John Hawkes: I'm such a gypsy in this world

The Sessions star craves a simpler life despite being among Los Angeles' hottest Oscars property

John Hawkes is a Hollywood actor who has decided not to live a Hollywood lifestyle.

He has never bought a new car. He has never owned a home, aside from one he purchased for his mother a few years ago. (At 53, he's a lifelong renter.) And he definitely doesn't care about digital technology.

"You may be amazed," Hawkes warns wryly as he reaches into his red canvas messenger bag and pulls out a black Motorola phone with which the adjective "smart" will never be associated. "This is my communications device," he announces. Hawkes - not surprisingly, given his device - confirms that he does not use e-mail.

"I've just chosen not to and have made a life happen without it," he explains. "I'm not interested in Twitter and Facebook and things. I'd rather meet people and talk to them."

Living life on his terms - streamlined, modest and devoid of texting, even though his career is thriving - may make Hawkes an anomaly in L.A., or anywhere else in America for that matter. But it seems to be working out well for the Minnesota native.

Two years after earning his first Academy Award nomination for playing a feral meth head in Winter's Bone, Hawkes is starring in two of this year's presumptive trophy contenders. Next month, he will appear as a Civil War colonel in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. And beginning Friday, 26 October, he can be seen in The Sessions, a tender dramedy in which he plays a paralysed man determined to lose his virginity with the assistance of a sex surrogate.

Oscar conversation around Hawkes' performance in The Sessions has already been sparked, with readers of awards-season tea leaves saying he could be in the best-actor mix for his portrayal of Mark O'Brien, a writer who contracted polio as a child, spent most of his days in an iron lung and died in 1999 at age 49.

To become O'Brien, Hawkes had to mold his mind, body and voice to match those of a man with a severely curved spine, semi-slurred speech and the inability to move a single muscle below his neck.

Over a two-week period he trained himself to use a mouth stick - a rod O'Brien placed between his lips and used to dial a telephone, type and turn pages in books. He watched the O'Brien-based short documentary Breathing Lessons 40 or 50 times, by his estimate. And for much of the film's shoot, he laid stone-still with a soccer-ball-sized piece of rubber foam wrapped in duct tape - an object dubbed the "torture ball" - tucked under the left-middle portion of his back, allowing him to replicate the permanent arch in O'Brien's prostrate posture.

"It was a very uncomfortable position to assume, a very contorted position," Hawkes said recently during a brief visit to Washington. "It was painful, but a minute amount of pain compared to what everyday people deal with in their lives, and a small price to pay to try to accurately portray this guy."

The Sessions' director Ben Lewin, also a survivor of childhood polio, says: "I think he had a very high degree of tolerance to the discomfort." (Lewin gets around easily on crutches, but very briefly lived in an iron lung when he was young.) "Maybe that was part of the problem. We got very used to the fact that he was tolerating the discomfort."

And they got very used to thinking of Hawkes as Mark O'Brien; Lewin says Cheryl Cohen Greene, the surrogate who became O'Brien's first sexual partner and is played in the film by Helen Hunt, teared up during a set visit when she first saw Hawkes in character.

"It was very spooky," Lewin says.

Hawkes, his lanky scarecrow of a body clad in blue jeans and a brown corduroy blazer, says that he didn't move to Los Angeles until he was 30, and that it took nearly two decades after that to get to a place where he can "not really have to do anything I don't want to do anymore." But his fascination with acting began much earlier, during a high school field trip to see a performance of The Crucible.

"I knew that something happened that day that created a physical and mental shift in me," he says. That experience led to his first theater work, as Pig-Pen in a school production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, a part added to the play, he says, to put "extra warm bodies onstage." Becoming other characters immediately became an inspiration and a comfort; when the young Hawkes couldn't sleep, he calmed his mind by running dialogue in lieu of counting sheep.

After several years of acting and waiting tables in Austin, he threw himself into the L.A. character actor circuit during the 1980s and began tackling wildly different roles, dialing the edges in his jaw and twinkle in his eye up or down as circumstances dictated. As a result, he has convincingly become, among other things, a besotted optimist in Me and You and Everyone We Know, an upstanding Jewish cowboy on HBO's "Deadwood" and, last year, a beady-eyed, dangerous cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

He has had the sort of ascent that, although slow and steady, can quickly persuade a person to pursue a life of luxury, especially once the Oscar nomination glow kicks in. But Hawkes, like the man he plays in The Sessions, places more value on the simpler things in life.

"I'm such a gypsy in this world," he says. "And to have a fancy place has never really - I've thought of it. And maybe I will someday. But for the most part I'm not home a lot so just a place to keep my things is good.

"I'm not poor," he adds, "but I didn't grow up with a great deal of privilege. And I don't seem to crave it."

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?