For many viewers, John Hawkes’ career started in 2010, when he was nominated for an Oscar for playing the menacing, mercurial drug addict Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. Until that point, he has been a steadily-working character actor — one of those people you see popping up in everything, a face without a name, usually dying in the first act.
Hawkes followed up Winter’s Bone with an equally acclaimed performance as a cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and he became an overnight sensation at the age of 51. In his latest film, The Sessions, Hawkes stars as the late poet Mark O’Brien. Paralysed from the neck down due to childhood polio, the film depicts O’Brien’s attempt to lose his virginity with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt, who spends most of the film being completely naked, and all of it being terrific). Even after Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, Hawke’s performance is revelatory. Despite only being able to move his head and often being encased in an iron lung, Hawke is funny, tender, and enormously soulful.
With the release of the film — and what will be almost certainly a second Oscar nomination — a solid career as a character actor has blossomed into that of a legitimate leading man. Hawke’s acting career actually began in 1985, so why did it take 27 years for his breakthrough role?
Partially, the answer is that the career of an actor depends as much on circumstance as it does on talent. It doesn’t matter how good an actor is if they don’t have the roles to demonstrate the fact. Hawkes has rarely been less than excellent in a variety of supporting parts, but his natural charisma was always buried playing underachievers and misfits. It wasn’t until Winter’s Bone that audiences were given a full showcase of his talents, which shone in an excellent, much-celebrated film.
Additionally, as someone with a character actor’s looks — that is, the looks of a regular human being rather than a movie star — Hawkes wasn’t sought out for larger, leading roles, despite his versatility as an actor and obvious talent. Often talented actors with non-movie star faces don’t get roles worthy of their ability until they’ve aged a sufficient amount. Their looks matter less in middle-age, so they don’t find themselves losing out in the search for good parts. If anything, it helps that they’ve built a career out of diverse, well-received smaller roles. Conversely, middle-age can also be a boon for talented-but-conventionally attractive actors who are stuck playing bland heroes until their faces get a bit puffy and their waistline starts to expand (see: Leonardo DiCaprio).
By finding himself in leading roles midway through his acting career, Hawkes follows the path of former character actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti who both flourished after they reached a certain age and found their breakthrough roles (Capote and Sideways, respectively). Mark O’Brien is a gift of a part for Hawkes, but what’s really exciting is the potential for more to come, not just quirky, interesting characters who perish twenty minutes into the film.
The Sessions is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival. More details here.