Interview: Octavia Spencer and John Hawkes Talk Westerns and Making Small Town Crime

One of the most intriguing and captivating films to premiere at the SXSW Film Festival last year was a little crime drama called Small Town Crime, from the writing-directing brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms. Their previous films were the indie comedy Waffle Street and the drama Lost on Purpose, both of which had healthy festival runs in 2015 and 2013, respectively.

Image courtesy of Variety

Small Town Crime stars the always-terrific John Hawkes as an alcoholic former detective—fired for inadvertently causing the deaths of his partner and a bystander during a case—who finds the body of a young woman after waking up from yet another bender. He becomes fixated on solving her murder, not so much to help ease the suffering of her grandfather (Robert Forster), but to perhaps ease his own suffering and perhaps pull himself out of the dark hole he’s been living in for years.

But in the process, he inadvertently puts those closest to him (including characters played by Anthony Anderson and Octavia Spencer, who is also an executive producer on the film, for the first time since the powerful Fruitvale Station) in serious danger. Throw in Clifton Collins Jr. as a deranged pimp, healthy doses of neo-noir, a Western vibe, and a pinch of ’70s-era cop stories, and you have yourself a brisk, atmospheric, 90 minutes of great characters, solid acting, and enough sense of time and place to really make Small Town Crime a gem of a movie. That's thanks in large part to Hawkes (who currently can be seen in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Spencer (featured beautifully in The Shape of Water), who play brother and sister (it works, trust me) in the movie.

I sat down with the pair last March in Austin, Texas, the day after the film’s world premiere (and just days after Spencer lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Hidden Figures to Viola Davis in Fences; Spencer won an Academy Award for 2011’s The Help). It was clear the two have a lot of affection for both the movie and each other.

Small Town Crime opens this Friday for a week-long run at Facets Cinémathèque. Please enjoy…

Good to see you both again. Octavia, you have this role in the film, but I love that you’re here primarily as part of the filmmaking team. How did you get involved with these crazy Nelms kids?

Octavia Spencer: Those crazy kids! I’ve known Ian and Eshom for about 10-12 years, when they moved to LA. We have this vetting thing in our group of friends, and my friend Steven brought these two young guys into the group of friends. We’re all filmmakers, and we all worked on each other’s projects, and Ian and Eshom were so promising. They kept their day jobs, and whenever anybody was shooting anything, they would say, “Let’s get Ian and Eshom to shoot it for us,” and they were always willing.

Then one time, they went off and did their own little movie for like $15,000. They put it on credit cards. And when I saw that movie, we all went to the festival that they were in; the movie was amazing, the production value was amazing, and I’m thinking “If they did that with $15,000, keep them in mind if ever they bring a project to you and you’re able to help them.” I did a couple of their other films, and when they came to me with this one, they said, “It’s a small part, but we would need some help to get the cast together. Would you be willing to be a producer on it?” I’m like, “Sure.” It’s really because I’ve known them their entire film career at this point, and they have never not been making films. You know how some people sit around and wait for opportunities? These two go out and create opportunities.

You said at the Q&A last night that you had sort of a feeling about bringing John in, that you all thought he was the right guy without even discussing it.

OS: Yeah, I think John is one of the greatest actors of our time; he’s a true chameleon. Whatever you want him to be, he is. There are so few actors who can do that. So when I read this, I said, “I don’t want to influence how they think about the character or who they want.” You let them dream about who they could possibly get, but when I read it, I immediately thought of John, because we had done stuff together, and I was hoping I’d be able to do something with him. But when they told me that’s who they wanted first, I’m like “Okay, we’re on the same page so let me try and get it to him.” We had mutual friends, so I just made sure that I got it to his people, and they put us in contact, and it was great.

When you’re offered this part, the character’s arc in the film is fascinating on its own, but more importantly, you’re somehow brother and sister. That alone had to be a nice incentive to be a part of.

John Hawkes: It’s true. I just have to say, it’s a pretty amazing director that brings coffee to you in the middle of an interview knowing you want it . That was nice of Eshom. That’s really my introduction to the project, was getting a note from Octavia mentioning the fact that we’ve worked together several times, and we see each other and are friendly, and I so admired what she did always. Gosh, we've got eight years of time knowing each other with a film or two that we’ve worked on and a distanced friendship, but I got the note saying we can remedy this, we can work together.

So I called Octavia and said, “I don’t want to know much about it; I just want to read it.” And she said, “I’ll just tell you one thing, we play bother and sister.” And immediately, I thought “This is going to be great. I hope the script is as good as that idea,” and it was. It was one of those scripts where you just pray it stays good until the end, because you love it. I laughed out loud reading it, which is rare; I just was knocked out by it. In fact, when I met Ian and Eshom, I was really hat in hand and worried they were going to change their minds or that they’d found someone else. I can’t remember what actor I mentioned, but they laughed about it later. They said, “No. We want you to do it.” It was one of those that was so good that I thought that it wasn’t going to happen .

I love the idea that you’re brother and sister , because as much as a degenerate and screw-up as your character can be sometimes, we know that you have a shared set of morals. You both come from the same stock, and as bad as things get in your life you know where you should be with her in your life. It’s one of the things that helps the audience still like you, even though you do some terrible things, like drunk driving, for example.

JH: That’s a good point. I think you’re right, and I think it even includes them saying “We’ve been paying your mortgage the last two months,” things like that. Just the idea that we can see that Mike doesn’t want to disappoint her. On some level, he’s his own man and he’s just going to do what he has to do, but when a bright light is shown on what he’s doing though his sisters eyes, he realizes how he’s screwed up. I think that they messed with the ending a little bit to make the last scene with Anthony more about asking about you , which is really awesome. That’s just a looped line, but it makes all the difference. Yeah, I agree that it’s a really effective relationship and hopefully portrayed in a way that feels honest and truthful. I think that’s what we were going for.

OS: And that’s what I liked about the whole piece. What I didn’t know, as long as I’ve known these guys, is that they were huge Clint Eastwood fans. We grew up on Clint Eastwood. I’m a huge Western person. I didn’t see the whole Western angle of it until I saw it on film, and you see the cars and you see the desolate highway, and all these things where you feel like tumbleweeds are going to roll right past. So when you see all of that, you’re like “This is a modern-day Western.” And it has that same altruism that Clint Eastwood often had, and he was a very flawed in every one of his films, he’s a flawed character, very much like you’re very quirky. Your character’s flawed, but he still wants to do the right thing. There’s pride that you have, immense pride, to come to our house in the middle of the night. You’re excited because you’re on to something. You can help this girl. I just love all of that.

JH: It is a little bit like the cat bringing the mouse and dropping it at the door.

OS: Yeah. “Look what I did.”

JH: Saying, “Aren’t I great?. You thought I wasn’t so great.”

OS: Exactly, exactly.

In a lot of those Eastwood films, he has a flawed moral code, but there is a code to the way he lives his life, and I feel like we see that in you as well. We can tell you’re getting better because you sound more professional as you’re interviewing people in the film. Suddenly the cop comes out again. You can still play that role even if you’re faking the private detective angle.

JH: That was part of the joy too in just reading, just imagining a guy, just the duality of his two sides existing side by side when he wakes up with a bad hangover, but this more professional self is right there to answer the phone and just be right on it. Pretty great, pretty great. I love characters who are underdogs ill equipped to solve their problems but just continue to go ahead anyway, and that’s a definite Mike Kendall trait—a man who by all accounts could have given up.

Do you have more producing things you’re doing now? Can you talk about any of them?

OS: Sure. We’re in the process of Madam C.J. Walker . We partnered up with some great people on that. And I’m partnered up with Vince Gilligan and Michelle MacLaren for Raven, based on Jonestown. And I have some things over at Turning Group. My first love is puzzle solving, and to me that’s what a producer does. You fit pieces into where they belong. So the fact that I have a 20-year existence with relationships in film as an actor means that I can dig in my Rolodex. And now that I’ve been on both sides, I’m always going to take care of my actors, so it’s just making sure that when you’re asking a favor, because it is a favor to come to someone and say, “You don’t know these filmmakers…”

What always makes me trust filmmakers—writers or directors—if they’re new to me is if I can read your vision, if you wrote the story, then I know you can execute it, but it’s hard to convey that or articulate that to someone who is as esteemed as John to say, “I know you don’t know these guys. I know them, and trust me that we’re going to take care of you and you’re going to love the project.” As a producer, you really put your relationships into question. Being on both sides, I’m always going to protect the actor and make sure the project doesn’t suffer, because if your actor doesn’t trust you, then the project suffers. You can’t promise the moon. You go in and say these are the realities and always be truthful, because a lot of people aren’t truthful in this business.

Well, thank you so much. Congratulations. It’s a tremendous film.

OS: Thank you. I had such nostalgia watching it in a big theater. This is how you want a film like this to be seen.

JH: It’s a beautiful theater, man. Thanks for coming out.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.