Like other character-actors before him, John Hawkes is someone that wants to tell a story. Whether he’s acting as a device or in a commanding lead, Hawkes has enjoyed playing a wide range of characters. His best tool is his ability to transform within a role. He’s delved into the darkness of a cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene, been an eternal optimistic disabled man in The Sessions, and has played many unkind felons.
In an unexpected turn, Hawkes uses humor to service Life of Crime as Louis Gara, a character Robert De Niro made famous in the slick crime comedy Jackie Brown—based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. For director Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime, Hawkes finds the core of a criminal in his empathy even if he’s tangled up in the crime at hand. Instead of being a prequel, this film stands on its own and successfully pulls from Leonard’s novel The Switch, which allows Schechter to scale back on Quentin Tarantino’s flashy style for an old-school caper comedy that ultimately unveils yet another layer to Hawkes’ ability.
This film finds Gara kidnapping Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of a crooked real estate developer (Tim Robbins) for ransom. Louis and his partner in crime, Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey), quickly realize that they are in way over their heads as they deal with a man who simply doesn’t care enough about his wife to budge, while dealing with the possibility of having their whole plan blown by a neo-Nazi maniac. In the midst of this, Louis finds himself connecting with Mickey.
Paste: You’ve had such an interesting career in both television and film. Do you define yourself as a character actor?
John Hawkes: I guess so. Some people play characters closer to themselves, but maybe the classic character-actor moves from film to film playing small supporting roles that are integral to the story, but are not the lead role. I guess I just consider myself an actor, and if someone wants to call me a character-actor I’m not offended at all.
Paste: I’m always interested in actors who work their whole lives and suddenly experience a huge shift because of award buzz. Did the trajectory of your career change after Winter’s Bone and The Sessions?
Hawkes: Yeah, I guess so. I had more opportunity, particularly more independent film opportunities, which is something I’m always interested in.
Paste: What drew you to Life of Crime?
Hawkes: I liked the book. I liked Daniel Schechter when I met with him, and I liked the role a great deal. Also the cast they were putting together as I came on board. I’m always looking for a good part and a good story told by capable people, and this one fit that pretty well.
Paste: Daniel Schechter has such a unique rhythm in his comedy. How was it to work with him?
Hawkes: I agree! He’s terrific. It was a really satisfying, intense and vital creative experience. We would always figure out the best idea, and it didn’t matter whose it was. Because it was location you’re all there together, so a lot of the times we were able to meet the night before each day of shooting, have a bite to eat, and then have a pow-wow of how we were going to approach it.
Paste: That must have brought a nice intimate experience in putting together this film.
Hawkes: It was. It’s kind of a location thing, and I got to do that with Sean Durkin on Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s really a huge side benefit as far as being on location. It makes for a family vibe, and there’s a lot of time to work on the piece.
Paste: Even though this is an adaptation, is it different working with a director who also happens to be the writer on a project?
Hawkes: It is, because you can kind of be certain or have a pretty good idea on whether or not you’re getting what they intended. You have a good idea of what the author intended because the “author” is the director in this case. I like that. Sometimes I feel there’s almost a short hand in a way because they know the piece so well.
Paste: Daniel’s writing and how he frames characters encompasses both drama and comedy. How is it to be able to play both of those tones in a film?
Hawkes: I like it. There are exceptions, but I feel like there’s more dimension and surprise the characters have about them, and that’s why they’re more interesting to watch. It’s to serve the story, but it also follows the tone of the book. It is harrowing and wildly funny at times.
Paste: Did you read the novel The Switch before you signed on? Were you familiar with the material at all?
Hawkes: No. I read the script, met the director, read the book, and then I was offered the part. It figured slightly into the decision-making of the screenplay itself, but the book was also a great aid in figuring out who the characters are and figuring out a tone for the story as a whole.
Paste: You have fantastic chemistry with Jennifer Aniston. How was it working with her?
Hawkes: I’ve been lucky enough to work with her before. There were a lot of rehearsals when we were gearing up like camera tests for wardrobe and hair. I’ve known Jen before a little bit, and I knew she was a really hard-working actor and really professional. I was reminded as we began to work how open she is to ideas, and she’s just game to tell the story in the most interesting and exciting way.
Paste: Was there room for improvisation between the cast or was everything by the book, so to speak?
Hawkes: Oh, I think that there was room for improvisation. Some of it got into the film. I improvised a little bit, but I also liked what was written, but a fair amount of what I did isn’t. I asked Dan if I could try saying a line that I thought of the night before or on the spot. It’s a combination of both.
Paste: This story would have been completely different if this took place in the digital age. I can’t imagine what would happen if people were texting as a form of communication.
Hawkes: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s a different deal. I feel like in a way everything was a little more precious because it wasn’t easy to attain as far as communication or music. It wasn’t in your hands at all times. People related in a different way because it wasn’t 24 hours, 7 days a week of communicating with each other.
Paste: You have Everest coming up soon. How was it to film that?
Hawkes: It was with an amazing bunch of people. We were in Nepal, Rome, Northern Italy and London. It was a wide range of emotions in terms of the people that were working on it. It was difficult—we took turns as actors and crew in propping each other up. We all had our down moments, and people would come to your rescue as far as emotional support goes. It’s hard being away from home for a long time. This was a physically difficult experience, but it was also really gratifying and enjoyable.
Paste: The training must have been no joke.
Hawkes: Yeah, I did some training. I hiked with Neal Beidleman who was a character in the story. He was on the mountain in 1996 when the story takes place. I hiked with him in Aspen in advance and got to ask him a lot of questions. I read a ton of books and watched a ton of documentaries and was given access to footage that had never been released of the key members on the climb.
Paste: Well thanks for the chat, John. I really appreciate it.
Hawkes: I enjoyed it. I love Paste magazine! Many years ago, I was in a band called King Straggler, and we actually were featured on one of the CDs that came with the magazine. It was a real thrill.
Paste: Are you still rocking out?
Hawkes: I’m still rocking out. I’m folking out! I’m no longer with that band. We didn’t break up; we just stopped playing, but we’re still friends. I’m playing a gig on Monday night, so it’s going to be fun.