Yesterday, Sundance finally witnessed its biggest sale, when The Surrogate sold for a reported six million dollars to Fox Searchlight, thanks to a stirring performance by John Hawkes, which is already generating such intense, immediate, and obvious Oscar buzz that it's easy to forget that the next Oscar ceremony is still 13 months away. In the first film in 18 years by writer-director Ben Lewin who is himself partially disabled, Hawkes acts entirely on his contorted back as poet, wiseass, and polio survivor Mark O'Brien, a Boston journalist who spent most of his life confined to an iron lung. Sounds depressing, right? Only it's dirty, witty, and moving in equal measure as O'Brien, with the counsel of his priest (William H. Macy), hires a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him enjoy sex, despite the fact that his movement is restricted to his face and neck. Macy is deadpan brilliant, and Hunt, who goes full-frontal for the part, delivers maybe the best performance of her career. But all eyes are on Hawkes. He has been the toast of Sundance three times before, first with Me and You and Everyone We Know, then Winter's Bone, for which he was Oscar-nominated, and most recently Martha Marcy May Marlene. We talked to him about what it was like to play O'Brien, and what it's like to be 2013's leading Best Actor candidate.
GQ: Let's start with the basics. How did this project come about?
John Hawkes: Well, the project came to me the old-fashioned way in one of several scripts that I was offered after my great luck of last year through the awards season [after Winter's Bone]. I had a pretty nice-size stack of things to read. I chose the two lowest-budget projects. There were some ones that could have probably made some money. But I'm a sucker for good writing and for a good story. So, I read the script and thought it was pretty amazing. I met with Ben Lewin at a deli in Los Angeles and was quite taken with Ben. He's a wonderful, unusual, interesting man. My first question to Ben was, "Why not a disabled actor? Have you sought out disabled actors?" He assured me that he had, that he spent quite a long time, and some of those actors were cast in the film. But he just felt that he hadn't found who he needed and felt that it was something I could do. Then, with Ben I tried to figure out who else we could cast. It's a very low-budget movie but the script was so great that it attracted Helen Hunt to play the surrogate and William H. Macy to play the priest, Father Brendan.
GQ: Not too shabby.
John Hawkes: Yes. It's really amazing. You've got people like Adam Arkin showing up in smaller roles and Earl Brown and Robin Weigert, Rusty Schwimmer. Just a really fantastic group…on and on. It's vindicating to read something and realize you're not the only one that thinks that it's really, really great. I've been a fan of Bill Macy's for so many years, since before Fargo, long before that. I just was incredibly, incredibly elated that he was joining us. His work proves out.
GQ: What were those other scripts you were getting? The bad guy in the superhero movie?
John Hawkes: Sure. Sure. There's a few of those. And I'm not against making money. I'm not against large-studio films. But for the most part I just gravitate towards material that happens to fall into the independent vein. I've spoken on this before, but one of the issues with the larger movies is that there's many bosses. A lot of people vet each tiny decision. On an independent film it doesn't have to do with guessing what's going to make the most money or guess what the audience will like. It's a filmmaker and his team or her team telling the story they want to tell the way they want to tell it without interference from people who think that the lead actor should smile more or things like that. There are wonderful studio movies. But I feel like the percentage has begun to drop over the years of wonderful studio movies versus wonderful independent movies, just in my own subjective opinion. The art that changes the world to me isn't when people guess what the audience might like but rather tell their story or paint their painting or dance their dance or write their novel the way they want to do it.
GQ: And it's particularly absurd to me, particularly because the biggest films in box-office history are the ones by guys like James Cameron and Christopher Nolan, who have been given an unusual amount of control.
John Hawkes: I wonder if they really have that kind of control. But maybe they do. I'm not sure. But I think even in their minds, and this is maybe not a great thing to say, but perhaps even in some of those powerful filmmaker's minds there may perhaps be the idea that the movie needs to make a lot of money. Plus, if that person happens to have a backing in the movie they're again going to be guessing what the audience will come and see and pay for. Sometimes that works. But most of the time, to my mind it doesn't work well.
Sadly, studios years ago stopped making mid-budget movies for adults. So, we're kind of left with cartoons and explosions and things. Those can be interesting movies and they can be things that I also enjoy. But for the most part, independent films have taken up the old Kramer Vs. Kramer and those kinds of things that studios used to make. Movies don't have to be heavy and full of deep thought and ideas, but independent film definitely has picked up the slack to try to tell stories for those who aren't as interested in the cartoons and the explosions.
GQ: Yeah. I mean this film, there's always skepticism in film festivals and in the award circuit about films about somebody with a disability.
John Hawkes: Yes. There's the festival audience as well.
GQ: Is it ever a thought in your process? It must be tempting to think about that audience.
John Hawkes: I hope not. I hope not because my constant battle and luckily it wasn't a battle I had to wage against Ben Lewin, was that the story itself is just immediately fraught. There is a guy who is living most of his life in an iron lung. So, you don't really need to do too much piling on. I wanted to make sure that not only did the portrayal of Mark kind of fight self-pity but that the film as a whole fought self-pity. That he was always trying to solve his problem. He was always working toward a solution to find peace and to find some sort of satisfaction in his world and some sort of… happiness in his life. So, it was important to not push for sentiment or for sadness.
GQ: In a way, you're doing what they tell actors not to do: acting from the neck up. Watching video of him, what did you notice?
John Hawkes: Jessica Yu made an extraordinary short documentary that won the Academy Award in the '90s called Breathing Lessons, about Mark's life. So, not only is it just a piece of art that stands on its own, it was an extraordinary tool for me personally to try to understand Mark both physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I was also trying to figure out how to use a mouth stick to type and to turn pages of books. I read all of his poetry that I could find, all of his articles that I could find. Poems written about him, articles written about him. I found everything I could. But beyond all that, the greatest tool was Breathing Lessons to try to see how compelling a person who has no movement other than 90 degrees of their head could be. He's a very compelling figure.
GQ: Was that sense of humor there? That wiseass attitude?
John Hawkes: Very much so. And those women [portrayed in the film] were around and available to speak to. They were really open to answering questions as best they could. So, what I learned about Mark was that he had a very incisive sense of humor and a lot of anger but a lot of humor came out around that anger. They told me several stories that were pretty amazing.
GQ: Can you tell me one ?
John Hawkes: Oh, sure. These aren't things from the film. Mark could be out of the iron lung for short periods of time and he loved baseball. So, he and Susan [his partner] were on the subway to watch a game. He's on his gurney with his breathing apparatus and his curved spine laying there. A rather rude, thoughtless woman on the train standing within Mark's hearing said to Susan, "What's wrong with him?" She asked several questions that seemed kind of odd for a stranger to ask, made other people in the train car a little uncomfortable. Well, as they got to their stop and Susan was pushing Mark out the door Mark shouted back to the woman the only thing he said the whole trip, which was, "Hope you had your shots!" He was like that.
GQ: Usually, when you ask an actor say they don't pay attention to the chatter, that buzz doesn't matter. But you saw that it mattered when your awards buzz meant that more people saw Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy—and those scripts started rolling in. Yesterday when the film sold and people started talking 2013 Best Actor, that must have been a pretty incredible day. But please don't tell me it didn't matter.
John Hawkes: Well, I do have a skepticism about kind of everything. I've had my heart broken in this business many times. So, my key to happiness has been a very low expectations. All I really took from yesterday—and it was an extraordinary day—was that people in the audience were really moved and excited by the film. They seemed to feel that they'd found a gem that hadn't existed for me personally. It would be disingenuous to say that it doesn't matter to me or that it isn't really important to me. I mean, I'm going to be doing this work as long as I'm physically able. I did it for many years for no money and was no less happy than I am now because with attention comes a lot of other things that aren't quite as pleasant. But, no, it's an extraordinary day and I'm so happy to be part of this project. This festival has been a huge part of my life, from doing the labs and readings and up this festival. I'm pretty beholden to Mr. Redford and Michelle Satter and all the folks at Sundance