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Actor John Hawkes on Irish Travels, Musical Moments and Deadwood's Return

You might not know you know John Hawkes but you know John Hawkes. The wiry, intense actor from Minnesota has been acting for 35 years, but it’s only in the last 15 of those that his brilliance has earned him the recognition he deserved.

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Oscar-nominated for Winter’s Bone, a Golden Globe nominee for The Sessions and universally praised for his roles in Deadwood and Martha Marcy May Marlene, his presence in any movie or TV show has become a signifier of quality.

Whether he’s playing a quietly manipulative cult leader, a backwoods meth dealer, a terminally ill virgin or a kind-hearted shopkeeper, Hawkes the actor disappears from sight, leaving behind a character who feels utterly real and indelible.

John Hawkes

That’s especially true of his latest film End Of Sentence. Hawkes plays Frank, a grieving widower who travels to Ireland with his estranged ex-con son (Logan Lerman, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower) to scatter his wife’s ashes over a lake in her home country.

Along the way, the two encounter uncomfortable truths and a troublesome Irish femme fatale, played by Sarah Bolger (In America, Mayans M.C.).

We caught up with John at the Edinburgh Film Festival to chat about the film, returning to Deadwood 13 years after its abrupt cancellation, and the intersection between his music and his movies.

John Hawkes
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How’s the festival going? Are you getting a chance to get out and see a few films or are you mostly stuck doing interviews?

[Laughs] Thanks to you! I’d be having lots of fun if it wasn’t for you. I got in last night so I haven’t got to do too much of anything except walk around this beautiful city.

I finished watching End Of Sentence this morning and really enjoyed it. Being from Ireland, there was a lot I could relate to.

That’s good. Elfar [Adalsteins, director] never wanted to make a picture postcard movie of Ireland. We all agreed that the country is gorgeous to look at but it’s more than that too. It’s got some grit in its people and its looks that we wanted to show.

John Hawkes

What was it about the film and the role that grabbed your attention?

It's hard to say. I've read some perfectly good scripts and some perfectly good characters for me to play but for some reason the light never clicks on. Then there are some that you just think, "I've got to be in this.”

This was one of those. It came in the traditional way, dropped on the front stoop, and I was pretty hit by it. I loved the stranger in a strange land vibe, I loved the father/son angle and the road trip angle as well.

I loved Frank. As messed up as he is, there's something so decent about him. I love these characters that I get to play from time to time, I guess you'd call them underdogs. I enjoy playing characters who don't have all the tools to solve their situation but keep trying anyway.

I guess my mandate here would be to fight sentiment and to fight self-pity. It's always much more interesting to see someone try and solve their problem than to give in to it. It's much more noble.

The idea of Frank as a resilient underdog is one that really resonated with me, especially because his son seems to only see him as a weak man.

Yes, definitely. I feel like a lot of people confuse kindness for weakness. It's something that's always frustrated me in my own life. It's probably why I related to Frank so much.

And how was the Irish trip? It looks like you got to visit some nice parts of the country.

We did, although we didn't get to go to as many places as the movie portrays, mainly because it was a low budget production with not a lot of time. I'd never been to Ireland so I didn't have to act quite as much. You're confused by places, even where your native language is spoken. There's an element of comedy to that.

A guy like Frank is confused by electricity and plumbing and cars. Things that are normal in your life are suddenly challenging to you. I knew the humor would be a big part of making the film sing. Not through slapstick or forced humor but trying to find subtle, human kinds of humor.

I loved Ireland. There's a moment when Sarah Bolger sings in the pub. It plays into the cliche, but to sit at that table and listen to hear her sing… it was beautiful. I'll never forget that.

John Hawkes
Hawkes with the mysterious Jewel, played by Sarah Bolger

Oh yes. So many of our American folk songs have come from England and Ireland. The idea of telling a story through song in a literate way definitely comes from those parts.

I've been watching with intense jealousy the musicians who were popping up on the Deadwood set and the impromptu hoedowns that took place. Did you get to take part at all?

Oh yes! I was lucky enough to be a part of that and lucky enough to play Jason a couple of tunes. And really excited to hear he sparked to one of them when he was talking to Earl [W. Earl Brown, who plays Dan Dorrity on the show] on the way home.

That was the Deadwood set. We've all gotten older. A young man can die, an old man must die. You start wondering, "How many more times will we get to do this, see each other, feel these kinds of things?"

There wasn't much going back to your trailer. It was a lot of just wanting to be with everyone there. It was like a surreal dream come true, something you never thought could happen but did.

Since the mention in @RollingStone, its become public knowledge that @JasonIsbell visited #Deadwood set for a few days. There were always plenty of guitars around that set and it didn’t take much prodding for Isbell to pick one up. He and I started playing “Pancho & Lefty”...— W. Earl Brown (@WEarlBrown) 26 April 2019

It's quite incredible that the show managed to return so long after the last season and deliver so beautifully.

Yeah, I think we can take a little credit for that but it's down to David Milch and his incredible words, spirit and guidance.

It doesn't sound like it took much convincing to get you to return.

I was signed up from the second I left the set the first time. I really was. Before they could get the question out, I'd said yes.

I was just doing other jobs while I was waiting. I'm so glad that we got to do it and that people felt some satisfaction and connection to it.

It's so hard to come back and do something after all that time. We felt an extra burden of pressure to do right by the viewers who put so much time into the show.

Is it interesting for you to see how the show has taken on this legendary status while it's been away?

Yeah, it really is. Tim Olyphant said he's seen a lot of shows since Deadwood ended that are definitely influenced by it, but he hasn't seen anything quite like it. It's a great piece of work.

John Hawkes

Are you relieved now that people can stop asking you whether it's going to happen or not?

[Laughs] It's a hell of a thing, isn't it? Over the last 30 years, I've had more personal success in other shows and movies and had some real fortune come my way in terms of recognition and people connecting to what I do as an actor.

But, man, that's the one that people could not let go of. I was always really happy when people would stop me in the street and ask when it was coming back. People have been asking for 13 years. I guess that's a testament to the richness of the show that it wasn't forgotten.

You've also got the Nicholas Wending Refn series Too Old To Die Young on Amazon Prime.

Oh yeah. No one's much brought that up yet. I don't think that many people have got to see it yet. I'm really proud of that one. It's fearless and challenging and definitely not for everyone.

If you want your stories told in a conventional manner, you're not gonna have much time for this one. It's a mindfucker all the way. It's a test of endurance at times, but I feel like it really pays off.

John Hawkes

Have you anything else coming up that you're particularly excited about?

I'm in a movie called The Peanut Butter Falcon. It's not a huge role but it's a really cool film. It stars Shia LaBoeuf and Zack Gottsagen. Zack's a Down's Syndrome guy who teams up with Shia.

I wrote a song for it with T-Bone Burnett [legendary music producer and former guitarist for Bob Dylan] that they didn't end up using, but that's how I was introduced to the project. I play the villain.

You wrote a song with T-Bone Burnett?

Yeah, I know! It's crazy. We did it real fast. I met him years before when he was working on a Stephen King Broadway idea. I played him a couple of songs and left him a CD. When we met years later, he remembered the songs and the CDs, which was a huge compliment.

Will we ever get to hear the song?

No, I don't think so. It's not the best song he or I have ever written. But it's never a bad idea to write and record a song with T-Bone Burnett.

Do you have plans to put out any music? I read in an old interview that you might have an album in the works.

I’ve realized what's going on here. I write with this guy named Rodney Eastman. We've been in several bands together and now have a band called Rodney & John.

We write and record whole records and don't ever get them mastered or put them out because that's the most boring part of it. Maybe we'll be posthumously discovered as great outsider artists.

End Of Sentence is out later this year.
Deadwood: The Movie is now available to stream on HBO.
Too Old To Die Young is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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Mark Grassick joins us with over 17 years' experience as a journalist covering pop culture in the UK and Ireland. He's interviewed everyone from Alan Rickman to Iron Maiden and is currently a bearded, music-mad father of two and husband of one residing in London, England.