John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy talk new movie ‘THE SESSIONS’
October 18, 2012 by Dana Feldman
by Dana Feldman
Fox Searchlight Pictures’ THE SESSIONS is already garnering well-deserved Oscar buzz for stellar performances from John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy. This film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival winning both the coveted Audience Award as well as the Jury Prize for ensemble cast.
Based on the autobiographical writings of the journalist and poet known for his biting honesty and sharp wit, Mark O’Brien, the Berkeley graduate who spent the majority of his life in an iron lung due to childhood polio, the film is justly described by Hawkes as a beautifully drawn story. At the age of thirty-eight, O’Brien (Hawkes) decided that it was time to lose his virginity. With the help of a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Hunt), and the friendship with his priest (Macy), he set out to fulfill his goal.
Writer/director/producer Ben Lewin, who had also contracted polio as a child, explains that O’Brien’s 1990 article entitled, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” published in the literary magazine “The Sun,” was the blueprint for what would become the script. “My take on the subject matter and the characters changed and expanded as the journey progressed.” Lewin has described O’Brien’s article as sad, despondent and pessimistic. “These were the writings from a man who had given up the hope of ever finding a close romantic relationship with a woman that non-disabled people seem to enjoy. But the melancholic ending he wrote had an unexpected and joyful coda: her name was Susan Fernbach.” Explaining that he always saw this film as a love story, he adds, “It doesn’t follow the usual blueprint. But I felt if I could do with the film what Mark had done to me with the power and authenticity of his writing that would be something. I think his story is something genuinely unexpected.”
Filming without rehearsing, Lewin describes what he calls part of a process. “There’s no formula, if there was, I’d bottle and sell it!” He laughs as he compares this to a romance. “When it works, you’re grateful.” The film’s emotional temperature, he says, lives on its sense of humor. “It was important for me that this wasn’t just a movie about a horizontal guy, but that it was also about the universe around him and the people surrounding him.”
Lewin produced “The Sessions” alongside his wife Judi Levine who says that she’s not big on tearjerkers. “I like happy endings. I like anything with a sense of humor.”
Per Hawkes on portraying O’Brien in what he refers to as a true and beautiful film. “I knew I would have to contort my body. Mark only had about ninety degrees of motion with his head and his spine was significantly curved so I began with that reality.” Explaining that you can’t fake that type of positioning, Hawkes worked with the props department to design a soccer-ball-sized foam ball that he put under the left side of his spine to have it curve without the usage of special effects make-up or CGI. “It was dubbed ‘The Torture Ball’. But what I went through to play the role was nothing compared to O’Brien’s lived experience minute by minute, day by day.” Staying inside the iron lung between takes because of the difficulty getting in and out of it was another challenge for Hawkes. “It was difficult to be inside of it for long periods of time, but I wanted to capture the reality of Mark the best I could. I made the physicality so ingrained in me that I wouldn’t think about it during filming. I’d forget that I was horizontal.”
With the goal of bringing a recognizable person to those who knew the real O’Brien who passed away in 1999 at the age of forty-nine, Hawkes explains the pressures of portraying a real person. “I want to honor the person I’m portraying and honor those who loved and survived him, that’s the first audience to me, that’s who I want to connect with. It’s an extra weight to carry.”
Of not knowing Hunt before the making of this film, Hawkes reflects advice once given to him by James Mangold. “He once said to me that he’d get nervous if there was great work between actors in rehearsal with no cameras because you want to capture things for the first time on film between the actors. So, Helen and I decided not to get to know one another until filming our scenes. It’s a risky way to work without a net, a more bare bones, honest approach.”
Per Hunt, who says that it was the story and the writing that attracted her, “My life’s work meets good writing.” Of the real sex surrogate of whom she portrayed, “When I met Cheryl I’d never met anyone like her. The story felt true and I knew that my job was to be able to leave this man able to have a sexual life. But sometimes you feel what you didn’t expect.” A film, in part, about self-acceptance, Hunt adds, “I have a daughter and I want to live in the world where we say ‘This is the body God gave me’.” When asked if she felt that this was a role that took a lot of courage to embody, she says frankly, “If courage is being scared and doing it anyway than I have a bit of that.”
“The three things I used to ask myself before taking on a role were: What does this have to do with the human condition? How much do I get paid? And do I have to get wet?” Macy laughs at this before describing what it was like to play Father Brendan, the priest who guides O’Brien on his quest. “It’s difficult to combine these two subjects; people with disabilities and sex and let’s talk about it in a church!” Adding on a more serious note, “I’m a proponent that a good script has everything you need. Everyone will always know someone with disabilities.“
Included in the ensemble cast are Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Rhea Perlman, Adam Arkin, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigert, Blake Lindsley, Ming Lo, Jennifer Kumiyama, Rusty Schwimmer and James Martinez.
Watch the official movie trailer.