Helen Hunt, as Cheryl Cohen Greene, and John Hawkes, as Mark O'Brien, in a scene from The Sessions. Photo by MCT
John Hawkes enters virgin territory for The Sessions,
writes Rebecca Keegan, of the Los Angeles Times
In The Sessions, John Hawkes plays a journalist who
writes romantic poetry, tells dry, self-deprecating jokes and
whiles away his afternoons in bed with a beautiful woman.
He's just another sigh-inducing, big screen heartthrob, in
other words - except for the iron lung.
The Sessions is the mostly true and surprisingly
upbeat story of Mark O'Brien, a polio victim who decided to
lose his virginity at 38 with the help of a sex surrogate.
Written and directed by Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor,
and co-starring Helen Hunt as the surrogate, the movie
presented Hawkes with a host of physical challenges, from
contorting his body painfully to duplicate O'Brien's twisted
spine to mastering the disabled man's halting breathing
But it was O'Brien's dogged approach to a more conventional
dilemma - a quest for a sexual touch - that drew Hawkes to
"A character like that had every reason to wallow, but that's
just not interesting to watch on screen," Hawkes said.
"I've played a lot of underdogs and I like people who aren't
equipped to solve their problems but just keep trying anyway.
There's something really noble and interesting about watching
someone keep banging their head against the wall."
Hawkes (53) first learned about the project after playing a
backwoods meth addict in the 2010 drama Winter's Bone.
After years of toiling in relative obscurity as a character
actor - his most notable role was an upright businessman in
the lawless West in HBO's Deadwood - he was nominated
for a supporting actor Academy Award for Winter's
Bone, and suddenly began receiving plum scripts. The one
on the stack with the most intriguing role, and, at roughly
$US1 million, the lowest budget, was The Sessions.
When he first met Lewin about the part, however, Hawkes
expressed a concern - whether Mark O'Brien should be played
by a disabled actor. It was a path Lewin had already been
pursuing, with no success.
"For me to go and find a slightly disabled actor and pretend
that they were severely disabled might amount to tokenism if
the performance wasn't right," said the Polish-born Lewin.
"I thought I had a responsibility to the movie as a whole not
to make a political gesture. But it impressed me that this
was legitimately one of John's concerns. It was the first
question he asked me."
They also discussed - and dismissed - the idea of using a
body double for the scenes that showed O'Brien's curved
Instead Hawkes, who naturally has a slight build, found other
ways to approximate O'Brien's physicality. Hawkes and the
props department created what became known on set as his
"torture ball", a football-sized foam pad he tucked under the
left side of his back to force his body to curve
dramatically. He also fashioned a mouth stick like the kind
O'Brien used to turn the pages of a book and dial a
Among the hardest tasks was holding the awkward poses
completely still for long stretches - something Hawkes'
chiropractor warned him against.
(He did yoga to help undo the damage).
Hawkes also immersed himself in O'Brien's inner life, reading
his writing, including the article "On Seeing a Sex
Surrogate", that had inspired the film, and watching Jessica
Yu's short documentary about O'Brien, Breathing Lessons.
O'Brien, who lived in Berkeley, was a journalist and poet who
died in 1999.
As he drove to and from his Hollywood Hills home to the set
during the 22-day Los Angeles-based film shoot, Hawkes
listened to audio from Yu's film to better internalise
O'Brien's peculiar cadence of talking and breathing.
"The first time I heard John I got chills," said Cheryl Cohen
Greene, the real-life surrogate upon whom Hunt's character is
based. "I'm sitting there on the set with headphones
thinking, that's Mark. It's scaring me. John got him
When it came time to shoot the sex scenes, Hawkes and Hunt
had another unusual task.
Typically actors are supposed to transform the decidedly
unsexy environment of a film set into a romantic and
chemistry-charged scene - in The Sessions, they were
supposed to be uncomfortable and wary.
"I can't stand watching sex scenes in movies," said Lewin.
"Particularly I can't stand the rolling. In this case, the
difficulty and awkwardness of it was palpable. We all just
silently agreed that that was the way we were going to do it,
to use the real unfamiliarity."
As the scenes unfold, Hawkes and Hunt's characters develop a
deeper attachment - and a key part of Hawkes' work was making
a man confined to a gurney seem not like a victim but like a
"Mark had great charm, an enormous facility with words, and
maybe an ability to tell a woman what she wanted to hear,"
"He was a real and accomplished romantic. John also has some
of those qualities. That allowed me to play this as a
Hawkes' unusually angled face looks as if it belongs on a
daguerreotype than in a 2012 romantic comedy, which helps
explain the other big role he recently took on - as a
lobbyist helping get the 13th Amendment passed in Steven
"I don't think I have any danger of becoming a mega-superstar
movie star any time soon," he said.
"There's no brass ring or top of the ladder I'm trying to get
to. I'd be happy to ride it out from here."