John Hawkes describes his cult leading character Patrick as if he “just came from outer space.” After you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that that description could not be more apt. Patrick is a walking and talking enigma with no past or future. He’s someone who lives in the moment and is only interested in feeling that moment. Does he have a greater agenda? Maybe. Are his intentions malicious? Possibly. Where does he come from, and what does he believe in? No idea.
That’s Patrick: a mystery.
The gentle and quietly frightening character is one of the many mysteries in Sean Durkin’s feature debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene. The Sundance hit raises far more questions than the answers it barely gives. Durkin’s psychological horror film trusts you to fill in the blanks, as does John Hawkes.
Here’s what the actor had to say about the oddly and charming ways of Patrick, the walking mystery:
To start off, there’s this dichotomy to Patrick where you see what comes off like a real warmness, but there’s also this quiet and intimidating force to the character. Was that your interpretation of him?
I didn’t want to make Patrick the cliché cult leader, for several reasons. For one, it’s just been done and doesn’t seem very interesting to me. More importantly, for the story, it’s a movie about a young woman. If we’re going to go on this pretty peerless hour-and-forty-five-minute journey, or however long the film is, she’s a much more interesting character if Patrick is a well-rounded human being. In other words, if the audience can see why she might follow that guy or briefly be interested in following that guy, as opposed to the guy having no dimension, where he comes off like the personification of evil or a terrible villain guy she should look out for, then she’s going to lose a lot of credibility and intelligence. It made sense on several levels to try to make him a believable and credible human being.
Do you think his kindness is genuine or just manipulation to lure people in?
Well, it’s an interesting thing. I would choose to say that it is sincere and that he is a person who has a degree of caring and love for those around him, twisted though it may be.
There’s surprisingly little exposition about Patrick, from where he came from and what his greater goals are. Did you fill in those questions about Patrick for yourself, or did you approach him as a mystery and a guy who “just is”?
Normally a huge part of the preparation – for any character – is for me to figure out what is the story, and how the character I am playing can best help tell the story. Beyond that it’s trying to figure out the character’s goals in life or objectives, if you will. Also, there’s the back-story of where the characters are from and how they got there, but with Patrick, I did very little of that. I like that you see him as a cipher who “just is,” as you put it. Again, the story didn’t need a lot of detail around the character, or any of the characters. I almost felt like he just fell from space, landed on a farm, and gathered a bunch of people together, and one day Martha walked in. Obviously, that isn’t the case. I did give some thought to his back-story, but it’s nothing really worth talking about or sharing. It was just a way to kind of get there, so when the camera rolled I could be present with the other actors and make the scenes happen.
I like that idea of him coming from space, because he almost has this alien-like, calculated physicality. Was that aura to him on the page?
I think that particular physicality was on the page. As you read it, the character is a bit of cipher, and is open to interpretation to the actor, and most of the roles in the film are like that. Sean [Durkin] did a good job of choosing his cast, getting a lot of terrific performances, and guiding us all along.
It’s an interesting take not having Patrick be a blatant antagonist to Martha, and he comes off oddly right about some of the things he says. Like, the idea of violence making you fully alive.
[Laughs] Yeah, he almost has a Buddhist philosophy in the film. There was a lot of that philosophy he was introducing to her around the dinner table and things like that.
And comparing him to Martha, who’s so isolated, he’s just surrounded by love. He isn’t a villain to most of the characters in the film.
I never try to judge a character — good, bad, hero, or villain, and he’s just a person living in the circumstances within the story. I like that take, though. That’s good.
I don’t mean to try to put him in a box, but in most films, he would’ve been portrayed as this great villain.
Oh, I think so. He certainly probably is in this one. Again, the movie goes so beyond him and into Martha’s world. I’m a bit of fulcrum or a conduit in telling the story. It’s interesting you see the character that way, because that’s a valid interpretation.
The main characters outside of Patrick — Martha, Ted, Lucy — have their own clear conflict. Is Patrick’s that Martha is actually his favorite, or do you think he doesn’t have his own inner-conflict?
To talk outside of the circumstances of the script is tricky, but putting me on the spot, I think it’s most interesting always to make the most active choice, so I would say, yes, he has fallen for Martha, or Marcy May. It is difficult for him to think of losing her. It’s more interesting for me to think it’s not all manipulation; no human being is all one thing. It’s most interesting to find the surprise and the opposites in a character, because people have duality or a dichotomy in them are much more interesting to watch, and help to tell the story.
Were a lot of those ambiguous moments or character touches in the script?
A part of the appeal of the script was that there were so many unanswered questions. One of the reasons is that the film has haunted me — it’s been a very surreal experience, because I hadn’t seen the film since Sundance until last night. I’ve had this surreal experience over the last couple of months. There were times where I thought, “Wow, that’s a tremendous scene. What’s that scene from? Wow, that’s Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and it would maybe be a scene I had nothing to do with. I’ve been so moved by the film that I can almost divorce from it. I can think of it as something entirely apart from myself, and that’s really interesting.
Again, it may seem like a lot of work to some people, but I think it’s a huge gift to give to an audience member to not answer all their questions and, figuratively speaking, hammer into their head what they should be thinking or feeling at any time. You’re really given a choice by this movie. People seem really interested in what happened before and afterwards, for the movie. You’re not always sure what’s going on in the film, even though it’s not overly arty and doesn’t go way out of its way to be strange. I think a lot of that is in the original script. Although, I must say, when the film’s cut together and edited a lot, I guess some specificity went away, but a lot of that stuff had been improvised anyway.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is now in limited release and expands tomorrow.