Teardrop. You knew this guy was bad before you even saw him. With a name like that, what else could he be? As the methamphetamine-snorting, gun-toting, not-entirely-bad uncle Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, John Hawkes had audiences squirming. His character was unpredictable, outsized — the kind of relative who made you think twice about sending a Christmas card. And yet into the middle of each other’s lives Teardrop and his niece Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) are thrown, and their resulting ride has become the top American independent film of 2010. I spoke with John Hawkes before the news about his nomination for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
So this film won best drama last year at Sundance, is that right? At Sundance, yes, that was the premiere. That was the first time I saw it. As an artist, I know it’s hard to quantify creative achievement, so I try not to get too excited about awards, but anything that has such an impact on how many people see a movie like this, you’ve got to be grateful for, and believe me, I am.
You received the Gotham Award this fall for best ensemble. How did that feel? That’s an amazing thing — thrilling and unexpected. We love it. A lot of those folks in the film are non-actors, so that’s quite an achievement.
I was really afraid of what Teardrop might do. Was that how you meant to play him? That’s good because I think that was part of my job. I’m always focusing on the story, and that response makes me feel like I got it, because the story, in this case, is a young woman’s perilous journey. As an actor trying to tell a story, the one thing you don’t want to do is play the ending. So, if you were scared for her at the beginning, that’s what it should have been like. Any number of horrible things could happen to her because of me or at my hand. You’re supposed to think that.
In the initial meeting, you actually lay a hand on Ree, and it’s very frightening. Was that in the script? Yes. That’s in the book — the wonderful novel by Daniel Woodrell — and it’s in the script. I fought for those things — breaking the window and just playing Teardrop that hard, as that difficult of a person. You know, Debra Granik is an amazing director, and I shouldn’t say that I “fought” exactly, but I certainly did hold out for this vision of Teardrop that we shot, because to me it just made more sense with the story. He had to be that way for it to work.
That ambivalence and two-sidedness really deepened the journey of the main character. I think so. It’s so funny — when we do these Q&As after screenings, people get up and tell me how they didn’t like Teardrop at first, and then they did like him in the end, so they congratulate me on how I showed that Teardrop changed. And I say that he didn’t change at all — that’s the plot! He does whatever he needs to do to protect the people around him, and so when they’re threatened, he comes through. But prior to that, he’s going to say “No, don’t go poking about in the valley,” and when he is saying that, he’s going to be intense about that, too.