John Hawkes would prefer that you, dear reader, not get to know him too well.
Nothing personal, you understand. It's just that Hawkes, known for playing Sol Star in HBO's "Deadwood" and Bugsy in "The Perfect Storm" opposite George Clooney, believes that it's best for a working actor not to let his personal life upstage his screen personas.
"I feel like my real strength as an actor is that no one quite knows me," Hawkes said, hanging out one recent afternoon at the Hollywood club where he sometimes plays in a band when he's not on camera. "I'm not trying to be elusive or coy, but it just seems easier to play roles when people aren't exactly sure who you are."
It may be tougher for Hawkes to stick to that policy following the release earlier this year of "Winter's Bone," Debra Granik's psychologically tense drama about an intrepid young woman, played by Jennifer Lawrence, trying to track down her missing father in Missouri's Ozarks. Hawkes has a pivotal role as the girl's terse, inscrutable uncle, Teardrop, who was involved with his brother in a family crystal- meth operation that went fatally awry.
In his review of the movie, Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote that Hawkes played Teardrop with "unnerving conviction." "While Lawrence's performance will get more attention, it is Hawkes' work that truly makes us believe that this world exists," he added.
Despite Hawkes' reluctance to reveal too much of his off-screen self, he is regarded by colleagues as both a major talent and, well, a mensch. "He's so amazing in this movie, and he's terrifying and scary," Lawrence said. "But when you meet him, he's so nice and sweet and smart."
For many U.S. viewers, the impoverished, isolated world of "Winter's Bone" may seem as unfamiliar as a foreign land. But Hawkes, raised in rural Minnesota, thinks that society in some ways may be more representative of America than, say, New York or Los Angeles. "They have rich lives and they have struggles like we all do, but they are tight families, and they have a focus," he said of the Ozarks residents he met during filming.
To prepare for the role, Hawkes did extensive research on the area as well as on the crystal-meth industry and the criminal pathologies it breeds. He also deprived himself of certain creature comforts during filming, including good books and sufficient warm clothes — the better to summon Teardrop's restless personality. "I wanted to make sure Teardrop wasn't entirely comfortable there, I guess."
And he deliberately maintained a certain distance from Lawrence. "Jennifer and I didn't really hang out and get to know each other all that well. And I think that that served us while we were working, to not have a total familiarity."
Hawkes cultivates a gently ironic sense of humor, even when the joke's at his own expense. Some time ago, his agent called to tell him he'd been offered a part in Steven Soderbergh's upcoming ensemble action-thriller, "Contagion." Hawkes said he'd take the role, whatever it was, and would be glad just to "sweep the floors" for a director of Soderbergh's ilk.
Then his agent told him the character he'd be playing: Roger the Janitor.
"So I am literally sweeping the floors for Soderbergh," Hawkes said, laughing, "and couldn't be happier."