The Sessions tells the remarkable, funny, heartfelt and optimistic story of California-based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes, in an award-worthy performance), a man who lived most of his life in an iron lung after having survived a bout of childhood polio. At age 38, Mark becomes determined to lose his virginity and sets out to make his dream a reality by hiring a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), who becomes as deeply moved by the experience as he is. From writer/director Ben Lewin, the film also stars William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigert and Adam Arkin.
At the film’s press day, actor John Hawkes talked about how he maintained the body curvature necessary for the role, what it was like to be confined in the iron lung, the challenge of only having his face to convey his entire emotional performance, exploring the sex surrogate relationship with co-star Helen Hunt, and the responsibility of honoring someone’s memory. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JOHN HAWKES: I’ve been doing yoga. I don’t have any formal training, I’m sad to say, with anything I do, as an actor or as a musician. I read yoga out of a book, 25 years ago, and I’ve been doing it every morning, pretty much ever since. And I’ve learned some stretching and breathing from some modern dance friends in Austin, Texas. All of that was of great use, before shooting, during shooting and after shooting. Every day, I would try to get my spine realigned, somewhat. Because the script says that Mark’s spine is so horribly curved, I tried to help conceive of and design a soccer ball sized piece of foam and laid it half-way under the left side of my back. That gave my spine a great curve. Mark’s limbs were twisted in a very specific way that he’d written about in his autobiography, called How I Became a Human Being, and that I saw an amazing documentary short about Mark, called Breathing Lessons. Finding that position was difficult and did hurt. I’ve got a guy that I’ve been seeing for years, who is a combination massage therapist and chiropractor. I’d have 15 minutes with him, two or three times a week, or half an hour, if I was lucky. He told me that I wasn’t doing very good things to my body, but it was my choice. I’m not a martyr or masochist, but when the script says that your spine is horribly curved, you can’t just lie flat on your back and pretend.
What was it like to be confined in the iron lung during shooting?
HAWKES: It was difficult to be in the iron lung for long periods. It was a production to get in and out of it, so rather than come out sometimes, I agreed to just stay in the position I was in, inside the iron lung, while they moved the lights or changed the camera position. The best advice I got, outside of yoga, from the chiropractor I was working with was, “If you have time between takes to move the torture ball to the other side of your back and twist your right hand where your left hand was and turn your neck the other way and move your legs, then mirror what you’ve been doing to torture yourself in an opposite manner to try to get things to move back in.” This is getting a tiny bit blown out of proportion. It was painful and it was difficult, but I’m not here to tell you that I did the impossible, or anything, by any means.
Because of your physical restrictions, your performance had to be entirely in your face. How much of a challenge was that?
HAWKES: As an actor, you act and react. It’s like a tennis match or a ping-pong match, with the back-and-forth between actors. You want to throw back and give back to the other actor. You want to help them, if that’s what your characters are doing. It was a challenge to not help Helen Hunt out, when she was trying to undress me, I’ve gotta say. That’s something I would normally help her do. But, I could not move. Mark had sensation below the neck, but as the film says, he’s not paralyzed but his muscles are atrophied enough that they don’t work well. There was no real movement of any kind below the neck. So, I tried to avoid the temptation to mug with my face or indicate or tell the story that way. I just had to figure out Mark’s body and his voice. Those are things that I really tried to get as close to the real Mark O’Brien, with his body, attitude, spirit and literal speaking voice.
I wanted to capture Mark as best as I possibly could to bring a recognizable person to those who have survived him and knew him, so that they can hopefully see something of their family member or friend in what I had done. But, the temptation to act with my face was something I was conscious of. I wanted to make the physicality so ingrained in me and so second nature that I wouldn’t think of it when the camera rolled and would just do what an actor does, every time out. You try to accomplish a goal within the scene and be open to the other actors’ interpretations as well. I would forget that I was horizontal. I just trusted that the moments would be captured. I think that they did a good job in filmmaking a difficult character. It’s a hard film because he’s horizontal.
You really bring Mark’s wit and sense of humor to life in your performance. Did you get to talk with Susan Fernbach or his therapist, Cheryl Cohen-Greene, at all?
HAWKES: Yes, alongside Jessica Yu from Breathing Lessons. I did get to speak to all three of those women, first by phone and then in person, and they were all very kind to lend their expertise to our film.
What did you to do cultivate the relationship between Mark and Cheryl, and bring that to life on screen with Helen Hunt?
HAWKES: It actually took no effort to be comfortable with each other. We avoided knowing each other. We learned that Ben Lewin, who wrote and directed the film, was going to give us the very effective gift of shooting the intimate surrogate session scenes in chronological order. If you’re an actor in a play, you find moments in rehearsal and you recreate them for the audience each night to tell your story. Something that film does uniquely and arrestingly, at times, is to capture things happening for the very first time between actors. I worked with James Mangold and he said that he got very nervous if he saw great work happening between the actors in rehearsal and the camera wasn’t running. I always took that to heart, really. For film, it’s a risky way to work. You want to be really well-prepared. I’ll work anyway that an actor or director wants to work, but in this case, Helen and I, without speaking about it, decided to work without a net, so to speak. A lot of the very first session scene you see between us happens in long takes and real time, and things were happening for the first time. That’s thrilling for actors. I feel like that energy can come off the screen and into the audience. They’re aware that they’re seeing something that feels real to them, in a strange way, because it is happening for the first time. It’s always an actor’s job to make things seem like they’re happening for the first time, but it’s quite a gift when they actually are.
Did it help that the sex scenes could be more awkward?
HAWKES: As Helen and I got to know each other better, in the subsequent intimate scenes together, so were our characters also finding comfort. A love scene, by nature, is unwieldy, awkward, funny in ways that it shouldn’t be, unfamiliar, nervous and nerve-wracking. We wanted all of that because that’s what the script called for. Normally, that would be edited and music would be added to make it seem like the perfect fantasy that we normally see in films, but we were more interested in a bare-bones, honest approach. But, that isn’t to say that the movie is any less sensual. I think it’s really beautiful. Helen Hunt is a very attractive woman. And yet, because I think of the frank honesty, the nudity and love scenes don’t feel, to my mind, exploitative or at all dirty. My mother is 82, and I will happily send her to see this film. We all have bodies, under our clothes. We just pretend we don’t. I think this movie is one of the more mature and true, and that includes humorous depictions and dialogue about sex that I haven’t seen in any American film.
HAWKES: I work out a little every day, on my own. No one has ever trained me to do it, sadly, but I’ve made up my way of trying to stay in shape. I just stopped doing anything that would bring muscle tone, and just continued to do yoga. I didn’t try to lose weight. I’m thin and the position my body was in extenuates my ribs. Normally, the camera adds 10 pounds. In this body position, it might have taken away 10. But, I’ve weighed pretty much the same for 30 years. People are always saying, “You’ve lost weight. You’ve put on weight. You’ve lost weight.” Get a scale and I’ll show you that I’m the same as I was.
As an actor, when you’re playing a real person, is that a much more stressful role to take on because you can’t just create it yourself?
HAWKES: It’s true, but it’s not for that reason. It was not because I felt constrained. In fact, I didn’t have to write a backstory. Mark’s autobiography was the backstory. I didn’t have to create a body position and a voice for Mark. I just had to try to really study and emulate the real Mark O’Brien, through Jessica Yu’s film. The real weight of responsibility, I feel, is to do honor to the person I’m portraying. In this case, Mark passed away in 1999, so it’s to his memory and to those who survive him. That’s the first audience for me. If they get it, it’s a great relief and whoever else gets it is fine. The people who actually knew the person you’re playing, if you’re playing a contemporary character, are who I want to connect with. That is an extra weight of responsibility, but it’s a good kick in the pants to keep focused and doing your best.
The Sessions opens in theaters on October 19th.