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John Hawkes chats about 'The Sessions' and Oscar

John Hawkes

John Hawkes (Credit: (Getty Images))

For an Oscar nominee, John Hawkes comes across as an impossibly humble guy. There's not a hint of the braggadocio or self-importance that should rightfully come with being widely considered one of the best actors around.

The modesty is especially impressive when you consider that the "Winter's Bone" star, 53, is well on his way to a second Academy Awards nomination. He's sure to make the short list for his challenging work in "The Sessions," a dramedy based on a true story about Mark O'Brien, a journalist-poet crippled by polio and forced to live in an iron lung, who hires sex therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt) in an attempt to lose his virginity.

amNewYork spoke with Hawkes about the movie, which hits theaters Friday.

You're not only playing a real person here, you're playing someone who was depicted onscreen in a documentary ("Breathing Lessons"). That must be a lot of pressure. It's an extra weight of responsibility to portray a non-fictional character. If that character has passed on, as Mark has, he died in 1999, you want to do right by that person's spirit and their memory, and certainly my first audience of people that I would most like to feel like we did a good job are the people who survive him or knew him, his friends and family. ... It makes me nervous that that film is out there in a way, because my performance will be compared to him as a human being, but it was a great jumping off point.

Since "Winter's Bone," if not earlier, there's been a lot of hype around you. How do you keep a level head? I don't know how well I do and I know there's kind of a double-edged sword. I'm not ungrateful, I never want to sound like it, but certainly alongside visibility comes expectation and [it] gets into your personal life and your freedom and things like that a little bit. But I just keep doing small movies that matter to me. I'm trying not to just sell out to the highest bidder, necessarily.

You've been around for a long time, relatively speaking, and it feels like over the last half-decade people have started really taking notice. Is that a strange experience? It is, yeah. I just feel like the same person doing the same stuff, but people have started to notice. There's probably a good reason why a lot of the things that I've done weren't seen. They probably weren't incredibly great projects on some level. But I feel like there's a lot of things that do slip under the radar that I was really proud of that no one ever saw.

You must have been inundated with scripts after the Oscar nomination. What made you choose such a risky one? This was on the pile of scripts that I got after "Winter's Bone." Inundated is too strong a word. It was a supporting nomination and I didn't win, and [that] kind of kept me on the same keel, which I wasn't at all upset about. Again, I like my life very much as it is and I'm nervous with too much more exposure, too much more me out there. This script did leap off the pile. It was the lowest-budget one on the stack, but it ... made me feel the most alive and interested.

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