John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen in 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene.
John Hawkes' conversation with Melissa Block on today's All Things Considered begins as many of his conversations might: with her noting that when she told people she was coming to talk to him and rattled off his credits, she got a response that he undoubtedly gets a lot: "Ohhh, he's that guy."
Hawkes has been in the HBO show Deadwood, last year's Oscar nominee Winter's Bone, and this year's Martha Marcy May Marlene, in which he played a cult leader. He's done regular television — Lost and Psych and Monk and The X-Files and CSI. But still, to many people, he's "ohhh, that guy." Melissa Block asks him whether he thinks it's a drawback to be a character actor rather than a huge star. "I think to kind of be thought of as 'that guy,' or 'I think I know you from somewhere' kind of guy, is an asset for me," Hawkes explains. "I have a difficult time sometimes believing movie stars playing characters." He says even if he had the face to be a household name, he wouldn't care to be one: "I'd rather be invisible. I'd rather be a mystery."
While he generally gravitates to smaller films, Hawkes does have a role in Steven Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln. Whatever he's doing, he explains that big movies don't always satisfy his desire for storytelling. "I feel like the art that changes the world, which is what I want to be part of," he says, "is never the storyteller guessing what the audience would like, but rather the storyteller telling the story they would want to tell it. Audience be damned, in a way."
Ultimately, Hawkes says, given the mix of projects in which he tends to become involved, encountering the public isn't always easy for a guy who's somewhere between recognizable and not. "If someone comes up and says, 'I saw you in Winter's Bone, I'm usually thrilled. If someone comes up and says, 'My friend said you were in a movie, what movies were you in?' and things like that? It becomes more difficult to begin listing things — 'Well, I haven't seen that' 'Well, I haven't seen that.' Sometimes, it's easier just to keep your hat pulled down and move about and live a normal life."