These days the elusive John Hawkes can be found in Lost Lake, constituting half the cast of the new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning David Auburn that will occupy one of Manhattan Theatre Club's subterranean stages at City Center through Dec. 21.
You can also find him filling movie screens in "Low Down," enacting the last, lost, drug-driven days of legendary modern-jazz pianist Joe Albany — from the helpless perspectives of his teenage daughter (Elle Fanning) and his mother (Glenn Close). Having two John Hawkes performances in town at the same time practically qualifies as a festival. Now well into his third decade of becoming An Overnight Star, he is, at long last, getting around to his New York stage bow with the Auburn opus.
Tracie Thoms of Drowning Crow and Stick Fly shares the stage with him as a widow who takes a breather from the big-city hurly-burly and settles with her children into a ramshackle waterfront cabin. Its owner (Hawkes) is pretty ramshackle himself.
"The play is their kicking and screaming," Hawkes explains. "They're kinda pulled into each others' lives unwillingly and, in a strange way, seem somewhat the better for it. They end up allies with a crude connection to each other you wouldn't expect."
Some exemplary work in indie films is finally bringing Hawkes to the fore, replete with Independent Spirit Awards for playing a backwoods meth addict in "Winter's Bone" and a man in an iron lung with a desire not to die a virgin in "The Sessions."
Incredible as it may seem, there are 29 years of photographic evidence of his acting, on big screen and small, in 121 different projects, but sifting through all this cinema for some of his lost or overlooked little nuggets is the work of gold prospectors.
Ah, there's a warming thought! "I like that — that's good," he beams. "I'm trying to ascend the ladder of fame just another rung or two, so I like to be a mystery to the audience. If I get too well-known — I find myself saying, sitting here doing this interview — that's not possible. Not to be disingenuous, but I avoid talk shows as much as I can. I don't want people to know me. It's a secret weapon to be someone people don't recognize. You can be more convincing, the less people know you."
This fear of exposure (over- or otherwise) kept him off Broadway, and he has been asked — twice. "I really was interested in working Off-Broadway when I came to New York. I didn't want to be that L.A. movie star coming in, taking Broadway by storm.
"Lost Lake seemed a good fit — a small story in a small space. Manhattan Theatre Club agreed, and, after a reading and some remuneration, it's happened. The play has the feeling of 'the blessed ordinary,' as David Milch used to say on 'Deadwood' — not a huge, scenery-chewing, bombastic piece, but a subtle character study of two people."
Hawkes started out, at age four, wanting to be a wrestler but gave that up at age 16 for the school play, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in the added role of Pig-Pen. "I knew I was home because, two weeks into rehearsal, I could lay in my bed and recite the whole play — dialogue, book, lyrics, everything — and I only had two lines in it." The Minnesota farmer's son did plays for two years of high school and one year of college. "I rather quickly figured out I didn't want to stay in school. I just wanted to be in every play I could, so I did community theatre and a couple of plays at college."
At 19, he moved to Austin, "where I hung out with people older and smarter than me" and earned some stage cred in a band called Meat Joy and an acting company called Big Stage Productions. The latter troupe wrote their own ticket out of Texas — a company-concocted play called In the West, which went to the Kennedy Center, won a love-letter review from Variety and was fleetingly considered as a commercial transfer to New York. Had it happened, he might have been spared three decades of film and TV. It did get him a theatre job: The writers/actors of Greater Tuna, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, caught the act and cast him opposite Brent Briscoe as Tuna's B-team, following the originals into cities that could go extra innings with the play.
In a very real sense, he's back home again — on the stage. "Equity is my parent union through Greater Tuna. That was the first professional acting work I ever did, and I did that play several hundred times in different cities over a few-years period before moving to L.A. It was all I knew at the time. I hadn't really done much film, and now I have 30-odd years — and they were odd years—of doing film and television."
And if Lost Lake finds him his long-lost stardom, is he properly buckled down for the sudden shock of recognition? "Ummm, yeah, sort of, trying to be, best as I can, sure."