AFTER John Hawkes and a pal got into the car it occurred to them that the driver had seemed unusually keen to pick up hitchhikers.

No wonder. As it later emerged, he had just robbed a convenience store and was trying to change the description being circulated by police.

"Rather than one guy in a blue Mustang he now had three guys," says Hawkes, whose new movie, The Sessions, opens next week. "He didn't seem like he was thinking very clearly. He was waving his gun and driving." He also took them an hour past where they wanted to be, but they got out safely.

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It is tempting to look at Hawkes's career of late and regard it as another fast trip in a getaway car, destination unknown. At the age of 53, and with decades of work behind him, Hawkes is suddenly very hot acting property.

His performance as the brooding backwoodsman Teardrop in 2010's Winter's Bone earned him an Oscar nomination and a general cry of "Where has that guy been hiding?". He followed Winter's Bone with Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, playing a cult leader, and after The Sessions he appears in Steven Spielberg's historical drama, Lincoln.

But it is with The Sessions, based on a true story, that Hawkes arrives as a leading man. Hawkes plays the poet, journalist, and polio survivor Mark O'Brien. At the age of 38, O'Brien, living in an iron lung for most of the day and dependent on carers, set out to lose his virginity with the help of a sex surrogate.

The film, written and directed by Ben Lewin, has been nominated for two Golden Globes, with Hawkes and Helen Hunt, who plays the sex therapist, sharing the nominations. Attention now turns to the Oscar nominations, out today.

After Winter's Bone, Hawkes was offered "a stack" of scripts. The Sessions was the lowest budget movie, but that didn't bother him.

"It was a very unusual story, well written; the character frightened and fascinated me, and when I met Ben Lewin I felt like I'd be in the hands of a capable storyteller."

As an able-bodied person, Hawkes had reservations about playing a disabled character. He was worried about taking work away from a group of actors hardly burdened with job offers, and that he might not be as effective in the role as someone who lives with a disability day to day.

Lewin, who had polio when he was a child, had also been keen to cast a disabled actor and sent the script out to organisations in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Though he didn't find his Mark O'Brien, he cast disabled actors in other key roles. Having satisfied himself, and Hawkes, that he had found his lead, shooting began.

"It's touchy to talk about in a way," says Hawkes about an able-bodied actor playing a disabled person. "Several disabled actors who have seen the film have told me to just shut up and get over it, to embrace the fact that to their mind I did a good job in the role."

That Hawkes should have thought long and hard about treading where many another has rushed in seems typical of an actor who raises unassuming to an art form. As he says: "I don't run in the Hollywood scene". Gentle in voice and manner, he's also rake-thin. One hardly knows whether to ask him questions or make him soup.

"I've weighed the same for 30 years," he says, smiling. "But people will come up and go, you've put on weight, you've lost weight."

In preparation for The Sessions he didn't have to lose weight but he did stop muscle toning exercises. Then there was what came to be known as the "torture ball".

"I knew I would have to contort my body. Mark only had about 90 degrees of motion with his head and his spine was significantly curved so I began with that reality. You can't just fake that so, along with the props department, we designed something with a soccer-sized foam ball that I put under the left side of my spine to curve it without any special effects make-up or CGI." He also practised typing and dialling a phone using a stick clamped between his teeth.

O'Brien, as the film reveals, was a romantic, someone who sought to find the humour in situations, and an underdog through and through.

"I've played a lot of those kinds of characters, it's something I have a real place for in my heart and identify with on some level," says Hawkes.

This kinship with the underdog in movies began when Hawkes first started going to the pictures in his home town of Alexandria, Minnesota. It's a beautiful place, he recalls, lots of lakes and trees. Though the land has been largely bought up by wealthy owners seeking a lakeside property, the place was more "egalitarian" back then. "There were so many lakes nearly everyone lived on the lake that wanted to. I was lucky to grow up fishing and swimming, ice fishing in the winter, sledding."

His father was a farmer and his mother a secretary. There was no history of acting in the family, and for a long time it didn't seem as though Hawkes was going to break the pattern. His thing, from age four to high school, was wrestling. But at 15 he got on a bus, went to Minneapolis, and saw The Crucible at the Guthrie Theatre.

"I was jolted by the experience. A piece of me thought I wonder if I could make people feel and think the way those people made me feel and think."

A part in a school play followed, and wrestling hit the canvas in favour of acting. "I didn't know how I would ever make a living, but I have." And with no formal training either. After the hitchhiking years, television work (including ER, one episode of Buffy, and Deadwood), and smaller movies, Winter's Bone, with Jennifer Lawrence, was the breakthrough. It was the movie Spielberg saw him in, and when he was casting Lincoln he asked Hawkes to play political fixer Robert Latham. "It's the only job I've ever gotten where I met a director at a party."

Hollywood parties are likely something the 53-year-old should get used to. That, and more recognition. As a character actor keen to disappear into parts he has mixed feelings about the latter.

"It's been a wonderful weapon of mine that no-one knows who I am, there is no expectation around what I do. When people begin to build expectation you are going to disappoint them on some level. I'm not so worried about disappointing people as much as I am about that they might not believe me in roles."

For now, he's still living quietly in Los Angeles, acting and playing his music. He plays several instruments. "I suck the least at guitar". Asked what kind of music, he says: "The really good kind. It's gotten quieter over the years as I've gotten older. I don't like wearing earplugs and I don't want the audience to wear earplugs. I just write songs, I don't think of what genre they are. Others can decide that."

John Hawkes – the quiet actor cometh.

The Sessions opens on January 18