Winter’s Bone is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year and is a strong contender for my favorite, even in a year where some brilliant directors are slipping in some brilliant films right at the last minute.
Everything about this movie works- an interesting script, rich location, beautiful photography, exciting genre experimentation, and powerful performances. It’s that last attribute we’ll be looking at today as I present to you an exclusive CHUD interview with Winter’s Bone star John Hawkes, who plays Teardrop. I’m also pleased to bring you a clip from the film provided by Lionsgate, which features Hawkes during his character’s first scene.
John Hawkes is definitely a CHUD favorite for his roles in everything from Identity, American Gangster, to Lost and Eastbound & Down. He’s a versatile actor for sure, but his most intriguing value is his ability to bring the spirit of his characters to the front of each performance. The spirit of Teardrop in Winter’s Bone is something dark and dangerous, but when it’s raised in the service of family protection, it’s an admirable quality for a meth-cooker. Hawkes had a hell of a challenge to overcome when faced with playing the damaged, Ozark-haunting character, and he details a little bit of his process for finding authenticity when portraying a member of such a distinct region.
First up is the clip, which is tiny bit from a scene in which the main character Ree tries to get a little support from her Uncle in her search for her missing father. As you’ll see, Teardrop isn’t exactly jumping out of his pants to go after his vanished brother.
Now let’s get to the interview…
J: Hey Renn, how are you?
R: I’m doing fairly well, I’m actually down at the Savannah Film Festival in Georgia right now.
J: Oh, no kidding, how is it there?
R: It’s quite excellent, I know we definitely need to get to Winter’s Bone but another one of your films, Earthwork, is playing later in the week.
J: Well I’ll be darned. How’s the weather there, is it warm or cold?
R: This is the first day that it’s actually gotten kind of chilly.
J: Yeah I’ll be there in January so I’m kind of scouting the weather a little bit.
R: Have you ever been around here before?
J: I’ve went to Atlanta when I was a little kid for a wedding, and that’s the closest I’ve ever been. Many years ago. We just did an FX pilot and there were several cast and crew members that were from Atlanta that were working on the show. Seemed like good people.
R: Well first off, I wanted to talk to you about Winter’s Bone with the DVD coming out. Now myself and everyone I’ve spoken to that’s seen it would agree that you bring a pretty incredible performance to the film-
J: Oh thank you.
R: It deserves as much attention as I’m hoping it gets. The first thing I wanted to ask you about was- the film takes place in such a thick distinct environment with such an individual batch of people that- I’m from the South and those kind of accents and mannerisms and even their way of looking at the world is extremely hard to replicate if you’re not from that area, so I’m curious how you managed it?
J: Well I know that Debra Granik, the director of the film is an East Coaster, admittedly. The journey would begin with her finding the novel Winter’s Bone and just falling in love with the young woman character. There’s not really much like this in film nowadays, where a teenage girl has that much depth and substance. And for Debra is was traveling to the Ozarks over a period of years trying to, in her words, “get permission” to make the film. In other words, if she couldn’t find people there who would help her then she would abandon the project, as interesting as it was to her. She knew she couldn’t do it on her own. So to her credit, with many visits over the years she was able to find people to help her and teach her about the area and she really immersed herself and learned all she could.
For me, you know, I lived in Austin, Texas for awhile, I grew up in a little town up north in Minnesota but to have a pice of the south and piece of small town in me growing up was really beneficial. Every small town in American has rough characters, like any small town I’ve ever been to and Teardrop, the character I play, was one of those folks. So I just didn’t have that area to glean from but I certainly had my own upbringing in a little town and being around people who frighten me as they do and I would guess if I was a little kid and ran into that character Teardrop, I’d be a little scared.
I was able to go a week early down to Branson, and there’s also a novel the film’s based on to read. There’s a non-fiction book, called Almost Midnight [grab it from CHUD here] that deals with true crime in that area unrelated to our story but involving methamphetamine and murder, and that book told me a lot about the area, about why people in that area are the way they are from the earliest settlers, and it also spoke of bars that you would avoid if you didn’t know people there, and I went to those places specifically from that book. Not in any kind of cocky way or show-offy way, but more to see if I could be a fly on the wall and just hear the music of the accent and the way people moved and things like that, all of that was beneficial in trying to figure out how to play this guy.
R: I wanted to ask –and I know a lot of your answer would fall to Debra, the director– but I think what makes Teardrop so compelling is that it’s such a perfectly timed revelation of character. When we first see him, he doesn’t seem that sympathetic but soon we get this varying level of threat from him, and slowly we understand him and his motivations, and the depth of his relationship with Ree. So how did you manage to kind of “timing” of how much you were exposing of Teardrop in each scene?
J: Well the great thing is man, it’s in the script, it really unfolds that way as a reader, for the first time reading that script. I hadn’t read the novel, the script was my first introduction, and that was the wonderful thing about Teardrop. I really enjoy in my own life when I judge something one way and then I realize I’m completely wrong. People often talk about Teardrop’s change in the film and the most wonderful thing about reading it for me and playing the part and watching the movie later is that he doesn’t change in the least, it’s just that our perception of him changes. He’s only trying to protect his family from the moment we meet him and then he discourages the lead character, the young woman from pressing her course she’s describing and then once she’s involved then he has to get further involved, but uh, I don’t know if it makes sense to you but it almost feels like Teardrop doesn’t have any revelation, which is really wonderful- that our perception changes as we watch what he does. And that’s a really cool thing to play, you know, there’s no real moment when he suddenly realizes, “oh, I have to be a good person, I’ve been bad.” There’s nothing like that, he’s just Teardrop.
R: Well I think it’s a testament to your performance that I’ve seen a number of people on our website and in comments saying –as silly as this suggestion obviously is– that they’d love to see a sequel to Winter’s Bone focusing on Teardrop, even though I think that sequel would be pretty short.
J: Haha, that’s really flattering and uh, you know, “where do I sign?” but I don’t think that’s probably going to happen.
R; Yeah, again, I think that would be a short movie if it got made, maybe a prequel would be better.
J: It may well be a short film, that’s one of the beautiful things about the ending is that they had to constantly re-edit the ending of the film to get the last minute of the film the way they wanted it, the last two minutes of the film. There was always a great deal of talk and back and forth about how to handle Teardrop at the end and I think it’s just right- we’re not certain what’s going on with him at the end of the film, but if we’ve watched carefully we have a pretty good idea where he’s headed, and that would probably be a very short sequel. But I don’t want to take away… everyone takes something different away from the ending with him, some thinking he’s going to be okay, and some don’t think he’s not going to be okay.
R: I love that the movie, even to the last frame, keeps its priorities and there’s no Scooby-Doo revelations, it’s just what is of concern to Ree is what we stay concerned with, and when that is resolved that’s when we’re finished with the story. I really admire that.
J: Oh yeah, I agree. It’s a form of storytelling that’s not so on-the-nose and tied up with a bow, but hopeful satisfying on some level. It’s quite a trip you have to take with this group, but I think at the end, at least for me as a viewer trying to watch it as objectively as I can, it felt right.
R: So tell me a little bit about working with Jennifer Lawrence who, without any formal training from my understanding, has this incredible verisimilitude to her performance. The making-of features that show her out of character on set demonstrate that she wasn’t just playing herself, she was bringing some pretty hardcore chops.
J: I agree, very much so, Jennifer’s a really unique actress. She’s young and yet she has such a depth to her work, she really- I like to use the word “brave” to describe her and her choices and where she’ll go. I’m also untrained so we didn’t really have- or have to worry about any sort of- who’s approaching it what way, I think we saw things quite differently- we’ve spoken about it in interview but, uh, working with her was pretty much a breeze. She’s prepared and she’s got a lot to bring to the table, and for her age she’s definitely wise beyond her years. She’s not a method actor, I’m not even sure what that is, but she is able to, I guess compartmentalize or have a distance from the character she’s playing when the camera’s not rolling. And that’s kind of neither here nor there, but it’s interesting. I really don’t mind working with someone as long as that person is open and we’re working a scene together that is alive and kind of happening. Between the other actor and myself it doesn’t matter what your training is or how you’re getting to where you need to be, but it’s interesting she was able to- she had that character quickly, so in-between takes she could just be her normal fun self again but yeah, she goes to dark places really well.
R: You spoke about getting there to the Ozarks a little early, and kind of haunting those spots, is there anyone you met that was genuine to the area or any place you went into that was particularly scary or memorable or unexpected?
J: Yeah, you know, mainly when I was alone what I would find thing that would make me uncomfortable or make me wonder if I was in the right place never happened too often, but it’s an area that’s tough. It was settled by Scots-Irish and, I can certainly relate to this, they have a mistrust of authority on some level, and they, you know- laws that were made 100 miles away in a building with a bunch of people sitting around deciding how people should act, they’re not very into that. They have their own kind of code, as I could figure it. I never felt I was in any kind of danger, uh, the weather was rough and I’d rented a really terrible car that didn’t run well and one of the wheels wobbled a lot so I had some problems some nights just going place to places when I was researching but nothing- I never felt threatened by anything. But again, I was trying to be fairly invisible in these place and just kind of hang out and see what I could learn. And methamphetamine is a part of the film, handled well I think, it’s not constantly seen but it’s really the 800 pound gorilla in every scene on some level. There a lot of information, my girlfriend helped me find these things online, there were several documentaries, The World’s Most Dangerous Drug is one I watched, but all those kind of things just figured into trying to figure out how to tell the story and then once the camera rolls I just try and forget all that and be present and be there with the other actors, see what happens.
R: I noticed in the making-of that a lot of local actors were used, which brought some authenticity to the whole thing. Did you get to work with many of them, how was that experience?
J: Yeah, I think you were fishing towards that with your last question and I didn’t get to that part, so thanks for bringing it up again, but yeah a guy named “Stray Dog” who played Thump Milton, I spent some time with him and hung out with him in his place and rode motorcycles with him and things like that, he’s a wonderful guy. I’ve said this before -I’m not sure exactly like this- but, if I’m shooting on location and there’s a lot of local people maybe even some who have never acted before, I don’t really feel like I’m in a position of power by any means. For me those folks are of the land and of the area and I’m trying to keep up with them or catch up with them, so I think you’re right, the performances by local people are really wonderful in the movie and there’s nothing wasted at all. Everything matters, and those folks really showed up and helped tell the story in the best way it can be told. We were lucky for them.
R: Well again, I appreciate your time. You’re definitely a CHUD favorite for everything you’ve done from Dusk Till Dawn to Eastbound, we love watching.
J: Oh well thanks man, I’m happy to talk about this movie, you know usually I’m not too big on the interviews but for this movie it’s a real pleasure to spread the word.