If you think you’ve seen every possible narrative variation on a man trying to lose his virginity, then allow me to introduce you to The Sessions. A cheerful film of irrepressible optimism and remarkable sexual frankness, it is the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a man who was left near-paralyzed following a childhood bout with polio. Having attained local fame for graduating from Berkeley by attending classes on a motorized gurney, Mark now spends the majority of his days in an iron lung. His physical movement is limited to a 90-degree rotation of his neck, which he doesn’t let prevent him from pursuing work as a writer and freelance journalist (and what have you done lately?). When a magazine assigns him a story on sex and the disabled, his research leads him to “sex surrogate” Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), essentially a physical therapist with an emphasis on sex. Yes, her vocation involves having sex with her clients. With great trepidation, Mark (still a virgin at 36) decides to undergo a series of therapy sessions with Cheryl to see if he is indeed capable of performing sexually.
The Sessions is written and directed by Australian filmmaker Ben Lewin, 66, who also had polio as a child and walks with crutches. After directing a smattering of television throughout the ’80s and ’90s and three features between 1988 and 1994, Lewin returns to filmmaking after a lengthy hiatus with this film, his most high-profile project to date. Right off the bat, his decision not to cast a disabled actor in the role of Mark was met with controversy, especially given his own personal experiences with disability. Still, Lewin stands firmly by the casting of John Hawkes. “It was impossible to cast someone who was that seriously disabled,” he says. “Working actors aren’t that seriously disabled, and I felt like to take someone who was a little bit disabled and pretend they were as disabled as [O’Brien] was a bit like tokenism. Ultimately I wasn’t prepared to lower the standard of acting. I felt my responsibility was to the film.”
The role of Mark O’Brien marks a considerable departure from the sinister characters Hawkes, 53, has become associated with since his Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone and his bone-chilling cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene; it is considerably closer in spirit to his lovelorn everyman in Me and You and Everyone We Know and even his recurring role as Kenny Powers’ mild-mannered brother on Eastbound and Down. His understated performance as Mark is blissfully free of Oscar-courting histrionics while simultaneously displaying the kind of jaw-dropping physical commitment that basically guarantees him a Best Actor nod.
As Cheryl, Helen Hunt makes one of the most unexpected “comebacks” in recent memory. After her Mad About You sitcom superstardom led to a 1998 Best Actress Oscar for As Good As It Gets and roles in the 2000 blockbusters What Women Want, Pay It Forward, and Cast Away, Hunt dropped off the radar for much of the ensuing years, taking some time off to raise her daughter and focus on theater with only occasional film work (The Sessions is just her seventh film since 2000). Most notably, she wrote, directed, and starred in the well-received 2007 film Then She Found Me, which co-starred Colin Firth, Matthew Broderick, and Bette Midler. And now, at 49, she is once again earning Oscar buzz in the role of Cheryl, which requires her to repeatedly appear full-frontally nude while basically topping Hawkes in a series of ultra-realistic therapeutic sex scenes. Hunt is also alone in her onscreen nudity; Lewin says he chose not to reveal Hawkes’ full nudity for fear of earning an NC-17 from the notoriously penis-fearing MPAA. “The best I can do for those who miss the occasional penis is apologize,” he laughed, which I accepted.
Lewin was fully aware that he was portraying provocative moments audiences haven’t seen depicted before. “I got energy from the idea that these were untouchable subjects, and that was the very reason I wanted to do it,” he says. “That was the whole strength of the movie. It needed to have a certain amount of shock value and be unexpected, but written in a way that is broadly accessible.” To that end, Lewin created the character of Father Brendan (William H. Macy), a fictitious priest from whom Mark first seeks permission and then guidance as he begins his work with Cheryl. “The priest became a way of deflecting some of the really explicit details from the bedroom, which sometimes in the earlier drafts had made me cringe, into the confessional, where it became funny. The priest was the easiest character to construct: a guy who was profoundly humanitarian, but not bound by dogma.”
Below, Spinning Platters sits down first with John Hawkes and then with Helen Hunt to discuss the very specific challenges and abundant rewards of making The Sessions.
IN CONVERSATION WITH JOHN HAWKES
How did your experience of reading Mark’s story, “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate,” compare to seeing the finished film?
John Hawkes: I feel we were pretty faithful on many levels. When you make a narrative feature, it’s not a documentary and it kinda becomes its own story. I feel Ben Lewin did a very faithful job of adapting it, yet making it very personal to all of us, and making it the film we all wanted to make. To have Mark’s writing was a huge boon. He left behind so many essays and articles as a journalist, but I think his real passion was poetry. And as we all know, that’s where the big money is. [laughs] All of his writing helped a great deal, and hopefully the film captures the spirit of “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate.”
Compared to other roles you’ve played, how did the experience of playing Mark impact you as a person?
Hawkes: I think some of the darker ones take a piece from you. I’ve learned to be careful, because to pretend some of the really intense darkness and hatefulness is a thing that’s really difficult to do. I have no formal training as an actor, so the only thing I can do is try to read the script over and over and pretend the circumstances over and over. It can rip a little piece of you. This character brought a lot of light to me. He was a really funny guy; he was a fighter. I’m really attracted to characters who, rather than wallow in their self-pity even though they have every reason to, instead — ill-equipped, particularly — continue to punch and fight for what they want. Mark was one of those guys.
I was raised in a small town in Minnesota long ago, when the civil rights movement was happening, and I was taught that even though I come from a predominantly blonde, blue-eyed little town in the Midwest, that people of all color and creed are of equal value. However, while I was being taught that, the disabled kids were somewhere else. I wish that I had been taught more. Even though I’ve always tried to be a very inclusive person who judges people individually on their merits, I must admit that it probably boils down to fear. I’ve met disabled people along the way and become friends with them, but in general, to see someone wheeled down the street who’s disfigured, I feel it’s a natural thing to want to turn away. This film taught me to just try to see everybody a little more and say, “I see you,” figuratively; to lose fear of those who are different from us, and to realize we’re more than our bodies. Things I knew, but had them reinforced. That we’re minds and souls and hearts foremost.
How was the audition process for this film?
Hawkes: It was really easy, because I didn’t have to audition. [laughs] It was very short. My audition, I guess, was to meet with Ben Lewin, who I didn’t realize was a polio survivor until he got out of his car with crutches and we made our way on a rainy night into a west L.A. deli. We sat and talked for a few hours and realized we saw the story in the same way and wanted to tell it the same way. My first question to Ben was why not cast a disabled actor, an underrepresented group of people uniquely qualified to tell this story. Ben feels political correctness is a form of censorship. I don’t think he views himself as disabled first but as human first.
He told me he’d spent a lot of time auditioning and meeting with actors, able-bodied and disabled, and just hadn’t found his Mark yet. So really, the audition was us talking and him deciding before the interview ended that I’d be the guy if I wanted the part. I took several days to decide. It’s a daunting task to play a lead character who only moves his head 90 degrees and has no movement below the neck. It was something to think about for sure, and the fact that Ben hadn’t directed a movie in 18 years gave me pause. But I would just read the script every day while I was deciding and think, This guy knows how to tell a story. This is an amazing script. Trust him. And I’m really glad that I did.
How did you prepare for the physical challenges of the role?
Hawkes: Wow, do you have an hour? [laughs] It was a lot of getting into Mark’s writing, which was really key. He left us an autobiography that I believe was finished posthumously, called How I Became A Human Being. I think an actor’s prep is unique to themselves, and I have no formal training as an actor. I’ve just learned over time an approach to use through trial and error. The physical side was a challenge, so I may have begun there. Jessica Yu’s amazing documentary, Breathing Lessons, was the greatest tool an actor could really have, so that was the physical start. There was Mark, interviewed in 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.
One of my approaches as an actor is to be very specific. I think the more specific and full of details you can make a story, the more paradoxically universal it will be. So there were a lot of details you examine and hold to the light. Also, I wanted to capture Mark’s physical form and voice the best I could because my first audience, the people I would most like to have a fulfilling experience watching the movie, would be the people that knew him. It’s an extra weight when you portray a nonfictional person to try to get the story right, and in this case to honor Mark’s memory, because he passed away in 1999. I wanted people who survived him to see as much as they could of their friend or relative in what I’d done.
I learned to type and turn pages of books and make telephone calls with a mouth stick. I just made one at home and worked with it until I got to the props department and they gave me a better one. When we started to shoot, there were the survivors of Mark who made themselves available: Jessica Yu, Cheryl Cohen-Greene, Susan Fernbach. These women gave me another view into who Mark was. As an actor in the most general sense, I try to figure out what the story is and how my character helps tell it, as a whole and from moment to moment in the script. I wanted to make all of the physical work second nature so I wouldn’t have to think about it, to just make it part of me. I wanted to overprepare and then basically forget everything, all preconceptions, when the director calls “action”, and just be present with the other actors in the scene and just let happen whatever happens. It’s a complex process, time-consuming, but one of my favorite parts about the job. I love learning and I learned a lot on this one.
How was your relationship with Helen during the production? The love scenes you two share in this film are really unlike anything we’ve seen portrayed on film before.
Hawkes: Helen and I didn’t know each other, we hadn’t met before we were cast in this film. We had a couple of script conferences with the director where we’d sit beside him and go scene by scene, maybe ask about certain lines. But Helen and I didn’t really talk to each other through that process; we were speaking through Ben. And when we found that Mr. Lewin was going to give us the great gift of shooting the sex surrogate sessions 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 physical distance and sort of avoided each other.
The very first surrogate scene that you see between she and I is capturing moments that are happening for the very first time. I think that’s what film does uniquely unlike any other performance art medium: it can capture moments between people that haven’t happened before. You can see it in actors’ faces and bodies and energy. That’s a vulnerable and really exciting way to work. We didn’t rehearse much, so during that first scene, you’re catching things on camera that we were lucky not to have found in rehearsal. It was unwieldy, awkward, unfamiliar, unintentionally funny at moments; and all those things are things we really wanted. When you shoot a sex scene with grips and a camera and a crew around, it’s never what it looks like when it’s been edited to look like the perfect fantasy, with violins on top and rose petals floating through the scene. [laughs] This one, we wanted that awkwardness and truth of two people meeting for the first time and taking their clothes off. It was a really wonderful way to work, without a net, so to speak.
Had you heard of sex surrogates prior to this film?
Hawkes: Yes I had, but I hadn’t hired one. [laughs] I think I saw Cheryl interviewed by Larry King many years ago while flipping the channels.
What was your impression upon finally meeting her?
Hawkes: What a delightful angel of a woman she is. She’s a revolutionary. She’s doing the Lord’s work in the Devil’s playhouse. I think she continues to do the work as a grandmother. I’d heard the term “sex-positive”. I consider myself someone who is not ashamed of and believes in the great power of sex beyond procreation, and that’s her job more than sex, really. She doesn’t even really think of herself as a sex surrogate so much as someone who helps people with their problems. Sex is a fairly small part of the job as a whole, which is to help people get in touch with their bodies, become aware of their bodies, remove their shame through exercises and techniques she’s developed over the years, some trained and some self-developed. I think anytime one human being can help another, and two consenting adults are in a room and no one’s being injured, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.
You also have a role in Lincoln. Is it strange to hear awards season chatter pitting you against Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor?
Hawkes: Well, I don’t really pay attention to things that are beyond my control, to be honest with you. I think that a lot of people were incredibly surprised when I was nominated for Winter’s Bone. I don’t think I was on all the lists by any means, and believe me that no one was more surprised than I was. Who knows what will happen? It makes me nervous to think about it. It’s an intense thing, the Oscar evening and the events leading up to it. But it brings more people to the movie, and that makes me really happy. It’s a testament to the amazing work of Daniel Day-Lewis that from a poster alone, he’s going to be nominated for an Academy Award. [laughs] I have a very small role in Lincoln, very much a supporting role, but I did get to work with him for about ten hours. I never got to meet Daniel Day-Lewis, but I got to hang out with Abraham Lincoln for ten hours, which was an amazingly wonderful thing. I can’t wait to meet him someday as himself, but I think Mr. Lincoln was a guy I could have hung out with for several more weeks.
So what’s next for you?
Hawkes: It’s been a sadly fallow year for me. I think it’ll be the first year in three years I won’t have a film at Sundance, where I’ve had such luck. I’ve said yes to five or six quite small films that have had real difficulty raising their funds, so I could take two years doing those films and I’m sure I’d be quite happy. In the meantime I’m waiting for one of them to receive funding, and we’re talking about a small amount of money. I hope our film does well at the box office, beyond a selfish and personal level, so that maybe investors will see that small self-financed films can have a life out there, and that people hunger for stories beyond cartoons and cars exploding. [laughs] Hopefully so.
IN CONVERSATION WITH HELEN HUNT
How did this project come to you?
Helen Hunt: A very close girlfriend read the script because she was auditioning for another role in it. She has never said this in decades of friendship, but she said, “You’ve gotta read this movie.” And then, at the exact same moment, my agent called and said, “You’ve gotta read this movie.”
How did you mentally prepare for all the nudity this role required?
Hunt: There was really nothing to do mentally to prepare, short of drinking. [laughs] I mean, I did all my homework for the part, which would hopefully distract me from the fact that I was going to be so very naked.
Did you purge your home of cookies and carbs?
Hunt: I got the part a few weeks before production started, so all the cookie fasting in the world was not going to make a difference. Every time I worried about the nudity, I tried to prepare more for the part so I’d be thinking about that rather than how naked I was. The director of photography was great. He’s lovely and soft-spoken, and I could tell he was going to be careful so that I’d look the best I could look, but also not be weird. [laughs] He was anti-weird. More than anybody, the cameraman sets the tone on a set, so it all came down to him. Talking to him was one way I prepared. I was like, “Don’t let me look bad.”
This is such a sex-positive film. Have there been any personal judgments you’ve had to examine and let go during this process?
Hunt: That’s a good question. [pause] I don’t know if there were any specific ones, but it certainly raised the bar on my wanting to be positive about sex. I have my hang-ups like everybody, but not as many as a lot of people. I think when you watch this movie, it brings into relief all your own [sexual] weirdness, all the weirdness in all the movies that you see, the stuff you see online. It makes it even more clear how inundated we are with warped, strange, shame-filled [sexual messages], whether they’re so out-there that it’s bizarre or so covered it’s bizarre. It all seems bizarre to me compared to this movie. I have a stepson who’s 15 and a daughter who’s 8, so we’re on either side of that “finding out about it” moment, and I really want it to go well. I’ve talked to my daughter’s father about how we have to be like this character! We have to exude a positive feeling about sex when we deal with it at all in our family.
You’ve spent some time with Cheryl. When you’re playing a real person who’s still alive, can it be unhelpful to meet the real person?
Hunt: Sometimes it is, because you build a whole character, then you meet the person and you’re like, I can’t fit you into this thing I created. You’re playing them but you’re not really playing them. In this case, it was the thing that got me fired up about the part. I took the movie because I thought the story was beautiful. I didn’t really see that it was a great part at first. But once I started talking to Cheryl and getting her vibe, the combination of how loud she talks, how frank her accent is, how like an excited kid she is about something sexual… Those things together were very new for me. I knew the first half hour of the movie was going to be people saying, What is going to walk through that door?What is that?” And they would think either hooker or something virginal, so I had to come in with something that was a surprise, and I thought being like her would be a surprise. So in this case, more than any other time where I’ve played a real person, it was helpful.
Compared to other roles you’ve played, how did the experience of playing Cheryl impact you as a person? I’m thinking of The Waterdance (1992), in which you also played a woman attempting to have a sexual relationship with a disabled man.
Hunt: I would say it was one of the most positive experiences. Things go really well in this movie! There’s a love scene in The Waterdance that’s really heartbreaking because it can’t quite happen. They needed [someone like Cheryl] to walk in the door and say, “It’s okay. It doesn’t have to look like it used to look. It doesn’t have to be anything other than what it is.” So I would say it was more positive than most movies.
Did you have any knowledge of Mark O’Brien prior to signing on?
Hunt: Very little. In fact, it wasn’t until I sat down with the director that I realized, Oh, this is the same guy from Breathing Lessons. But that was quite a while ago and I didn’t really connect the two. I didn’t know his poetry at all, and there’s so much more of it than is in the movie. He’s a beautiful poet. I thought it was a really cool way to make a biopic, to just take one chapter from somebody’s life. Do we really need to see when he got polio and the tragedy of that? This is a way to have a slice of a life, but you kinda learn about the essence of him.
Although Mark is the protagonist of the film, Cheryl has quite a fascinating character arc. Did that always exist in the script?
Hunt: There was even more of it. There was a strange scene with her teen son that actually came out, in which he notices her envelope with money in it [from one of her sessions with Mark]. I had a really difficult time with it, and now I look back and I know why: it was her awkwardly breaking to him what she does. But I think Cheryl probably would have sat him down when he was 8 or 9 and given him an appropriate version of, “This is what sex is, this is what I do…” So that was very much in the movie when I first read it.
You’re an accomplished director in your own right. Has that made you been any bolder about approaching directors with ideas as an actor?
Hunt: When I’ve directed and when I’ve acted on almost every set — maybe not Woody Allen, but most every set I’ve been on, people get that actors should come forward with their ideas. At the end of the day, if there’s a tie it does have to go to the director, because if somebody’s not in charge it all falls apart. But the best directors I’ve worked with are interested in the ideas coming from actors, from cameramen, from production designers, and they have enough confidence to know they don’t have to take your idea. When it’s reversed and I’m acting, I think I know how to wait until it’s my turn and how to offer something up while still respecting whoever is directing. At least I hope so. [laughs]
So we’ve seen in your movies that you can surf, you can rollerblade, you can obviously act and direct. What are you not good at?
Hunt: [pause] Throwing a Frisbee. Like, you can’t believe it. My friends are like, “How can it be that you can’t throw it just that far?” Other than that, I’m great at everything. [laughs]
What do you wanna try next?
Hunt: I wrote another movie, so I’d like to get money from somebody so I could make it, which is very hard to do. So I’d really like to do that. I have a novel that’s a mess and zillions of pages. I put it down whenever I work, so it’s all in tatters. But that would be great to finish when I’m 100. If I found a great cable show, I’d love to do that.
How do you feel about those who compare Cheryl’s vocation to prostitution?
Hunt: One point she makes in the movie that I got from Cheryl’s own mouth is, “I have nothing against prostitutes. This is just different. A prostitute wants your return business, and I don’t.” Cheryl will go and do lectures and have people scream awful stuff at her. People are just weird about sex. This movie is sort of about how weird everyone is about sex, and the way it shows that is by being so not-weird; by being so simple and unadorned, it helps you see how weird everybody is about it.
This is a much lighter role for John Hawkes than he’s played recently. How familiar were you with his work before production?
Hunt: I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen Winter’s Bone, but I didn’t think I was going to meet that guy. I hadn’t seen Martha Marcy May Marlene, and I’m really glad because I saw it afterwards and I was horrified! [laughs]I hadn’t seen him in a lot of movies. We didn’t know each other. We talked a little, we were naked, we went home. Which was great for the movie, because it was exactly the dynamic in the movie: nothing but the work. That’s the way anything I’ve ever done has been. So it was perfect.
So your Twitter account is a fascinating–
Hunt: I wouldn’t call it fascinating. [laughs]
I think it’s fascinating! We get to see you struggle through learning about self-promotion in the age of social media.
Hunt: [drily] Yeah. I’m really good at it.
How’s that been?
Hunt: Awkward! I don’t even know what button to push. It’s down to that. People write me back like, “No no no, the hashtag doesn’t go before the… thing.” [shrugs] My attempt at not fading off into obscurity, that’s what I would call my Twitter account.
So when will we get to see you do comedy again?
Hunt: When I get hired to do it! Then you’ll see it. There’s a little bit in The Sessions, but it’s not straight-up funny. I really miss that. I really enjoy getting to be funny with a really funny person, which I got to do for a really long time.
The Sessions is now playing in the Bay Area.