John Hawkes is one of those actors who enhances every movie he’s in. Every scene, every line of dialogue, every glance, is loaded—but never smothered—with a thoughtful choice. He’s the definitive “character actor,” who’s built indelible characters in Deadwood, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Winter’s Bone, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. But he can also play the leading man, like he did in The Sessions. In Too Late, which premieres this weekend at the Los Angeles Film Festival, he’s an L.A. private detective whose past comes back to haunt him when he has to track down a missing woman who was once a part of his life.
The film is told in a non-linear fashion, and in this exclusive musical montage from the film, which conjures a slightly more sober version of Inherent Vice, Hawkes lights up, exchanges punches, and hangs out with an assortment of poor souls and dangerous characters. The song is “Fast Enough,” by Sally Jaye, who also appears and performs in the film.
Hawkes is a musician himself; he’s been in bands since the ’80s and even sings in Too Late. He has a big studio film, Everest, coming out in September, but he’s looking forward to some free time where he can put the finishing touches on his first (and last, he jokes) solo record, a collection of songs he’s written over the years that he wants to release and take on the road. “I’d rather play with other people who write and sing, I always have,” Hawkes says. “I don’t really love leading the band 100 percent of the time.”
So don’t expect a solo career any time soon, but the sentiment almost perfectly expresses his work on the screen as well. Hawkes simply makes everyone around him better.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me a little about your character, Mel Sampson. I love the L.A. noir detective, and he seems to fit into that genre.
JOHN HAWKES: He’s such a great character—the L.A. detective, a down-on-his luck modern guy. And I guess this is a modern noir of sorts. It is a classic kind of L.A. detective story—and it isn’t. [Laughs] It’s hard to describe, but it certainly has pieces of that genre.
The poster says it’s a movie about a missing woman and a lost man. What are the demons he’s wrestling with?
His past, in many ways. I think he’s haunted by the decisions he’s made and this film is his way to rectify and try to make right what he screwed up before. I think he lives a pretty Spartan, lonely existence. He’s not anti-social or unfriendly, but circumstances have brought him to a place of solitude for the moment.
I know writer/director Dennis Hauck had directed some short films before. What about this script made you want to invest your time and energy?
I had turned it down initially. I thought it was really interesting and really good but just didn’t quite see my way to do it. Over the next year and a half, Dennis would call occasionally and ask if I’ve changed my mind. And say, “You know, I wrote it for for you.” Which is flattering but doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s for you to do, if you don’t feel it. Then he rewrote it, and sent me another version. It wasn’t a huge rewrite, but it was just enough to kind of make me start to feel really good. The more I mulled it over, the more interesting it became in my mind. The style that he had told me of and the way he wanted to shoot it were all eventually things inviting enough to make me one to work on it.
“I wrote this script for you.” Is that what everyone says to an actor they really want? Do you hear that like six times a week?
In a good week, I guess, sure. Your moment when people are anxious to work with you doesn’t always last a long time, and so I’ve tried to take advantage of that. But on the other hand, when you get presented with such a wide range of material, you can afford to be picky, and it’s not been my goal to be in as many projects as I can any more. When you’re starting out, you’re just trying to eat and pay your rent. I don’t have debts or mortgages or anything like that, so it’s afforded me the chance to field a lot of offers at this point in my life and just try to choose the best ones.
I’m far from an expert when it comes to film technology and the pros and cons of digital versus film, but Too Late was shot on 35 mm. For an actor, what does that change?
I don’t know that it changes the process, but it’s kind of a relief to me personally because I like the look of it so much. For certain stories, in particular, it’s a better way to go. It’s certainly more forgiving, all around. Digital is so sharp that it doesn’t look real to me when I watch it. If care isn’t taken to make it look as good as it can, digital can be the devil’s tool, I think. I’m not a real nerd about technology either, but I do love watching film.
I feel like every eight or 12 months or so, some Deadwood alum will get everyone’s hopes up by saying there’s a sliver of a chance of a reunion, either as a movie or another HBO season. Do you just roll your eyes at this point, or do you—
I haven’t seen any of those reports, but I would jump at the chance. Really, it was one of the best, if not the best job I ever had. It was such a thrill to be a part of. I just wonder how you get 40 people’s schedules together, unless something’s really concrete and written. I would really love to do it. I would jump at the chance, in any form: series, movie, miniseries, whatever. It would be great to do.
Was that the project that kind of turned things around for you, in terms of name recognition?
Well, Perfect Storm was kind of a big deal for me. I finally got to have a role that was interesting in a big movie. I hadn’t really tailored my career toward seeking out really big movies to do. That movie and this movie, Identity, which was with a bunch of really good actors: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, Clea Duvall. That was another big studio movie that I got my name on the poster or whatever. It got me on the edge of that world a little bit. And then Deadwood came, and then while we were shooting Deadwood, I did Me and You and Everyone We Know, and that was kind of the best of both worlds: a little mainstream recognition from Deadwood—even though it wasn’t a hugely popular series all across America. But when that show was on, nearly daily, someone from a soccer mom to a guy in the Mongols biker gang would just approach you. And then Me and You brought a cachet in the indie world, which is where I was most interested in trying to find work, so it worked out well.
Of course, the last thing I saw you in was quite different: Amy Schumer’s parody of 12 Angry Men. How did that happen?
I did a play in New York this past fall and I met Amy through my nephew-in-law, if that’s a term. I’ve been such a fan of hers for several years, introduced to her from seeing her standup. So it was a thrill to meet her and we just kind of stayed in touch via text over a couple of months, saying hello now and then. She asked if I’d like to be part of her show, and I jumped at the chance. She’s a force. And a great human being as well.
Was there a particular line that made it difficult to keep a straight face?
Well, Jeff Goldblum’s just going to be funny anyway. He’s such an unusual, unique person and actor—really, a delight to work with. And so great as an actor. And Paul Giamatti too. These guys are on their game, saying really ridiculous lines with perfectly straight faces, and when people are good at that, it’s funny. It was definitely hard to hold it together.