Q&A: Helen Hunt On The Sessions

Cari Lynn is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of AwardsLine.

Academy Award winner Helen Hunt might have another shot at Oscar in what’s certainly her most “revealing” role to date—playing the real-life sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene hired by quadriplegic Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) in the Sundance darling, The Sessions. Hunt discusses playing a real person, self-acceptance, and what it’s like to be that naked.

AWARDSLINE: I’m taking a stab here that prior to this script you hadn’t ever heard of sex surrogacy?

HELEN HUNT: No, I knew nothing about it. I thought there couldn’t be much difference between prostitution and that, no matter how you dress it up. But then I spoke to the real Cheryl—which, often, as an actress, isn’t as helpful as people would think because when you’re using your own imagination and experiences to build a character, speaking to the real person can be disorienting. But in this case, I didn’t have any idea, and I needed to get one really quickly. The real Cheryl is louder, more frank, and has a more enthusiastic quality than I have. So I got excited about the idea of at least starting like that and with a certain amount of bluster walking into the room: This is what it is to be naked, this is what it is to talk about parts of the body, and let (John Hawkes, playing Mark O’Brien) catch up a little bit. I also thought this would allow me to put something different in the end when Cheryl’s feelings for him deepen and her sense of intimacy grows. It was important that we not see this woman only one way all the way through.

AWARDSLINE: The clothes do come off pretty quickly and unceremoniously.

HUNT: Whenever I see anyone naked in a movie it takes me a minute, and we wanted to just get that out of the way. But also, I think the audience is in John’s head, and the fact that it’s all happening faster than he can quite manage is funny and scary, which are the two things I think it’s meant to be at that moment.

AWARDSLINE: A theme of The Sessions is knowing your body and figuring out how to be comfortable in it. Did that ring true for you personally or was it still quite difficult to approach those full nude scenes?

HUNT: That’s as naked as I know how to be. I was not as comfortable as (Cheryl) was, but I must be more comfortable than a lot of people because I did it. The whole north star for me was loving the story; I didn’t do it for the thrill or the dare of being naked. And what came along is the feeling of, Who cares anymore? Maybe it comes with being older—are we going to care about things we don’t even believe in, like everyone should look a certain way or everybody should be a certain age, or we should all be filled with shame and hiding our bodies and sexuality? Or are we going to take an opportunity of at least trying to be in the skin of someone who isn’t playing that game? By the way, the real Cheryl told me that she wasn’t always so comfortable with her body. There’s working on yourself from the inside out, which I think I did when I was younger, and as I get older I work on myself from the outside in, and by that I mean that if you don’t feel it, act “as if,” and the feelings might catch up, and this a perfect example of that. This is the way I want to be, and what a beautiful piece of good fortune that I was given a part to play around with what it would be like to feel that way.

AWARDSLINE: This film is about acceptance on several fronts, from sexuality to disability.

HUNT: The disability in the movie does something very particular in that it deconstructs the sex by necessity, and so it makes it like the sex that all of us have, improvised and ridiculous and beautiful and awkward and scary, and not so much like all the choreographed weaving that we see in movies and that I’ve done in movies.

AWARDSLINE: How did the real Cheryl respond to the film?

HUNT: She wrote me a card that said, “Thank you for really understanding my intentions in terms of my time with Mark.” I think that’s what probably meant the most to her.

AWARDSLINE: I saw you earlier this year in the play Our Town. What makes you want to take a film role these days? What has to be there?

HUNT: A good script, a good script, a good script…or money. I had a very fancy moment in 1997 or whenever it was that I had a lot of good fortune at once. And then I did Castaway, and people were like, “You’re in it for 15 minutes. What are you doing?” But the story—it was a great story! I like getting to be part of telling a story that works, and (The Sessions) was a totally original, totally beautiful story.

Q&A: John Hawkes On The Sessions

Cari Lynn is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.

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.

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.

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.