In The Sessions, John Hawkes plays polio-stricken Mark O'Brien, a writer who hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), after he decides he wants to lose his virginity.
In The Sessions, John Hawkes plays polio-stricken Mark O'Brien, a writer who hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), after he decides he wants to lose his virginity. The film, which comes out this week in limited release, is already garnering Hawkes award buzz for his very challenging role — real-life journalist Mark was confined to his bed and paralyzed from the neck down. It's also a surprisingly funny performance, and I recently chatted with Hawkes with a group of reporters to talk about how this part differs from his darker, previous roles, the physical issues of playing Mark, and the relationship he created with Hunt.
What kind of preparation did you do to play Mark?
John Hawkes: Do you have an hour? It was a lot of [reading] young Mark's writing, which was a key into his inner life. He'd left us a biography, which was finished posthumously, called How I Became a Human Being. The physical side was a challenge. I may have even begun there. Jessica Yu's genius short film documentary Breathing Lessons was the greatest tool that an actor could have. That was the physical start — there was Mark, interviewed, and his polio-ravaged body. His attitude, his sense of humor, his literal speaking voice — once I saw that film, which was maybe a week after accepting the role, that changed everything. I learned to type and turn pages of books and make telephone calls with a mouth-stick. I made my own at home and worked until I got to the props department and they got me a better one when we got to shoot.
How was it working with Helen and shooting your awkward but intense love scenes?
JH: Helen and I didn't know each other, had never met before we were cast in this film. We had a couple of script conferences with the director Ben Lewin, where we'd sit on either side of him and we'd just go scene by scene and ask about certain lines, but Helen and I didn't really talk to each other through that process. We were kind of speaking through Ben, and we found out that Mr. Lewin was going to give us the great gift of shooting the sex surrogate sessions — how's that for alliteration — in chronological order. That was the greatest gift we could have received; we could build our relationship on camera, so without speaking about it, we gave each other a great deal of distance, kind of avoided each other, and the very first surrogate scene that you see between she and I is capturing moments that are happening for the very first time. We didn't rehearse much. It was unwieldy, awkward, unfamiliar, unintentionally funny, and all those things are things that we wanted.
To read more of Hawkes's interview, including how he feels about the Oscar buzz, just keep reading.