On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Oscar-nominated actor credits Minn. for his dramatic roots

Share story

Earthwork
Oscar nominee John Hawkes plays a Kansas farmer and crop artist trying to work in Manhattan in "Earthwork"
Image courtesy Shadow Distribution

Oscar-nominated actor John Hawkes is heading home to Alexandria in west-central Minnesota this week, and he's bringing his new film "Earthwork." While it's been 30 years since he lived in Minnesota, he says his success is rooted in his home state.

Hawkes got the best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role in "Winter's Bone" last year. He played Uncle Teardrop, a man so hardened by a life of meth addiction and backwoods living he refuses to go looking for his missing, and likely murdered, brother.

"Jesus, Dad's your only brother!" says his niece Ree, who is desperately searching for her father. 

"You think I forgot that?" Teardrop replies in a quietly menacing tone. "Jessup and me run together for coming on 40 years, but I don't know where he's at, and I ain't gonna go round asking after him neither." 

Speaking from California, Hawkes said he feels that growing up where he did informs almost everything that he works on.

"In some films and roles it's more out front and beneficial than in others," Hawkes said.

Hawkes said coming from the farming community around Alexandria helped with his new film "Earthwork." It's based on a real story about Kansas crop artist Stan Herd, who creates huge images in farm fields using plants, rocks and other materials.  Herd's story resonated with Hawkes.

"I do have to say that the reason I became an actor was because of the Guthrie Theater."

"To see a guy whose artwork is the size of, I think, 160 football fields, his early pieces, and can be seen from five, six miles up in an airplane, it's a very fascinating way to make art I guess," he said.

In "Earthwork" it becomes clear that Herd's problem living in Kansas is few people actually saw his work. So in 1994, he hatched a plan to make a piece on Manhattan's Upper West side, on a patch of waste land owned by Donald Trump. In the film Herd soon learns he's not in Kansas any more. 

"What are you doing here?" one puzzled man asks him.

Herd discovers there's a whole community of homeless people living on the property. He presses on, and eventually enlists their help.

"I'm an artist. It's an earthwork," he says. "We are standing on the canvas." 

Herd faces many challenges. He self-finances the project, hoping it will be his big break, but events conspire against him.

Working
"Earthwork" tells the story of crop artist Stan Herd's attempt to convert a piece of Manhattan wasteland into a huge artwork during a six-month period before it's redeveloped for condos. Herd ended up enlisting the help of homeless people who lived on and around the site.
Image courtesy Shadow Distribution

Hawkes said ultimately the film is about more than an artist making an artwork.

"There's a Thomas Hart Benton quote that opens the film that infers that just the idea of making something and making a try at it. If you complete it, you haven't failed," he said.

Hawkes said he was a high school wrestler, but looked for something else when he gave that up. He said that the reason he became an actor was because of the Guthrie Theater.

In his sophomore year, he got on a bus with his classmates and traveled to Minneapolis to see Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." He said he had never seen a real play before.

"And I was just so amazed that day," he said. "I just kind of couldn't shake the feeling of how I felt and how those people had stirred emotion in me and kind of wondered if someday I could do that for someone else."  

Hawkes credits his drama teachers at Jefferson High school in Alexandria for getting him started. He moved to Texas and helped launch a theater company in Austin. 

Television and film roles followed including in "American Gangster" "The Perfect Storm," and in the TV series "Lost" and "Deadwood" amongst a host of others. 

He still gets back to Alexandria a couple of times a year, bringing "Winter's Bone" there last year. On Friday morning he'll introduce a screening of "Earthwork" at the Alexandria Midway Cinema 9. He believes it will appeal to his old friends and neighbors.

"I think that they would maybe have more of an appreciation for it more than people from other parts of the country maybe," he said.

Earthwork also opens this weekend at the Film Society in Minneapolis. Hawkes claims the Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in "Winter's Bone" hasn't changed his life much.

"More smaller films have approached me and want to pay me very little money to be in their movie," he said. 

He does however have no fewer than eight films either ready to be released or to be shot before the end of the year, including Steven Spielberg's movie about Abraham Lincoln.

TRAILER FOR WINTER'S BONE: