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 William H. Macy, who plays Mark O’Brien’s priest, spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about what attracted him to the role, what surprised him about the film, why he likes to read a script fast and go with his first instinct, how he most identified with Father Brendan, and what it was like to watch John Hawkes give this performance. He also talked about what fans can expect from Season 3 of his popular Showtime drama series Shameless, returning on January 13, 2013, and why he loves playing Frank Gallagher. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
WILLIAM H. MACY: Yeah. I think the audience doesn’t know what to expect because how could you? It’s a relatively novel story. I’ve never seen this movie before. I’ve never heard this story before. So, how could you possibly know what to expect? That’s why it’s surprising. When I read a script, I try to read it fast, and I try to get the same impact from the reading of it, as I would get seeing the film.
Have you always read scripts fast, or has that just grown out of necessity?
MACY: I don’t know who gave me that advice, but it was many, many, many years ago. The best of all worlds is to just turn off the phones, get quiet someplace and read it in one sitting. The thing I’ve added to it is to skim the stage directions. Writers love to write those idiotic, long stage directions, and some of them worse than others. They have nothing to do with the movie. They’re just jerking around. I don’t know. I bet them not to do it, but they always do it. But, you can skim those stage directions and go right to the dialogue. You can almost read the movie in the same amount of time it will take you to see the movie. My first impulses are pretty spot on. I guess maturity is knowing when to listen to that little voice that says, “Wait a second! Think again!”
MACY: The traditional way, through my agent. (Writer/director) Ben [Lewin] thought of me. I’m sometimes bad about reading scripts. I don’t know how long it took me. Maybe a week or two. I liked it, and I’m rather impulsive when I like something. It was only a week’s work or so, so I said yes, pretty quickly. It was a good story that was moving and true, and not just because it’s about a true guy, but true to the human experience. I like that. The work Ben Lewin did on this film snuck up on me. I thought it was a really adorable script. And having done the film and seen it twice, it’s more than adorable. It’s really skillfully put together, in a very cagey way. It tells a potentially bad story, but makes it fascinating. And he also directed it better than I first noticed. He seemed so calm and utilitarian on set, but it was really nice cutting. Emotionally speaking, when you really say what the movie is about, it’s a love story between John [Hawkes] and Helen [Hunt], and it’s told from such an unusual angle. It is so unexpected. It is so subtle. I don’t think they ever speak of love to each other. Helen does it with her eyes. And there’s some really cagey writing with her husband getting jealous, so suddenly we say, “Oh, that’s what I’m seeing! She’s falling for this guy!” And how wonderful that she falls for a guy who can’t move and lives in his brain and his face There’s something rather romantic and pure about that kind of love.
MACY: I grew up Lutheran, so I don’t know a lot about the Catholic church and priests. I know that I’ve known a couple of really cool priests, back in New York, that were playwrights and writers. Perhaps the reason that my priest is unexpected is because we’ve not been telling those stories. There are probably a lot of stories of wonderful men doing a lot of good, but they’re priests and the story that’s selling right now is child molestation. The good priests, I’m afraid, have to take a backseat for awhile. It was my first impulse, but I chose to play the priest as a true believer who was an absolute man of faith that absolutely supports the church. When Mark O’Brien asks, “Father, what do you think about me having sex outside of marriage, with this sexual surrogate?,” he treats the whole question not as a vicarious thrill, but as trying to help someone through a naughty problem. I love that the priest is brave enough to step outside of church doctrine, knowingly and with assuredness. I think the church would like this priest. He’s a good guy. I didn’t ask any priests what they would do, but if I had asked 20 priests, I’ll bet I would have gotten a bunch of, “No, I would have said, ‘Don’t do it.’” But, I’ll bet that all those same 20 priests, if they saw this movie, would say, “That priest did the right thing.” For the majority of the movie, I’m counseling him on matters of the heart. He’s falling in love. That’s what I spend most of the movie talking to him about, not about sex or no sex. And I think that is so lovely and so true. We, in America, are so screwed up when it comes to sex. That’s all we can see. It’s about, “Did you do it? Did they do it yet?” But, as they say in the Hustler store, “Relax, it’s just sex.” That’s small. It’s lovely, but it’s a specific thing. What’s much more interesting are the matters of the heart, and that’s the story that Ben Lewin told. It’s a love story. That’s why you weep, at the end.
MACY: He’s so good that I came in and he was a guy on a gurney. He couldn’t move, but he made it look so easy that you don’t go to that step of thinking about it being an actor on the gurney. None of the scenes were about being disabled. They were about the banter between the two of us. He made it look so easy that it wasn’t an issue for me. I didn’t think about that a lot. I’ve seen him in so many movies, and usually he scares the shit out of me, but here, he’s so wonderful, and so sweet and innocent. Since he couldn’t move, the whole film has to come down to his level and look him in the eye, so it focuses everything there and you have to communicate eye-to-eye. The scenes were a joy. It’s not a good reason to do a movie, but I hope this has the ancillary effect of maybe making it easier for the government to allot the proper amount of money to take care of people with disabilities. It seems like a no-brainer. We’re the richest country on the earth. We’re not the most civilized, perhaps, but we’re the richest. These are people with disabilities, and there will always be people with disabilities. I’ve worked with United Cerebral Palsy, and they have to beg, cry, scratch, manipulate and lobby to get the money they need. I would look at these fabulous people with disabilities from cerebral palsy, and they’re really smart, but their bodies are all bent up. The parents are what killed me. They give up so much for their kids. I know they swear that it’s all a blessing, but boy, it’s a complicated blessing for them. Just to send them out on a date made me weep.
What can you say about Season 3 of Shameless, and where things are headed for the Gallagher family?
MACY: We always want to see people strive and see the human spirit triumph against adversity. That’s what it’s all about because that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to triumph in our lives. And that’s a bit of an odd and disenfranchised family, that you don’t normally tell this kind of mundane story about. Season 3 is outrageous! We’ve got some new writers, and we’ve got a bunch of great scripts. I laugh to think of what I’ve done, this season. But, they’re doing a great job of keeping it grounded, so it doesn’t just fly off the planet into farce and crazy shit. We tell the truth about stuff. It’s pretty funny.
Do you ever wonder how you’re going to pull off some of what they give you?
MACY: Yeah! It’s a great job for me. I fancy myself a bit of a raconteur and a good salesman. So, they come to me and say, “Okay, this is what you’re going to do,” and I think, “Okay, I’ve gotta get sellin’!” It’s great stuff to act, not knowing where it’s going and just trying to find the truth in it and sell it as best I can. I love my character. I love Frank. There’s some lovely stuff this season. We’re two episodes from being finished, and we’ll start airing in January. We go to Chicago [to shoot], in about a week and a half. After we did the first season, I thought, “Can we do a second one?” When we did the second one, that’s when I got really nervous. I thought, “Okay, please don’t let this be a fluke.” This season, I’m feeling a little cocky ‘cause I think we’ve got this gig down. We’ve got a lot of stories to tell. We might be around for awhile.
The Sessions is now playing in theaters everywhere.