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John Hawkes: ‘The Sessions’ star stays low-key

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John Hawkes is a Hollywood actor who has decided not to live a Hollywood lifestyle.

He has never bought a new car. He has never owned a home, aside from one he purchased for his mother a few years ago. (At 53, he’s a lifelong renter.) And he definitely doesn’t care about digital technology.

“You may be amazed,” Hawkes warns wryly as he reaches into his red canvas messenger bag and pulls out a black Motorola phone with which the adjective “smart” will never be associated. “This is my communications device,” he announces. Hawkes — not surprisingly, given his device — confirms that he does not use e-mail.

“I’ve just chosen not to and have made a life happen without it,” he explains. “I’m not interested in Twitter and Facebook and things. I’d rather meet people and talk to them.”

Living life on his terms — streamlined, modest and devoid of texting, even though his career is thriving — may make Hawkes an anomaly in L.A., or anywhere else in America for that matter. But it seems to be working out well for the Minnesota native.

Two years after earning his first Academy Award nomination for playing a feral meth head in “Winter’s Bone,” Hawkes is starring in two of this year’s presumptive trophy contenders. Next month, he will appear as a Civil War colonel in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” And beginning Friday, he can be seen in “The Sessions,” a tender dramedy in which he plays a paralyzed man determined to lose his virginity with the assistance of a sex surrogate. That second film has sparked Oscar conversation around Hawkes’s performance, with readers of awards-season tea leaves saying he could be in the best-actor mix for his portrayal of Mark O’Brien, a writer who contracted polio as a child, spent most of his days in an iron lung and died in 1999 at age 49.

To become O’Brien, Hawkes had to mold his mind, body and voice to match those of a man with a severely curved spine, semi-slurred speech and the inability to move a single muscle below his neck. Over a two-week period he trained himself to use a mouth stick — a rod O’Brien placed between his lips and used to dial a telephone, type and turn pages in books. He watched the O’Brien-based short documentary “Breathing Lessons” 40 or 50 times, by his estimate. And for much of the film’s shoot, he laid stone-still with a soccer-ball-sized piece of rubber foam wrapped in duct tape — an object dubbed the “torture ball” — tucked under the left-middle portion of his back, allowing him to replicate the permanent arch in O’Brien’s prostrate posture.

“It was a very uncomfortable position to assume, a very contorted position,” Hawkes said recently during a brief visit to Washington. “It was painful, but a minute amount of pain compared to what everyday people deal with in their lives, and a small price to pay to try to accurately portray this guy.”

Says “Sessions” director Ben Lewin, also a survivor of childhood polio: “I think he had a very high degree of tolerance to the discomfort.” (Lewin gets around easily on crutches, but very briefly lived in an iron lung when he was young.) “Maybe that was part of the problem. We got very used to the fact that he was tolerating the discomfort.”

And they got very used to thinking of Hawkes as Mark O’Brien; Lewin says Cheryl Cohen Greene, the surrogate who became O’Brien’s first sexual partner and is played in the film by Helen Hunt, teared up during a set visit when she first saw Hawkes in character.

“It was very spooky,” Lewin says.

Hawkes, his lanky scarecrow of a body clad in blue jeans and a brown corduroy blazer, says that he didn’t move to Los Angeles until he was 30, and that it took nearly two decades after that to get to a place where he can “not really have to do anything I don’t want to do anymore.” But his fascination with acting began much earlier, during a high school field trip to see a performance of “The Crucible.”

“I knew that something happened that day that created a physical and mental shift in me,” he says. That experience led to his first theater work, as Pig-Pen in a school production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” a part added to the play, he says, to put “extra warm bodies onstage.” Becoming other characters immediately became an inspiration and a comfort; when the young Hawkes couldn’t sleep, he calmed his mind by running dialogue in lieu of counting sheep.

After several years of acting and waiting tables in Austin, he threw himself into the L.A. character actor circuit during the 1980s and began tackling wildly different roles, dialing the edges in his jaw and twinkle in his eye up or down as circumstances dictated. As a result, he has convincingly become, among other things, a besotted optimist in “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” an upstanding Jewish cowboy on HBO’s “Deadwood” and, last year, a beady-eyed, dangerous cult leader in“Martha Marcy May Marlene.”

He has had the sort of ascent that, although slow and steady, can quickly persuade a person to pursue a life of luxury, especially once the Oscar nomination glow kicks in. But Hawkes, like the man he plays in “The Sessions,” places more value on the simpler things in life.

“I’m such a gypsy in this world,” he says. “And to have a fancy place has never really — I’ve thought of it. And maybe I will someday. But for the most part I’m not home a lot so just a place to keep my things is good.

“I’m not poor,” he adds, “but I didn’t grow up with a great deal of privilege. And I don’t seem to crave it.”

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