John Hawkes has been scary, sensitive and everything in between in a long run of movies and television shows that includes "Winter's Bone," "The Sessions," "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Lincoln," "American Gangster," "The Perfect Storm," "Me and You and Everyone We Know," "Deadwood," "Eastbound and Down" and many, many others.

With a face that evokes sympathy as easily as terror, and a self-taught method for bringing out character truths, Hawkes can play just about anyone -- and has: He has amassed 121 credits in 30 years.

Plot thickens

In "Life of Crime," the latest film adaptation of a comical Elmore Leonard crime caper ("The Switch"), he plays an ex-con who gets involved in a ransom kidnapping gone wrong.

With his buddy Ordell Robbie (Yasiin Bey, the former Mos Def), Hawkes' Louis Gara snatches the wife of a crooked landlord. Little do the small-timers know that Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins) has just filed for divorce from his spouse, Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), and is in no hurry to get her back.

As her captivity goes on, Mickey gets to know Louis pretty well. Things don't shake out the way you'd expect.

Role playing

"I hope that we discover Louis along the way with him," says Hawkes, who turns 55 on Thursday. "Whenever I approach a part, often the best way to serve the story is to find out what the real truth of that person is and, then, kind of hide it, and let it just pop up through the cracks.


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"I don't know if vulnerable is the right word, but he's in a tricky situation at the outset," the actor says of Gara. "He's just gotten out of prison, certainly a place he doesn't want to go back to. Pulling this job with his buddy means he won't have to do any more jobs and can move beyond a life of crime. So he doesn't want to screw it up. But then he meets this beautiful woman who is interesting and likable and has surprising spunk and a sense of humor. He falls for her a little bit."

Like such Leonard-derived movies as "Get Shorty," "Jackie Brown" and "Out of Sight," "Life of Crime" crackles with believable, witty banter, especially between Gara and Robbie. Although screenwriter-director Daniel Schechter took much of the dialog straight from the late author's 1978 book, he allowed the actors to create some of their own killer lines.

"Dan was kind enough to do something that I've gotten to do on other films, where any night that you can, you get together and talk about the next day's work," Hawkes says, "maybe massage the script or question lines of dialogue, do some rewriting whether we use it or not. You save a lot of time on set by not taking a lot of time away from the crew and other actors to discuss things."

Asked if he's a big Elmore Leonard fan, Hawkes says, "I am now. I like to read a lot, but I'm sorry to say I hadn't read his books before this. I'd been more of a Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald fan, but Elmore is just so interesting. He brings a great deal of humor and humanness to his characters. Also, I think, to make one of your lead characters an African-American and another of the three a woman in 1978 wasn't the norm. He was visionary in that way. He didn't push any kind of social agenda, but I think it was there in his writing."

In October, Hawkes will be seen as jazz pianist Joe Albany in the indie bio film "Low Down." Based on the memoir by the musician's daughter Amy-Jo Albany, played by Elle Fanning in the film, it recounts the pair's hardscrabble life in 1970s Hollywood.

"He was one of the first white guys to play in primarily black bands," Hawkes notes. "Joe was part of the bebop scene with Charlie Parker and others. But his life was really riddled with depression and substance abuse. This is really Amy-Jo's story, but from my angle it's a guy who's ill-equipped to be a father, but is doing his best while trying to get gigs and clean up his act, trying to raise his daughter alone a lot of the time in the Hollywood streets and tenement hotels."

A self-taught musician as well as actor, Hawkes has played and sung onscreen several times, including in the film he's shooting now, "Too Late." He readily admits he needed help to approximate Albany's artistry.

"I'm not a trained musician or a fantastic technician on any instrument, but I'm interested in music, and I always have been. The fact that I've played in bands since the '80s, I think, was helpful in approaching something as complex as bebop music, which is an incredibly difficult form."

A native of rural Minnesota, Hawkes moved to Austin, Texas, where he helped start a theater company while pursuing his musical interests. He has taken one acting class -- and that was 17 years after he started in the business.

"I don't have formal training, other than carpentry and waiting tables," he quips. "I just learned by doing, watching others and reading -- and kind of making up my own method and approach to how to tell a story."