Rising star

Actor John Hawkinson's journey from the Cadieux Cafe to HBO's 'The Newsroom'

Aaron Sorkin is perhaps best known as the writer of A Few Good Men. He's also the brains behind The West Wing, The Social Network, and HBO's gripping news drama The Newsroom.

Now in its third and final season, The Newsroom stars Jeff Daniels as Atlantis Cable News anchor Will McAvoy, a hard-boiled former prosecutor who's part Peter Jennings, part Keith Olbermann. McAvoy is engaged to his unpredictable producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), reports to embattled news chief Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), and they all answer to the network's ornery owner, Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), who's prone to profane diatribes and pot-fueled histrionics.

Caught in the middle of this madness is veteran character actor John Hawkinson, who was cast this year for Season Three as a control-room tech whiz on ACN's nightly news show, "News Night."

Hawkinson, a native of Roseville and a graduate of Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher, plays the character Rudy.

Over the course of his burgeoning career, Hawkinson has worked alongside Hugh Jackman (Real Steel), Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Connelly (Salvation Boulevard), and Val Kilmer, in Kill the Irishman, which was shot in Detroit at the old police headquarters and old Tiger Stadium.

Hawkinson’s also an accomplished writer, who penned and starred in the 2012 short The Vanishing Point, which premiered at the Dances With Films festival at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

We caught up with Hawkinson by phone (during the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, in fact) from Los Angeles, where he recently wrapped up shooting the final season of The Newsroom.

Metro Times: We knew you were a Wayne State grad, but we were surprised to learn you didn't actually study theater there. What was your major?

John Hawkinson: I actually studied business and corporate finance, but I was never really inspired by anything in the business school. I was even a journalism major for a while. ... I was actually thinking about law school for a while. In fact, I went to get a letter of recommendation from a lawyer friend of my brother's. He kind of gave me the hard life talk on what it really means to be a lawyer. He said, "If there's anything else you wanna try to do before you do this, do it!"

MT: And that's when you decided to give acting a try?

Hawkinson: Yeah ... I always wanted to try it, so my buddy Jim Shanley and I decided to take a workshop together with a guy named Jeff Nahan. Jeff's really an amazing teacher and director. We took this beginning workshop that Jeff was putting on at some sort of old elementary school on Evergreen near 12 Mile, the Actors Alliance Theater ... It was amazing. We both got bit pretty hard by [the acting bug]. I thought, if anything, I'm supposed to do this.

MT: And then after that, you ran into Danny Jacobs?

Hawkinson: Yeah, about two weeks after that, we were approached by some old friends, Chuck O'Connor and Danny Jacobs (Mad Men), who were both theater majors. They were gonna do some local theater in bars and coffeehouses. We called it the Generic Variety Show, and everything kinda went from there. Our home base was the Cadieux Cafe, and by the end of that stint … when we premiered a show at the Cadieux … We’d pack ’em in, and we’d reconfigure the Cadieux … they put extra seats in, and they were still turning people away. We made a bit of a ruckus over there on the east side.

MT: Before you moved to L.A., you had a stint at the Purple Rose Theatre. How'd you wind up there?

Hawkinson: I ended up working at the Purple Rose because — and this is directly out of Generic Variety Show. We all got noticed by theaters and theater companies, and Danny was hired at the Purple Rose. After a few years at the Cadieux Cafe, we did a "best of" show at the Gem Theatre downtown in the spring of 1993. For that, we hired an actor and director who worked a lot at the Purple Rose, Guy Sanville, who's the artistic director there now. He was directing a play at the Purple Rose that summer. He had a role — I've always played much younger [roles] than what I actually am — [I was 24 at the time] and he had a role for 16-year-old kid in this play. He thought I'd be good for it. So he called me in, and I'd never auditioned for a play before. The only stuff I’d ever done was the stuff we were producing ourselves in bars and coffeehouses. I’d never done a full-length play, and I really never auditioned for anything. But I went in there, read for it, and I got the part.

When I was maybe a junior in college [in 1991], I remember seeing Jeff [Daniels] on Channel 7 or something talking about the theater he was opening. ... I didn't realize he was from Michigan. But I was a huge fan of The Purple Rose of Cairo. I'm a huge Woody Allen fan, and I have been since I was 6 years old. My brother Jim was a huge fan, so I kinda grew up watching those movies from a very young age. I saw Purple Rose when it first came out. So after I saw Jeff on TV, I thought I wanna go see a show there sometime. But I never actually got out there until rehearsals for my first play in 1994.

MT: What was the name of the play?

Hawkinson: It was called Stanton's Garage by Joan Ackermann. I'll never forget the first preview audience. My character, Harlan — I come in at the top of the show. It lights up on a guy onstage. ... I remember sitting there, and they have the red cue light backstage, and just looking at the cue light waiting for the light to go off. It was kind of a surreal moment. Like, "Oh, man, this is really gonna happen."

MT: Where is The Newsroom shot?

Hawkinson: It's shot at Sunset Gower Studios. It's a really cool old studio right in the middle of Hollywood, just down the street from Paramount. Old studio, built in the teens. It’s been there forever. It used to be Columbia Pictures. The set was amazing. Talking to Jeff on the first day, he goes, "We could legitimately do a real news show here." Everything was in its actual place relative to everything else. It was a full-on, fully realized three-dimensional environment.

MT: And your character, Rudy, is technical director for "News Night."

Hawkinson: Yeah, I was in the control room for the show. So every time Jeff’s show is on, I’m working the board in the control room alongside John F. Carpenter (“Herb”) and Emily Mortimer (“Mac”). It was fun cuz the control room was set up like an actual control room. The desk was right behind us. And all of the main characters are always around. It was an amazing experience. It was really cool to get to work on a show with Jeff because, in a way, he gave me my first shot. He’s always been very supportive of my career. Plus, I was a huge fan of Season One and Two, so just to be able to be a part of [Season] Three was amazing.

MT: Did you pick up any fake skills in the fake newsroom? Did you learn how to fake-edit tape or anything?

Hawkinson: No, I actually watched a lot of YouTube [laughs]. I was mostly looking for behavior. How a real person in my position would behave in a real control room. They had a couple of consultants there who would come in and give me direction. So I did some research going in, and there were people there to help me make it look real.

MT: When did taping wrap?

Hawkinson: Taping started in April, I started shooting in May, and the show wrapped in July. You won’t see my character until Episode Three.

MT: So what's next for you?

Hawkinson: I'd really like to do a play just go get those juices going again, but I haven't found that project yet. ... Pilot season's coming up, so now that The Newsroom is over, I'm hoping to find another [TV] gig this winter.

MT: Any final thoughts on The Newsroom?

Hawkinson: It's one of those documents of this time that we're living in now. ... Jeff says it'll outlive us all.

The Newsroom airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

About The Author

Dave Mesrey

SPJ Award–winning journalist Dave Mesrey is a veteran copy editor who’s worked for the Detroit Metro Times, Motor City Muckraker, The Detroit News, and ESPN’s Grantland.com. The editor of Willie Horton’s autobiography, “The People’s Champion,” Mesrey is also a founding member of the Hamtramck Stadium Grounds Crew...
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