John Hawkes delivers a superb performance in Low Down as noted jazz pianist Joe Albany who played with musical greats Charlie Parker and Miles Davis but was torn between his musical ambition, his devotion to his teenage daughter (Elle Fanning), and a debilitating heroin addiction. The bio-pic opening October 24th is directed by experimental filmmaker Jeff Preiss in his feature debut and based on the memoirs of Albany’s daughter Amy-Jo Albany who co-wrote the screenplay with Topper Lilien. Set in the colorful, seedy world of struggling musicians and artists in 1970’s Hollywood, the film boasts a first-rate cast that also includes Glenn Close, Lena Heady, and Peter Dinklage.
In an exclusive interview, the Oscar nominated actor spoke about how he first heard about the project after meeting with producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the appeal of the character, his preparation, not wanting to glorify heroin, working with Fanning and Close, his collaboration with Preiss, what he looks for in the roles he chooses, his experiences growing up in a small rural town, when he first knew he wanted to be an actor, his wild ride with a guy who had just robbed a convenience store, and his upcoming projects including the Off Broadway play Lost Lake and film roles in The Driftless Area, Too Late, and Everest. Check out our interview with John Hawkes after the jump.
JOHN HAWKES: Oh thanks. You never know what will happen with anything that you do but I’m proud to be part of it.
Can you talk a little about how this project first emerged?
HAWKES: I first heard of the project when I met with Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa who ended up producing the film. Bona Fide Productions is the name of their company. They’re terrific guys who I’d kind of had my eye on. I liked some of the movies they’d done along the way and was thrilled when they wanted to meet. That hasn’t happened that many times before when a producer just wants to talk to you in general and see what might work down the line. They spoke of a number of projects, and they spoke about the book, but not with me playing Joe Albany at the time. This was maybe four or five years ago. They thought it was something I might be interested in and so they gave me a copy of Amy-Jo Albany’s book, Low Down, (Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood) and I read it, thought it was interesting and set it aside. There’ve been some false starts and they’d lost their original Joe and approached me to play it. I was stoked at the prospect. It’s difficult art that involved music which I like and a very challenging kind of music. I was happy to get involved.
What was your reaction when you first read the script? What appealed to you about the story and your character and made you say I’ve got to do this?
HAWKES: Well, I’d met with Amy and really thought she was terrific. I knew that to play a character based on a real person is challenging, because for me I want to do right by them and to do a good job portraying someone’s loved one. There are people who are still alive who knew the person you’re playing. I’ve gotten to do this a few times. It’s an extra weight of responsibility I think in a way but I like that. It certainly kicks me in the ass and makes sure that I’m really doing my best work, which I’m always trying to do. I guess the extra layer is both a little terrifying and also is a really welcome challenge on some level. Joe is a complex guy, and he’s funny, and he’s screwed up, and he’s an underdog doing his best. At least he’s always trying to somehow to solve this problem. The film doesn’t really show him constantly wallowing in his grief and self-pity, so that’s good. I’m not interested in a character like that. This guy, as ill equipped as he was and without the proper tools to solve his problem, at least was trying to get his head around trying to clean up his act and also trying to raise his daughter alone with very little money in a rough place and time.
HAWKES: I was assured by Jeff Preiss, the director, early on that the drug wouldn’t be glorified. That was important to me. I don’t have personal experience with the drug, but I’ve lived in big cities and worked in the creative arts for many years, so certainly I’ve come across people who are either in the middle of it or are hopefully coming out the other end of it. I wanted to make sure that the drug was seen for what I think it is, which is – I don’t want to say evil but — just not a good thing. I would hope that people wouldn’t watch the movie and think, “Wow, cool. I think I’d like to inject heroin and see what that’s like.” It’s nothing against that kind of film. I’m not interested in censuring or anything. I’m just not interested in being part of that. The most difficult part was to try to make it authentic. It’s something I haven’t done and don’t wish to do but need to somehow portray it in a way that’s realistic. So, it was trying to make something look real that I’ve never done. That was probably the most difficult part. But again, I don’t think it’s the 800 lbs. gorilla in the room. I feel it’s more a character in the film that’s rarely seen but always there. It’s not really about the clichéd close-ups of the needle and taking the drug out of the spoon and a close-up of the needle going into the arm and all that kind of thing. As I said, it’s more one of the characters in the film and an important one, but not the most important one.
I thought you did a superb job of bringing to life a man that’s flawed and self-destructive, but you never let him become too pathetic or unlikeable. Is it hard to find that balance as an actor?
HAWKES: It is, very, I think. That’s the job and that’s what you want to try to do. It helps when the writing is there and when the guidance of the director is there. I know that was really important to me to not just play a wallowing, self-pitying person. It’s always more interesting to see someone again try to solve their problem even if they’re ill equipped. So thanks for that, and I think humor usually is a key, too. You play comedy like drama and drama like comedy, or something like that. You need to infuse something really strongly written usually with the opposite in order to make it have a completeness and a truth.
There’s a very believable bond between father and daughter on screen. Was there anything special you did to establish that convincing rapport with Elle Fanning?
HAWKES: Not so much. One great thing is that I just admire her so much. I just think she’s wise beyond her years and a fiercely talented young person. So, I was ready to love her as a father would, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s just a really terrific young woman and wonderful to be around. She’s really hard working and likes to laugh and comes from a really wonderful family. So really there wasn’t a lot we did. I just thought the world of her ahead of time and so it was easy to pretend Joe’s great fondness and love for his daughter in that way. I think we went and had dinner, the director Jeff Preiss and I and I believe Elle’s mother. And so, that was all the real preparation we did to form that bond. I think it was already there in a good way. It was already there ready to be mined.
HAWKES: Oh, it was terrific. One of the things he told me that I really loved was, “You know, I think this might be the only feature film I ever make.” That was before we ever started and I thought that was kind of cool. It’s interesting to have someone who’s not making this film to get to the next one and to see this as some sort of stepping stone, but rather to see it as the work that his life has kind of led to. That said, I hope he makes more feature films and he might. What was really important in deciding whether to do the film was not only that Amy who had written the book and who’s portrayed by Elle Fanning was going to be there a lot and was going to be really available and open to vet the work and to enrich it with her presence and her stories and ideas for me particularly of her father, but also the idea that Jeff knows the jazz world and has such an incredible passion for it like no one I’ve ever seen really. I felt like he was the guy to do it. In that respect, I just felt like he knew the world really well. He was a huge appreciator of Joe’s music.
Did he give you freedom to have input into your character or to improvise or did you stay pretty close to the script?
HAWKES: As I recall, I don’t know that there was a huge amount of improvisation as much as there was rewriting. Amy had co-written the screenplay with Topper Lilien who I don’t know, but Amy and Jeff and I took seven or eight hours one afternoon and into the evening and just went through the piece. They were kind enough to address the concerns and listen to the ideas I had about how the script might be, you know, just other considerations about scenes and certain lines of dialogue and things like that. They were, as I said, really kind to listen to me and I think that it was certainly helpful for me and hopefully for them, too. Some things changed. You’re always trying to find what is the story, what is the best way to tell the story, and then there are always problems and issues, and you try to solve those problems and deal with the issues hopefully ahead of time. If not, then sometimes they crop up as you’re shooting and you have to try to figure out what’s the story and how do we best tell it.
What was it like working with the great Glenn Close? How was that experience?
HAWKES: Yes, you’ve said it well. The great Glenn Close I’ve been holding in such high esteem for so many years. There’s always trepidation meeting someone you hugely admire because we’ve all been burned in that respect a couple times. But she is as amazing in person as she is an artist. She was really wonderful to work with. She’s really hard working. She has a sense of humor and a great deal of compassion for those around her. And I think she’s just terrific in the film. I was so thrilled that I was going to get to play her son. It was really great. It was fantastic. Lovely.
Do you think growing up in a small town in rural Minnesota and the personal experiences that entailed was helpful to you as an actor and maybe gave you greater insights into some of the characters that you’ve played?
HAWKES: That’s really interesting. No one has ever said that, and I believe it’s true on some level. I mean, we all are going to draw from our experiences, and I don’t know that mine were richer or better for having been limited, but it certainly did afford me a close-up look at a wide range of people. I was thinking about this the other day when you grow up in a little town. I live in Los Angeles and I don’t really experience birth and death and kind of the circle of nature so to speak or the wheel so much as I did there because you know the town. Where I grew up, it was 6,000 people and even though you didn’t know all of them, you’re one degree from anybody so I guess death, birth and life are in your face there. It felt like it was happening a lot growing up. A lot of friends I knew passed away way too young and you’re just really close to that. There’s no real escaping it. I know that whenever I called my mother over the years, it always felt like she was making rhubarb muffins or some sort of what they call a hot dish in Minnesota to bring over to someone’s home so that while they were grieving someone’s death they wouldn’t have to worry about eating. It’s always there and also beyond that, as I said, it’s getting a close-up character study of a fairly wide range of people. If not a wide range of experience in that little town, there’s a wide range of personality and attitude. I always thought about it on my own. I don’t have any formal training as an actor or a musician or anything like that. All that I’ve learned is just by hanging out with people older and smarter than myself when I first moved to Austin, Texas, and then trying to almost catch up in a way. It’s good to be self-taught I think.
I remember hearing a story about how you were hitchhiking and you got picked up by a guy who had just robbed a convenience store. Is that true?
HAWKES: That’s a true story. I hitchhiked thousands of miles. That trip, I think, started in Austin, Texas with my buddy Jim and we were trying to make it to Washington State, and we ran out of money in Colorado, and we were trying to find work and we thought we’d head up to Winter Park, and we got stranded in Denver. We got stopped by a motorcycle policeman who said we couldn’t hitchhike right in what they called the cloverleaf of the freeway exchange. So we just waited until he was out of sight and went right back to the place and this guy squealed up in a blue Mustang and picked us up. Yeah… We asked him why he was going so fast because it was the fastest I’d ever been driven in a car over an hour and a half or two hours’ time. He pulled a gun out from under the front seat and explained he’d just robbed a convenience store and that he wanted to change the description from one guy to three guys. His reasoning maybe wasn’t sound. He was also covered with tattoos, which in 1980 was not a cool thing. It just meant prison. So it was a wild ride. He wouldn’t drop us where we wanted to be and took us way, way past where we’d hoped to be let off without a word. We kept saying, “Why don’t you…” He’d finally gotten completely silent and he was just driving really fast on a mountain road passing cars against the guard rail with a 1500-foot drop below. I looked back at my buddy Jim and he’d pulled his hunting knife out of his backpack at one point. It had kind of gotten that tense. Eventually he dropped us and we had to hitchhike all the way back. It could’ve turned out a lot worse. It’s funny in retrospect, but was a little scary at the time.
What an unusual opportunity to study a real character up close.
HAWKES: (Laughs) Oh yeah, that’s really where I learned acting and storytelling a lot was just riding in cars with strangers.
What do you look for in the projects that you choose? Is it the opportunity to play an interesting character that’s completely different from what you’ve done before? Or is it the genre or the script or a combination.
HAWKES: I don’t really worry about it too much, I guess. I’ve been lucky maybe or I’m just blind to it, but I don’t really look for ‘I’ve done two heavy characters, now I have to do a light character,’ or anything like that. It’s just a combination of three things. It’s always a really great story that’s made into a great screenplay with a role that I feel like I could be valuable to the project. So, it’s the story or the screenplay, the part, and then finally just really good people that are going to help tell that story. If I can get those three things, I don’t really care about the genre, about the budget, or about whether it’s similar to something I’ve done before. If it’s a great story and great people and a part I feel I can do, I just want to be part of it.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an actor?
HAWKES: I grew up in a pretty rural area. I loved stories from a young age. I loved to read from a really young age and we only had one channel on TV. We had a black & white TV, but I was fascinated when I’d take the time to sit down and watch a film or a TV show just because I was interested in it. I thought that looked like a really cool way to make a living. I had no idea how anyone became an actor. And then, in high school I had a wonderful teacher by the name of Scott Fodness who encouraged all his students to try out for the play three times a year. There was another woman called Tamara McClintock. She actually taught high school in Iowa for some years until recently. It was the two of them together. They were really great people that taught me things. Again, I have no formal training, but they taught me things that I still use to this day as an actor from when I was doing the first play I was ever in.
What happened was when I was a sophomore, we got on a bus and went to Guthrie Theater and saw The Crucible. And when that ended, I thought, “Wow, I wish I could be part of that.” I liked the fact that I was made to feel and think. I wondered if I could be part of something that made people feel and think. And that was in my mind the next year when I was a junior in high school and I tried out for the play and got cast. Scott took me aside personally and said, “You’re an interesting writer, and you’re an odd combination of quiet on some days and extroverted on others, and maybe this is something you’d like.” There was a tiny part in the play, but I fell for it immediately. It was a small play and I just really felt a kind of home that I’d never felt outside of my family before or since. So, I still didn’t know how I would do it or if I could do it, but it sat in my mind. Again, I just had an innate feeling to avoid the straight world and I didn’t know how else to do it, but I ended up wanting to, and I just kept doing plays from the time I was 16 until I was 28 when I became a professional actor in theater.
What do you have coming up next that you’re excited about?
HAWKES: Most immediately, I’m here in New York doing a play Off Broadway that will open to previews in mid-October and opens in early November called Lost Lake. It’s written by David Auburn who’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony Award-winning playwright for the play Proof that he’d written some years back. It’s a new play by him. It’s with an actress named Tracie Thoms and myself. It’s a two-character play. It’s really intense, a lot of work, and it’s very exciting. Equity is my parent union and my first professional acting work was on stage. When I got a union card and began, it was doing plays. But I haven’t done that for many, many years so it’s been a really great challenge. I play a guy named Kerry Hogan who’s one of the two characters in the play. He’s down on his luck, kind of hapless, but doing his best upstate New York underdog dealing with a woman from the city who’s come to rent his cabin for a week.
Also, I have a film called The Driftless Area which will come out sometime soon I hope. I play a guy named Shane who I guess by default is the antagonist of the film, but there’s a lot of humor in the character. There’s another film called Too Late which is an interesting movie. Too Late is a film that’s shot in five 18-20 minute single shots on 35mm. In that, I’m the lead playing a modern day L.A. detective. The story is told out of order and the mystery reveals itself as you go. And then, I’m also in Everest. I play a real-life guy named Doug Hansen who was part of the Adventure Consultants expedition in 1996 on Mt. Everest. I don’t know when that’s coming out or what that will be. That’s a big studio movie that you kind of don’t know what it’s going to turn into. It’s a big, huge beast, but it was exciting to shoot and it was really cool people and I have high hopes for the film.