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Hawkes credits Austin with his development as artist

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
John Hawkes, who spent time in the Austin music and theater scene in the 1980s, picks up the guitar in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' to charm/brainwash his cult followers as Patrick. The film opens in Austin on Friday.

Actor John Hawkes has crafted an impressive career as one of the film industry's most interesting character actors since his formative days of artistic exploration in Austin in the 1980s.

He received an Oscar nomination for 2010's "Winter's Bone" and delivers a similarly chilling performance in one of this year's most buzzed-about movies, "Martha Marcy May Marlene," which screened last week at the Austin Film Festival and opens in theaters Friday.

Hawkes says he wouldn't have been able to hone his unique creative voice without his time in Austin.

"I was able to do a lot of different things there," he says. "Beyond helping form a theater company, I played in bands and did visual art, I got roped into modern dance performances, just really learned a lot about storytelling and the creative act in general, I guess, without any kind of highfalutin education around it. The people there that I worked with and worked alongside in the creative world were mostly really talented people, and I learned a lot from them and hopefully they learned a bit from me, as well."

While in Austin, Hawkes, who still has family living in the area, performed with the punk rock outfit Meat Joy, which was integral in launching the career of musician Gretchen Phillips. The band also turned on traveling bands such as Sonic Youth to the tapes of local music iconoclast Daniel Johnston. With his Big State Productions Theatre Company, Hawkes also produced the play "In the West," a critical success that the company staged at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

After a decade in Austin, the actor left for Los Angeles, where he worked primarily on minor television shows before landing his breakout role on HBO's "Deadwood." His turn as hardware store owner Sol Star on David Milch's critically acclaimed series led to work in lauded independent films such as "Me and You and Everyone We Know" and last year's "Winter's Bone."

Though he has long considered himself a thorough preparer, Hawkes says he wanted to approach his role in "Martha" unencumbered. His nuanced and inspired performance could serve as a master class for any aspiring actor.

Hawkes' character, Patrick, operates as the father figure for a group of young people living communally in the Catskills. He rules his extended family with a complex chemistry of fear and quiet charm.

Hawkes did not research the lives of literary or historical cult leaders or rely on acquaintances to construct his character. Instead, he worked by subtraction, discarding popular portrayals and challenging preconceived notions.

"I'll often use people I know from my life as inspiration or small pieces of people I've seen or known and certainly even family members along the way," Hawkes says. "But, I don't know why, I just felt like it would be most interesting if this character was a mystery, not only to the audience but to myself, as well. It's not a normal one for me, but I almost wanted to feel like he fell from the sky and landed on that farmhouse and began to gather people."

Playing a charismatic leader poses unique problems, however. Hawkes, who rarely plays such roles, knew that the believability of his character was paramount to the success of the film.

Hawkes loved the script, but says he was not immediately sure how to approach the role of Patrick. Conversations with director Sean Durkin gave Hawkes confidence and comfort with the first-time feature filmmaker.

Hawkes says he appreciated the ingenuity and teamwork of Durkin and his partners at Borderline Films. The trio, based out of Brooklyn, divides the writing, directing and producing duties. The agreement seems to have honed Durkin's ability to collaborate while staying true to his vision.

"Sean was a specific director. He balanced his specificity in knowing what he wanted with an ability to listen to other people's opinions and make great judgments as to what would be best," Hawkes says. "He often worked from his gut. He's instinctual but also always came with a plan. It's a really terrific, very assured debut."

In the film, the titular character (played by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen) flees the compound in an attempt to save herself from the predatory Patrick and his subservient family members. A series of flashbacks and hallucinations tells how she came to the farm in the Catskills and how she and others fell under the spell of its leader, who wields his authority with few words.

"I knew that the story would be stronger, that Lizzy Olsen's character, Martha, would be a stronger character if my own character was a credible person," Hawkes says. "If the moment he walked on screen he's such an obvious charlatan and evil-incarnate kind of guy, I think it would take a great deal away from her character, and we need to be with her through all of the movie. As an audience, I think it's best if we can see at least some reason why she might have fallen in with these people and wants to follow this guy."

As with "Winter's Bone," in which he played an intimidating but ultimately protective uncle, Hawkes deftly navigates dark subject matter with another young actress. Olsen, younger sister to the famous Olsen twins Mary Kate and Ashley, carries "Martha Marcy May Marlene" with a bold and vulnerable performance.

"Lizzy blew me away. She was so brave and game for a lot of really difficult scenes and kind of took the movie on her back in a lot of ways," Hawkes says. "She's got a unique way of working that's her own, and I think really well thought out. She's smart and she's funny. Like Jennifer Lawrence (the star of "Winter's Bone"), there are many things that are alike about them, but one thing is that they certainly have the ability to play with really dark material and in a healthy way be able to lay that down right when the camera stops rolling."

The ability to separate fiction from reality would come in handy for Olsen. Though Hawkes has certainly played many characters that have little trace of evil, he acknowledges that the dark ones seem to resonate with audiences, possibly because art allows a safe proximity to the types of dangers we avoid in real life. In "Martha Marcy May Marlene," Hawkes imbues what should be a terrifying character with a haunting and deceptive tenderness.

In a scene that will probably leave audiences mesmerized by its bone-chilling warmth, Hawkes, who is working on an album to be released next year, cradles a weathered acoustic guitar and plaintively serenades Martha with a frightening rendition of Jackson C. Frank's "Marcy's Song."

It's a musical performance that displays Hawkes versatility as an artist and may well earn the actor his second Academy Award nomination.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986