John Hawkes in The Surrogate

John Hawkes has quickly became one of my favorite actors by giving my favorite supporting performances of the last two years. First he was the oddly intimidating Uncle Tear Drop in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, and last year he was the strangely charismatic cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Both of those films made their initial splashes at Sundance, and seeing as this year Hawkes returned to the festival, this time in a leading role, with the movie The Surrogate, I think there’s a good chance he could give my favorite performance of the year overall in 2012. That is, if reports of the film getting lengthy standing ovations and the glowing review of our own very helpful Allison Loring can be believed.

The thing that strikes me about Hawkes is the absolute authority he’s able to command his characters with. He’s a slight man, but he made me fear him completely as Tear Drop. He’s not a pretty man, but he sold me completely on the spell he had those girls under in Martha Marcy May Marlene. In The Surrogate he plays Mark O’Brien, a poet who suffers from Polio, which has left him with a severely curved spine. Hawkes gave a pretty lengthy interview about the movie to Vulture, and the most interesting bits of it, to me, were the parts where he talks about how taxing it was physically to bring this character to life. It sounds like we’re getting another Hawkes performance where he goes all in.

When talking about meeting the film’s director, Ben Lewin, and deciding whether or not he should take this role, Hawkes said, “The first question I asked him when we sat down and met was, ‘Why not a disabled actor for this role? Have you searched for any disabled actors?’ And he assured me that he had… over the period of a couple of years, he put out feelers to disabled organizations and he’d met and read with several disabled actors; some of them he thought were terrific and he’d put in the movie, but none of them felt quite right for the character Mark O’Brien.”

So if you’re not going with a disabled actor, then how do you make an actor with a straight spine appear disabled? Apparently it was no easy task. Hawkes explains the challenge: “Mark’s spine was horribly curved. When you read the script, it says, ‘I haven’t seen my penis since I was 6 years old.’ And Helen Hunt as his therapist says into a tape recorder, ‘His spine is so horribly curved that I don’t know if intercourse is possible.’ You need to honor those things.” And honor those things he did, in true John Hawkes fashion, by getting a little crazy.

Hawkes goes on to describe his attempts at physical transformation by saying, “I invented, along with the lovely props people, something called the ‘torture ball,’ which was a soccer-sized piece of foam that I would lay onto the left side of my back in order to curve my spine. It turned out to not be very good for me and my chiropractor told me that my organs were migrating. I probably will carry some of that the rest of my life, but it’s obviously a minute amount of pain compared to what many disabled people face minute-to-minute.” Good lord, that sounds awful. If he’s to be believed, the man may have permanently injured himself in order to lend a role authenticity. We can at least repay his efforts by all going out and seeing this thing once Fox Searchlight gets it into theaters, don’t you think?


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