Back in 1994, long before his Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone, John Hawkes joined a cast of up and coming young actors in director Robert Rodriguez's follow-up to El Mariachi, Roadracers. David Arquette and Salma Hayek starred as the star-crossed lovers Dude and Donna in this 1950s-set drama, just before they became household names, and John Hawkes played Dude's sidekick, Nixer. Roadracers made its debut on Blu-ray this week, and I had the chance to speak with John Hawkes about this fantastic and under-seen drama. Here's what he had to say.
Don't take this the wrong way, but I didn't know how funny you were before I saw this. I thought you were hilarious as Nixer.
John Hawkes: Oh, thank you very much. I was really proud of it. I moved out here, after doing plays and being a part of a theater company in Texas. It was one of the few times, after moving out here, that I could make a whole character happen, on camera, that was satisfying for me as a viewer. That was very gratifying. I did a lot of oddball, sidekick work early on, and I never really found those roles very interesting, but that was one of the few that was right on. I felt that Robert afforded us, all of us as actors, room to create characters that were interesting and very well-rounded.
That's one of the things I liked about it. Nixer definitely is a sidekick, but he has a lot more going on than your regular sidekick. Was that more of a draw for you, or was it just working with Robert, who was just coming off El Mariachi?
John Hawkes: You know, I was really excited to work with Robert. I had just seen El Mariachi, and I was just excited when I read the script. To be honest, in 1994, I was doing a lot of jobs, as an actor, that I wasn't very interested in, because I just enjoyed acting. I was doing just about anything, but a job like this, I was really really excited and hopeful to be cast. It was a really rewarding experience, all the way through.
We mostly only see Nixer when he's hanging out with Dude. Did you ever develop any kind of back story, about maybe his home life, just to get into the character more?
John Hawkes: I'm certain that I did that. I'm an over-preparer to this day, but back then, if I had a one-line role in a sitcom, there would be pages that I would write up about the character (Laughs). I'm sure I had a lot about Nixer. I just wish I could recall what it was. I was trying to dig around and find the notebooks last night, and even the script. I keep very few scripts over the years, but I know I kept that one, because it was a highlight. I'm not sure exactly what Nixer's back story was, but I can assure you that there was a pretty thorough one that I had come up with. I don't think that Robert was that insistent on his actors doing anything like that. I was just enjoying it as an exercise and to figure things out about the character.
John Hawkes: I think so. I know that Robert was kind of frustrated, because even though it was a small project by Hollywood standards, I think he felt like it was over-crewed, that there were just way too many people around. He felt they could have done it with less people, and they could have saved the money to shoot other things. He was never rude to people at all, but he was very much a do-it-yourself guy. About a couple days into the shoot, he was pretty much shooting it himself, at that point. It probably wouldn't have been a fun thing to be the director of photography on Robert's early projects, because he just knew what he wanted. I don't think that's an egomaniacal thing, he's just a storyteller. He described in Rebel Without a Crew, how he can close his eyes and think of a movie from the very first moment from the very last roll of the credits, before he even begins to shoot. It was an unusual experience for all of us, and I've never had one quite like it, but it was terrific. It was really exciting. That being said, you work with someone like Steven Soderbergh, and, to this day, he shoots his own movie, as well as directs, and he finds that to be an effective approach. Again, I don't think it has anything to do with ego, and much more to do with making the movie you want to make.
John Hawkes: I think so. I mean, David had already done a fair amount of work. Jason Wiles, who plays Teddy, literally while we were in pre-production, was cast in John Singleton's Higher Learning, and had a great role. Salma, it was her first American role, but you could tell that she was beyond just a beauty. She had a lot of gut and soul. Sadler I really liked, at that point, because he was so funny in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. My friend Alex Winter played Bill, and I knew Sadler's work that way, so I was really excited to meet him. The one thing that happened, and Sadler might have already talked about this, but the Northridge earthquake happened right in the middle of the shoot. Right in the middle, maybe day 3 or day 4. This was pre-cell phone, so I think I drove all the way out to the set to find out if we were working that day. There was a huge earthquake, and we didn't know if we were going to shoot or not, but we ended up taking the day off, and shooting the next day. That day was the amazing roller skating scene, and I remember everyone was on roller skates and the after shocks were hitting. For the next two or three months, in Los Angeles, everyone was just saying, 'Did you feel that?' People were feeling their own earthquakes and aftershocks. It was crazy. I remember going to Portland to shoot a pilot, a month and a half or two months later, and thinking that Portland was shaking. It was a really odd thing.
That gives a lot more context to that roller skating scene then.
John Hawkes: Yeah, and it was such a brilliantly-shot scene. I remember Robert was on a wheelchair, and putting a camera on a skate, literally, and pushing it around with a pole. He was very inventive and it was guerilla filmmaking at its finest.
We ran a story awhile back that you were in talks to play The Governor in The Walking Dead. Is there anything you can say about that?
John Hawkes: They offered me the role, and I just felt there would be someone else who could do it better. I was flattered, and I took a look at the series. It held interest for me, but I just didn't feel like I was the guy for it. I have to be careful of what TV shows I choose, particularly ones that have commercials in them, because it's going to be a different kind of television show. There are going to be sponsors. No matter how good the show is, if there are commercials, it's going to be a different show, to me. That's just my personal feeling. Yeah, it was nice of them to ask, and it's a good show, but, again, I just didn't feel I was the guy. They came to me and sent me the graphic novel and the first two seasons. I took a look at them, and just didn't feel like it was for me.
John Hawkes: I think the only Tarantino movie I haven't seen is Jackie Brown, and I won't watch it until after I shoot this. I don't think we're supposed to be imitators of Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro, although I think that's what some people expect. Again, I will not have even seen Jackie Brown at that point, and my De Niro impression isn't that great, so I'm just going to approach it like any other film. (Writer-director) Daniel Schechter adapted the novel, I think, really beautifully, and this has kind of been a long time coming. I met with him many months ago, and Yasiin Bey, who I worked with many years before very briefly, I think he's a terrific guy and actor. I'm looking forward to getting going on it. It's been slow moving, trying to get the money and schedules all set up, but the script is what called to me, and that's always how it is. The script is good, and the role is good, and Daniel seems like a capable storyteller. I'm excited to work on it.
When do you start shooting?
John Hawkes: No idea. Hopefully this summer.
Excellent. I'll definitely keep my eyes peeled for that.
John Hawkes: Yeah, man. I hope it's good. Again, it starts with the script, and it's a fine script, for sure. I know that Elmore Leonard was impressed enough to want to be a part of the project. I just know that he's blessed the project, and that's exciting. He's such a terrific writer.
Oh yes. I'm not quite there yet, as far as reading his whole collection, but I've amassed quite a big stack of Elmore Leonard novels.
John Hawkes: Well, that's a life's work right there, my friend. That's a lot to read, that's good. I'm glad you're working your way through. I haven't read enough of his books myself, but I have always enjoyed them.
Just to wrap up, Roadracers is definitely Robert's most obscure title in his collection. What would you like to say to fans of his, who might not be familiar with this, about why they should pick it up on Blu-ray?
John Hawkes: Well, I just think it's a terrific little movie, and I think you'll see Robert's work in its infancy, those kind of action sequences, which he already proved he could do in El Mariachi on a shoestring budget. He had a little more to work with on this one, it's very inventive, it's very fun, it's got attitude, for sure, and I think people will get a real kick out of it. It's interesting to look at Salma Hayek's first English-speaking film, and see David Arquette do an amazing job, as well as Sadler, and just a great cast all around.
Excellent. I really loved this.
John Hawkes: Oh, cool man. I can't wait. I haven't seen it in several years, so I can't wait to see it again.
Thanks so much. It was great talking to you again.
John Hawkes: All right, Brian. Take care, man.