for a close-up shot. I mean, it’s a very different thing to know that the camera is very close and you don’t have to do much at all. It becomes like its own little play, its own little moment, that close-up, and I love serving the other actor from off-screen on their close up.

But this movie wasn’t shot that way. It was, as you can see, there were zooms, there were all kind of things. And sometimes you’d finish a scene… I know a couple of actors like myself would be like, “So what else?” And they would say, “We got it!” And I’d say, “Well, it was just over my shoulder the whole time”. And they’d say, “Yeah.”

And there is something really freeing about that, as well. I mean, I don’t really even like close-ups in movies much, unless they are really warranted to show emotion in an actor that we need to see for the story that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see unless we are that close to them. But it was a fascinating way that they were shooting, and I think that Jodi Lipes, the cinematographer, and Sean Durkin are most interested in performance. They will watch rehearsals and then figure out one of the most important decisions you can make moment to moment shooting a movie, which is where do you put the camera and what does the camera do.

And I thought they were just hugely effective in watching the movie. And I couldn’t really tell… you don’t know what the music is going to be, or at least the score, and you don’t know exactly what the camera is doing, or even if you know what the camera is doing… I’ve been doing this 25 years and it’s still a mystery to me how it all works, and why certain things come across and certain things don’t by where the camera is.

I still don’t really understand it or understand lenses, so I kind of like the mystery. I’d rather not know too much about it, and just kind of focus on the other people I’m doing the scene with. I guess I had a sense something special was happening but I couldn’t really tell what.

And was it a tough film to shoot? Not just physically – it looked as cold as Winter’s Bone in certain scenes – but in terms of getting the balance right.

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I think so, I think they all are. On some level they can be, even a broad comedy has its challenge, I think. Winter’s Bone was literally cold a lot of the time and this film was not so… it was the summer in New York, so the only cold day was the day of playing music. It’s a tough balance on some level, but again you just try to serve the story.

The big budget films you’ve done – the likes of American Gangster, for example – are they a break from these types of films, then? The Winter’s Bones, and Marthas

They are a kind of a break, I guess. I don’t know. I think they’re as tough as you make them and I guess I’m somewhat of a perfectionist and an over-preparer and someone who wants a certain feeling, when the work day ends, that I’ve helped something great happen.

But they all have their challenges and they’re all different. I think the key is to try to find some peace in it all, and some trust with the people around you. It all begins with the material itself and trying to make great choices, trying to find a really great story with a really capable storyteller and other collaborators and then a really great role, you know? So if you can begin there then you have a chance, I think, to make something good.

John Hawkes, thank you very much!

Martha Marcy May Marlene is released on Friday 3rd February.

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