09/02/2012 06:50 GMT

Martha Marcy May Marlene's John Hawkes On The Perils Of Growing Fame (INTERVIEW)

"Patrick has a lot of good ideas, he just puts them into play in a way that isn’t always positive."

Considering John Hawkes' latest screen character is the cultish leader of an 'alternative' family unit, from which Elizabeth Olsen escapes in the indie critical hit Martha Marcy May Marlene, the respected actor is being pretty generous in his assessment of his alter ego.

"I don't think there are in life, pure darkness or pure light. Everyone's got a little of everything. Plus, I can't really think of him as a monster and play him. I don't really try to judge any character that I play, afterwards I figure it out, but while I'm working on the character, I have to find something in them to relate to."

Hawkes, already critically acclaimed for his work in Winter's Bone, The Perfect Storm and TV's Deadwood and 24, brings out all the complex contradictions in this dangerously appealing character - why Martha is so attracted initially, and the horrors that ensue.

Has the prize-winning actor had any experience of such types himself?

"Maybe early on in my adulthood when I was either taken in or just surprised that someone could be that good a con, so to speak. Certainly I've had the experience of thinking a person was one thing, and finding out they were another."

What about the notoriously shark-infested film industry?

He laughs. "I know Hollywood has an attitude that has been fed to the world, but I don't really notice or see it... to me, it's a bunch of amazing people that I've got to meet over the years, and just don't see enough of."

Hawkes, after a long career already on both stage and screen, has seen his own profile grow exponentially over the last couple of years, with an Oscar nomination for his role in Winter's Bone to boot. Does it surprise him to be recognised in the street now?

"It all depends on the hair," he explains pragmatically. "At the moment (appealingly tousled), I'm looking very Winter's Bone, and Perfect Storm. It all makes me a little nervous for several reasons, but it's just part of the territory that goes with the luck I’ve had."

This quietly-spoken actor, friendly but obviously shy, seems genuinely disturbed by the change in personal circumstance his increased renown has brought about...

"Being invisible has become a little harder, and it has interfered with the creative process.

"The way I can be most effective on screen is to be something of a mystery, and that's becoming impossible in this electronic age. There are people who aren't famous, and I know what they ate last night, and for an actor, I feel that's hugely dangerous.

"I can't believe movie stars when I watch them act, they might be fantastic actors, but I can't get past the fact that I know a lot about them, and I don't want that to happen to me, the less known about me, the better, and it's getting harder and harder.

"I understand why people achieve a level of fame and disappear, I never understood it before, but it's an attractive prospect to walk away from it all.

"Ten years ago I would have been thrilled to be on Letterman, but it all shifts, what begins to happen to you, you can't imagine until you're actually going through it."

But wasn't this always going to go hand in hand with his talents and success? "I suppose so, but before the digital age, it was a different experience - you can't control your image at all, and people make stuff up. What can you do?"

So, talking of keeping his profile small and manageable, what's next?

He even looks sheepish now: "A tiny, independent movie by Steven Spielberg, with Daniel Day Lewis portraying Lincoln - a tiny wisp of a film.

"The thing about it that it's a really wonderful script, which is what draws me in. But it's at least 100 actors, many of whom have more experience and profile than I."

Ok, so would this fiercely independent, private, thoughtful actor have been able to turn down Spielberg? John Hawkes may have quavered on the whole dubious privilege of growing fame, but this is something about which he has no ambivalence. He even draws himself up in his chair to reply:

"I'd turn down anybody if the script wasn't strong enough."

Martha Marcy May Marlene is in UK cinemas now. Watch the trailer here: