Cari Lynn is an AwardsLine contributor.
Writer/director Ben Lewin’s boldly endearing film The Sessions is the true story of quadriplegic journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, who, at 38 years old, set about losing his virginity by hiring a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt. Veteran actor John Hawkes plays O’Brien in the film, embracing a physically and emotionally challenging role. In a recent interview with AwardsLine, Hawkes discussed the challenges of embodying a character who can’t move his body.
AwardsLine: How did this script come to you and how daunting—or not—was playing a man whose only movement was limited to the neck up?
John Hawkes: I’d had some luck with the film Winter’s Bone and after that I got sent some scripts to consider. I hadn’t seen a character like this before—and that was the daunting part. Mark O’Brien lived in an iron lung from 6 years old on and only had 90 degrees of movement with his head. I wasn’t interested in him being more of an able-bodied Mark O’Brien and was glad the script wasn’t written that way. Disabled sex isn’t something we talk about a great deal, and I’m always interested in subjects I don’t know about.
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AwardsLine: Lewin’s screenplay is based on an essay Mark O’Brien wrote called “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate.” Did you incorporate aspects of this essay?
Hawkes: Yes, Mark’s humor, straight-up. Mark was a living, breathing—although difficultly breathing—person on this planet, and he left us a great deal: his poetry, articles, book reviews, and his essays. Also, Jessica Yu, who knew Mark, had made (an Oscar-winning) short documentary film based on his life called Breathing Lessons. That was a really amazing study for me. I obsessed over that movie. My first impression of him was, Wow, poor guy. And my impression of him 30 minutes later was, Wow, amazing guy. I like detail as an actor, and I like to be really specific—the more truthful the details, the more universal the story gets for me. From his body to his attitude, to the music of his voice, to his dialect—these were great details for me. I think Mark could sometimes be an angry guy, and I wanted to bring some of that in, too, and there was a little bit of that in the script. I didn’t want him to be a puppy dog or a victim or a saint. I wanted to portray Mark in such a way that those who survived him could see something of their friend, their loved one, their family member in the work I’d done.
AwardsLine: Were there limitations on what you could capture?
Hawkes: His voice is subtitled in Jessica’s film. He doesn’t speak super clearly because his breathing is labored, so I didn’t want to do an exact interpretation, but I wanted to get close.
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AwardsLine: Speaking of breathing, the movie opens with one of Mark O’Brien’s poems about breathing, which for him, wasn’t subconscious. How did you think about and incorporate breath while playing him?
Hawkes: I tried to emulate Mark’s breathing patterns as best I could, but I didn’t want it to become about that. I wanted to do honor to what he was dealing with and bring verité to the movie, but not so much as to be distracting to the audience.
AwardsLine: This role was extremely physically challenging. What was the “torture ball”?
Hawkes: I was lying on a soccer ball-sized (piece of) foam, which I conceived of and helped design with the props department. It was difficult and uncomfortable to find that kind of contorted position that was Mark O’Brien’s body. The script says that Mark’s spine is horribly curved, and you can’t disregard that as an actor. Sometimes I would do 40 minutes on (the torture ball) without moving. I couldn’t move my toe or swat the fly that kept wanting to crawl into my mouth. It hurt, but a minor amount of pain compared to what many people feel moment to moment in their lives.
AwardsLine: Was it ever a consideration to use prosthetics or other tricks?
Hawkes: The first time I met (director) Ben (Lewin), my concern was about an able-bodied actor playing this role. So many disabled actors aren’t working and should be. But Ben, a polio survivor himself, told me he’d taken a lot of time to try to find actors, able-bodied and disabled, but he hadn’t quite found his Mark. I insisted at the beginning that there be no body double, and Ben was cool with that. There were no prosthetics or computer graphics, and there was no makeup on me at any time.
AwardsLine: This could easily have been maudlin or depressing, and yet, the audience was often laughing.
Hawkes: Nothing avails us of those kinds of (negative) emotions more than laughing. It was important to me to mine the humor, as long as it wasn’t sophomoric or gag humor, which I love, but not for this script. Any humor that came out of truth was welcome, and I sought it every chance I could.