Reel World

Along with Val Kilmer, native Detroiter John Hawkinson — and the city of Detroit — get starring roles in ‘The Irishman
The cast takes a break between scenes on “The Irishman.” Photo used with permission, copyright Sweet William Productions. Photograph by Kim Simms

John Hawkinson could be bailing out banks. Instead, he’s making movies with Val Kilmer.

The east-side (Detroit and Roseville) native earned a degree in finance from Wayne State University and was headed to law school when an attorney friend advised him to think twice. “He said if there was anything else I wanted to try, I should try that first,” Hawkinson says. “So I took an acting class and thought, ‘Oh, I’m supposed to do this.’ ”

With a few friends, Hawkinson started the Generic Variety Show, a sketch comedy troupe that staged regular revues at Detroit’s Cadieux Cafe in the 1990s. It was there that he got noticed by Guy Sanville, now the artistic director at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, who gave him his first stage role, a part in Stanton’s Garage.

Fifteen years later, Hawkinson is on the path to movie stardom, by way of Michigan’s burgeoning film industry. In June, he wrapped filming on The Irishman, which tells the true ’70s-era  tale of a Cleveland police officer (Kilmer) who pursues mobster Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson). The film is slated for release in 2010.

Hawkinson, who moved to Los Angeles three years ago, spoke with Hour Detroit about making it as an actor and returning to Michigan for a career boost.

Did you study acting, or did you learn on the job?

In the mid ’90s, after I did a couple of plays, David Regal, the artistic director at [University of Detroit], offered me a scholarship to study there. That was the formal education I had with theater. But I went at it first with a very raw, roll-up-your-sleeves approach.

How did you get cast for The Irishman?

I was in New York for a work thing, and [saw Jeff Daniels in] God of Carnage. If you’re in New York this summer, go see it; it’s incredible. I went backstage after the show and hung out with Jeff a little bit, and was talking to him about how it was kind of a slow year in L.A. He said [I] should just go to Michigan for the summer and try to get in on some of these films that are happening here. I’d been thinking about it, so that kind of solidified it for me. I know a lot of the casting directors here in town. I auditioned for The Irishman and got the part. My father is going through some health issues, so there are all these things pulling me back to visit.

Tell me about your role.

I play Detective Adam Podorski. I’m kind of like Val Kilmer’s partner or assistant. He’s this lieutenant going after the mob in Cleveland. I’m there to help Val’s character in this pursuit of Danny Greene and this underworld that was in Cleveland in the early ’70s. The Mafia in Cleveland was very low profile. Nobody really even knew much about these guys. As much as the Cleveland P.D. tried to investigate them and get into their world, they were so below the radar, and yet enormously successful in that they were huge money generators.

I was only [on set] for one very long day. We shot all seven scenes I’m in. Every one, I’m in with Val. It was a very fun day.

Is Val Kilmer as egomaniacal as they say?

No, he’s really cool and funny. He’s first and foremost just a very generous actor. He takes care of you and takes care of his business. Between takes he’s just a really funny, funny man. An actor of his stature, it was a real honor. And Ray Stevenson, I got to work with him too, and he was great.

How was it shooting with famous Hollywood actors in Detroit?  Did it feel like a collision of worlds?

It was. Downtown is … it’s downtown, you know. I love it, but you’re used to seeing these guys in more bustling settings. We shot mostly at Detroit police headquarters. It was a great set. The movie takes place in the 1970s, and a lot in that building is kind of frozen in that time. [The staff] seemed very excited. It was funny to watch everybody react when Val Kilmer walked by.

What’s your opinion on Michigan’s film-incentive program?

I think it’s great. I know fiscally a lot of it doesn’t balance out right now, but I think it will if they can stick to it. The industry will come and make some investments in the state itself, in the infrastructure. Like with any startup, there are some costs, but I think they’ll pay off down the line. It’s kind of a one-horse town around here with the auto industry, and I think it’s good to have other things. And it could attract other things, because it’s the kind of industry others businesses like to be around.

What else are you doing this summer?

I have a short film that I wrote, a piece I adapted from something a friend wrote. My plan is to do a couple more features that are coming to town. I hope to spend all of July and most of August here.

What are your favorite movies?

My favorite movie is probably Raging Bull. Like most guys my age, the classic mafia movies are up there in the top 10.