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Winter’s Bone’s John Hawkes on His Oscar Nomination and Deadwood-Inspired Cussing

Prior to earning an Oscar nomination for his menacing, mercurial turn in the Ozarks meth drama Winter’s Bone, John Hawkes, a scruffy dude from rural Minnesota with an expansive résumé of roles as underdogs and lowlifes, was simply That Guy. That Guy who was the romance-starved fisherman in The Perfect Storm. That Guy who was the awkward shoe salesman in Me and You and Everyone We Know. That Guy who was the even-keeled Jewish man in love with a saloon hooker in Deadwood. That Guy who was the soft-spoken foil to brother Kenny Powers on Eastbound & Down. That Guy who got killed by Sayid on Lost. We caught up with Hawkes a couple of days before the Academy Awards to discuss losing his "That Guy" status, Winter's Bone, how he never understood Lost, and his Deadwood-inspired fondness for saying “don’t queer the game.”

You don’t strike me as the kind of person who watches the Oscars.
I’ve never seen the Oscars all the way through. I come from theater and bands and art and things. I’d catch some of the speeches, I guess.

A small paper in Minnesota interviewed your mom, who said she’s taken aback by some of the characters you play.
I don’t kill people. I’m not a felon. So yeah, I play a lot of intense people who are viewed as unkind. The first things she ever saw me do were comedy. So I think that she would love to see me do funnier roles. But I don’t think a lot of people think I’m capable of [that]. But she loved Winter’s Bone. She thought the character was suitably menacing.

How do you think casting agents perceive you?
Hopefully as someone who has a wide range. I’m not sure how they see me, actually.

In Winter’s Bone , your character, Teardrop, seems to have a good arc; he almost has a personality makeover.
What’s interesting to me is that people see that as some sort of character arc that doesn’t exist. I think he’s the same person as when you meet him. Character actors, and audiences, are always looking for the epiphany of the characters, the a-ha moment. He’s just trying to protect his family and uses different tactics throughout. I don’t think he has some kind of revelation in the movie and becomes a better person at all. That interests me. I like that the perception of the audience changes.

Did you base him on anyone?
I went to places to look for Teardrop-like people to observe. Certainly in my little town growing up, there were plenty of those there, too. Rough people. People you’d be afraid of. There’s a book called Almost Midnight that spoke about bars that tourists shouldn’t go to that are in the [Ozarks] area. It’s a true-crime book about a meth murder — very different from Winter’s Bone. I drove to those small-town bars before I started to shoot there. I’m from a little town, so I don’t find little towns creepy. I find the people there interesting and … overlooked.

You used to be in a band, Meat Joy. Was it your suggestion to play the banjo in Winter’s Bone?
I’ve never really tried to shoehorn music into my movies. I briefly questioned [Winter’s Bone director] Debra Granik asking the night before if I would play banjo. My feeling was that if Teardrop had musical ability and an outlet, he probably wouldn’t be the guy he is today. I don’t know how to play the banjo, it was impossible to keep in tune, and it had high action — the strings are far from the neck. I just kind of made something up the night before.

It’s interesting that Winter’s Bone, which is so quiet, is up against the very talky Social Network for Best Picture. Did you see The Social Network?
Yeah, I did. It was hard to find somebody to root for, but I thought it was really well done, well-acted. I’m not part of the social network. I don’t even have e-mail. I just guess I don’t need to triple the amount of people I can’t keep up with.

I noticed your former Deadwood co-star Garret Dillahunt is in Winter’s Bone.
He’s a wonderful actor, and that tells you his range right there. That was a wonderful group of people on Deadwood. I didn’t have a showy role. It wasn’t a scenery-chewing kind of part. But I loved being part of that ensemble. And I loved David Milch’s writing. Dense script.

Did being on Deadwood make you cuss more?
I pretty much cussed a lot before that show ever started. More so, I think odd turns of phrase like “and the like” and “don’t queer the game” entered my vernacular in joking with friends.

Do you have any idea why there were so many Deadwood alums on Lost?
No idea. Maybe [producer] Carlton Cuse was a fan of Deadwood? I love Carlton Cuse. He’s a wonderful guy. But it was just a big machine where I could never quite figure out what I was doing on the show. But, like, the show would’ve been fine without the character. And those are not the parts I wanna play. I wanna play parts that matter to the story a great deal. I’d never really see the show, so I didn’t understand it. Since my character didn’t know much, I think it worked out fine.

Do you remember in From Dusk Till Dawn when your liquor-store-clerk character says he deserves an Oscar for keeping his cool during a stickup?
There’s a few characters that’ve said that over the years that I’ve played! And that one popped into my head a couple of days ago. I laughed about that.

Has being nominated for an Oscar changed your life?
No. I’d been working pretty steadily before that. I just hope that more doors open, for sure. I’m glad people care. I just kind of feel like my strength has been people don’t know who I am, so it makes me nervous.

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images