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The Globe and Mail

Why John Hawkes is Oscar’s most glaring best-actor omission

In any given year, there are many more roles for men than there are for women, and that has an interesting side effect: Because there are fewer outstanding roles for actresses, fewer of them get overlooked in the Oscar race. That's not much consolation for the paucity of female characters, I know. But the list of nominated actresses almost always feels right. You might argue (as I would) that Marion Cotillard deserved a nomination for Rust and Bone, or that Judi Dench should have earned a nod for Skyfall. But you couldn't fill the actress slots over again with worthy candidates.

Yet you could, easily, with the spots for actors. Jean-Louis Trintignant for Amour, John Goodman for Argo or Flight, Leonardo DiCaprio for Django Unchained, James Spader for Lincoln, Javier Bardem for Skyfall, Suraj Sharma for Life of Pi (remember, he performs nearly all his scenes against a green screen, opposite no one) – any of them would belong on the Oscar list.

To me, the most glaring lead-actor omission is John Hawkes. In the true story The Sessions, he plays the late Mark O'Brien, a paralyzed poet who lost his virginity to a sex surrogate (played by Helen Hunt, who earned a supporting-actress nod). Hawkes has been nominated before, for playing a meth addict, Teardrop, in 2010's Winter's Bone – opposite Jennifer Lawrence, who appears headed for a best-actress win this year for Silver Linings Playbook – and in The Sessions he delivers a performance that is equally Oscary. For those who haven't seen it, which is most of you, I fear, it's still playing in some theatres and is newly available on demand. (Hawkes also has a small but amusing role as a lobbyist in Lincoln.)

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Because O'Brien was largely immobile, Hawkes had to perform lying down, on a foam ball that contorted his spine. Relying only on his face and voice, he injects just the right combination of wit and sadness to keep his character from becoming too angelic or maudlin. His gentleness is a nice departure from the sinewy, often scary characters he plays in films, such as the charismatic cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and from his TV work on Deadwood and Eastbound & Down.

After Winter's Bone caught everyone's eye (in addition to the Oscar nomination, Hawkes won the Independent Spirit Award for best supporting male), "I was in the unusual position, for me, of having scripts sent to my house," he said in an interview. "But it wasn't like the studios were clamouring to make me the It guy." Out of that pile, The Sessions was the lowest-budget film of the bunch.

"It's a leap of faith every time you do a film, and this one more so, I guess, because it's mentioned in the script that Mark hasn't seen his penis in 30 years," Hawkes, who is 53, says with a playful smile. In person, he seems shy but game, and his big, faded blue eyes suggest a limitless inner horizon. "But there were many wonderful tools at my disposal," including O'Brien's poetry and writing; a documentary short that had been made about him, Breathing Lessons (which won an Oscar in 1996); and the fact that the writer/director of The Sessions, Ben Lewin, was himself physically disabled due to childhood polio.

"It was unusual to be lying immobile with a beautiful naked woman on me, but that was not a bad thing," Hawkes continues, laughing "And as an actor who often misses his mark, it was easier, in a way, to be immobile. I was always in my spot. The DP [director of photography] was never angry with me."

In a separate interview, Lewin chuckled at Hawkes's modesty. "I have to tell you," Lewin says, "the first time John was in character, and the people who knew Mark saw him – mainly Susan [O'Brien's widow] and Cheryl [his real sex surrogate] – it was a very freaky moment for them. I could see how deeply moved they were in a totally unexpected way. They were seeing Mark reborn. That was no mean feat."

Hawkes prefers to be modest, however – it protects him from being over-hyped. "I'm happy in my life, and more nervous about being pushed down people's throats," he says. "I can be most effective as an actor if people believe what I do onscreen, and the only way to do that is to preserve some mystery. The less of me the better, is my approach."

But some details of his story – that of a true working actor – are too good not to share. Born John Perkins and raised in Minnesota, he had an "aha" moment as a high-school sophomore during a school trip to see The Crucible. "I didn't know how I would become an actor, but I knew that my life was different from that moment on," he says. "Those people onstage had in a very powerful way moved me, and I wanted to see if I could move people also."

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His first role was Pig-Pen in his school's production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, a role written into the musical by his teacher, Tamara McClintock, who wanted to flesh out the chorus. (Hawkes takes care to mention by name the people who matter to him.) "The basis of my technique is what I learned in my first moments, working with her," Hawkes says. "She taught me to meditate, all kinds of things I use to this day." Though he only had two lines, he remembers lying in bed at night during the rehearsal period, doing the entire play, "everyone's lines, every word to every song, in order" in his head.

He spent one year at university, taking every theatre class available. A friend, Tim Streeter, "a really cool guy, a photographer and a playwright," introduced him to the music of Tom Waits, the book On the Road and the movie Harold and Maude, and "those three things in a one-month period had my thumb out and hitchhiking thousands of miles," Hawkes says. He ended up in Austin, Tex., where he helped form a theatre company and spent the next seven years acting in plays by the likes of Wallace Shawn and Terrence McNally. "We did an insane version of Our Town with a female stage manager, in 1984, before people were doing that," he says.

In approaching his role in The Sessions, Hawkes was keen to mine the humour of O'Brien's

situation. "Not for cheap laughs, but to find truth and absurdity and funny beauty wherever I could," he says. "I was interested in fighting self-pity. It's boring to watch someone wallow, even if he has every right to. It's more interesting to watch someone try to solve his problem. I think art, in general, can help us shed light on things we normally look away from." Awards contender or not, Hawkes is always worth looking at.

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