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Interview: John Hawkes of ‘Winter’s Bone’

John Hawkes is one of those dependable character actors that you love to see in every film.  Whether it is in Me You and Everyone We Know, American Gangster, Miami Vice or TV’s Deadwood, he is always doing interesting and quality work.   We can add Winter’s Bone to that list.  His performance as Teardrop in my favorite film of the year is getting Oscar buzz for Best Supporting Actor and deservedly so.  He creates a memorable character in the film, one that you at times fear and at other times find comfort in.  I was able to talk with Hawkes over the phone and we got to talking about Winter’s Bone, his experiences in the industry, and geeking out about Stephen Sodebergh.

So thanks John for speaking with us today.

Sure thanks

I was wondering first, how did you get involved with Winter’s Bone, you played Teardrop in the film. What attracted you to the project?

Debra Granik approached me to do the role. She had seen Me and You and Everyone We Know and I thought it was may be an odd connection to Teardrop but that’s what she thought of me. And I got a copy of the script and read it and loved the role and loved the story. And from there we just began to try to put it together over the next few months as far as the approach we take with Teardrop and how she was going to tell the story and how I could best help her facilitate that. The character itself was intriguing to me. Wasn’t sure that I could do it or how I could do it but knew that it was something I wanted to try. And she showed confidence in me by casting me and I just went over from there to a great role.

What kind of preparation did you do for the role?

Well there were a number of things I tend to over prepare a lot of times anyway. And then we approached being over prepared and then forget about everything when the camera rolls and just be present in the screen with other actors but all that preparation is somehow in you I believe. I know a lot of actors who don’t do preparation..They’re wonderful. I always feel cheated I guess when I tried that approach, its more fun to be …to put lots of time, I put hundred hours or two hundred hours into preparing and did a split second on film that I wouldn’t have realized its all worth it. For Teardrop there was the novel Winter’s Bone by Daniell Woodrell, a really great novel to begin with.   The script is fairly faithful but the novel always has a bit more detail.

There is another book..don’t recall the author, the book is called Almost Midnight and dealing with a very different story but it is set in the Ozark’s, true crime novel or true crime book should say, about a story that it happened there involving murder and that’s a much different story from what we were telling but I got from that was some of the meth subculture, some of the history of the region in why people behave, how they do. And basically also a travelogue of the area and the author mentions places that tourists would be wise to avoid and not with any kind of cavalier attitude but those were that I told to go and see if I could be a fly on the wall and try to pick up dialect and movement and tone and music or voice and just to try to find some.. I guess role models in an odd way even for short spurts. There are documentaries about methamphetamine, there are interviews online with these people at the various stages of disease. And then I think growing up in a small town of Minnesota, there are several people I could draw from, either new or newer as I grew up there. So those things I guess would have been the basis of preparation for me.

When the first time you meet your character he gets into a physical altercation with Ree. What was it like filming that scene? Was it something that was in the original script? Or was it something that you worked on with Debra or what was it like filming that scene?

Well it’s a scene from the novel and then in the script..It’s slightly different in the novel and the early versions of the script I think slightly. The book may almost infer an attraction of Teardrop to her and I think in our film it is very subtly if at all there. I think the wasn’t about molestation, it was more threatening in a sexual way perhaps..a tiny bit even though the character never goes that way because she is a nice red herring and make the audience worry, not try to bring a little of that. But shooting that scene, Jennifer Lawrence was particularly I guess brave and game to shoot that scene over and over again. We didn’t shoot it too many times but enough times to…it was uncomfortable for her, I would ask her after take if she was okay and physically okay..And she always said Keep going and that was a gift from her that I was able to  try not to injure her but certainly not have to be worried that I was working with someone who was unprofessional.

And she was cool..That I guess is what I would say. So its an important scene I felt like for the story end for Teardrop , first time we meet him we form a quick opinion on him and you know as an actor, I guess the biggest part of the preparation  is to figure out first what the story is and then how can your character help best tell that story. I felt like..that Teardrop needed to be someone that made the audience worry for our main character, whenever they are together not knowing he’s going to molest her, kill her or get her killed. Over time you kind of see what’s really going on but at least at first glance I wanted to..Yeah, I felt like before the story the it be best for the audience if he was another obstacle to her ultimate goal. The tipping point on her journey that things are not always what they seem as you watch.

Yeah. In the end of the scene where you offer her some weed ..

Yeah my girlfriend, or wife in the film, I give money and the girlfriend offers her weed.

That’s when I knew he was at least on her side or that I could at least trust that character…

Yeah, the risk of blowing the movie for people,  I would say one of the most interesting things about the character when I first read it was that he doesn’t change much at all but people think he does.. When they watch the movie in the end , certainly our perception of the character changes and that’s exciting. I think from the beginning he is just trying to protect his family from the start and when she is involved then he has to protect in a different way.

Yeah, he is very loyal. I live in Missouri right now. I think its really unique to have an area like this actually portrayed on film and shot in Missouri. What was it like filming in.. I think you filmed in Branson?

Yeah, well we were based in Branson but we filmed in Christian and Kane counties. Usually anywhere from half hour to an hour outside of Branson.  The Layson family were very helpful. In fact, the young daughter Ashlie Don in the movie is actually one of the Layson’s. Debra was of the mind that after reading the novel and being excited and then trying to turn it into a film, she was in a mind that she couldn’t shoot it anywhere else, she couldn’t pretend to be somewhere else but it was a story that was so embedded in a specific area she couldn’t take it elsewhere and didn’t want to. So her job became over the next several years of going to Southwest Missouri and visiting, was to see if she could get permission to make the movie there. She couldn’t do it without a great deal of help and permission to be there and shoot there. So over a period years, she made trips down and was able to find allies locally who she would pass the book to and the script to and see if they were on board after reading it. And as an admitted easterner she had a lot to learn, but she put in the due diligence, she spent a lot of time there trying to figure out as best as she could the story of the area and its people.

I just think its nice to actually have things filmed here because usually its Canada, that’s a substitute.

Yeah, you can go to Vancouver and pretend, you can find an area lot like it but it just wouldn’t be the same and as you know from the film, a lot of people weren’t professional actors who were local people in the movie who are really effective and wonderful in their portrayals and to Debra’s credit, a lot of people say that it is pretty seamless work between the local people and the actors came from outside. I know that when I worked with local actors in their area, on their turfs so to speak. I never feel any kind of.. I am the actor who the person is trying to learn to act it’s quite the inverse, trying to keep up at that point  through the people who know the area better than I ever will having spend their lives there and some sort of learn from them.   I think to Debra’s credit, it is one of the more authentic films I have ever seen, much less been involved in all the years work I have been doing. So it’s a special piece. Its fun to talk about.

I talked with Garret Dillahunt about the movie earlier and he said one of the things that drew him to the project was getting a chance to work with you.  What was it like working with him?

Well yeah. Garret I think is just a fantastic actor. I just think he is a brilliant brilliant actor, so for him to say that he came on the project to work with me is . .I am extremely flattered.. I am a fan of his. We didn’t have a great deal to do together in Deadwood but we met each other and became friendly on that one. I have always been interested in his work ever since. He played two different characters in Deadwood, completely different characters, two different years, fooled a lot of people who were fans of the show which was just pretty great. And his role, I think it’s a difficult one…but I feel like he brings layers to a part that necessarily happen on the page and that’s a testament to his work. I am a big fan of Garret, I am so glad he came on the project that’s for sure.

You are working on a film directed by Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground?

Yeah, just finished it actually.

What’s it about?  Are you allowed to talk about it?

Sure, I ll talk about it. Vera Farmiga, whose career was certainly helped a great deal by Debra Granik, director of  Winters Bone, her previous feature was called Down to the Bone. Well, she doesn’t have any kind of bone fetish but helped Vera’s career a lot so maybe that’s how I got onto Higher Ground. She told me she was pitching it back in the Down to the Bone days. So I am flattered that she knew who I was back then. I presume I got this job because in Winter’s Bone, it might not have hurt to have seen that, but its an interesting and a difficult challenge for myself and the actress from New York named Donna Murphy. The two of us played Vera’s mother and father, a young actress plays Vera when she is a kid, than Vera’s teenage sister portrays her as a teenager…they look a lot alike and that’s great. And there is Vera as an adult. It’s a very low budget movie and not a lot of time, so there wasn’t any money budgeted for the make up effects for aging so it was a very unique challenge to age 30 years in a movie where you are shooting different ages on the same day and don’t really have the time to do any kind of heavy make up work.  It will be interesting to see if we pulled it off. It was difficult conditions in Upstate New York, again very low budget but I couldn’t ever complain because Vera is starring in the film, directing it and 6 months pregnant at the time…so she worked very hard, it’s a unique script and it could be something very interesting.

You are also doing a Stephen Soderbergh film.

Yeah that shoots early next year or late this year.. a movie called Contagion.

That’s exciting to be working with someone like Soderbergh.

Very. He is on the shortlist of people I am just hoping to meet some day much less work with. I auditioned for him many years ago, he may not even remember, when I first got to town and he was very kind. I felt like a fan. Yeah I am just a fan of his movies, there is no other director I know who moves in such extremes from studio films to completely personal independent shot on a shoe string kind of projects. Its really wonderful to see someone like them to kind of working all areas.

It’s a small role, it was offered to me.  And I said as my agent called that day, “You know I didn’t even have to read it, I would love to be a part of it. I would sweep the floors for the entire month. The agent said..Let me look at what the role is ..What is the part.. He says it’s Roger the Janitor. So basically I will literally be sweeping the floors for Mr. Soderbergh.  Ill be enjoying it…again a very small part but it’s an ensemble cast and I am honored to be part of whatever he is working on.

Yeah. Whatever gets you a chance to work with Soderbergh, you got to do it.


You are also in Eastbound and Down, the second season.

Yeah, we finished up the final season event. It’s a unique season in that the lead character having burned all his bridges at the end of the first season, goes to another country and most of us don’t see him again and most of us aren’t going to see him until the final episode of the season when he returns to Shelby, North Carolina with his tail between his legs and we go from there. So that was a lot of fun to finish that last week as well.

Working with Danny McBride, I assume it’s a blast.

It really is. He is an incredibly kind person to begin with and he’s just very unassuming and very funny all in one. Really really, maybe not enough credit is given to him. I feel like that things come naturally to him in a way that he is also a real student of story telling and comedy in a way that not a lot of people are. He is a smart guy playing a really dumb guy..its very interesting…just a sort of the guy who is incredibility funny, camera rolling or not rolling he is joy to be around.

Thanks a lot John for speaking to us today.

My Pleasure Joshua.