In 'The Sessions,' A Different View Of The World Actor John Hawkes has played plenty of unusual characters, but the physical demands of his latest role required ingenuity and pain management. He speaks with All Things Considered about the difficulty of playing a character who is paralyzed from the neck down.
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In 'The Sessions,' A Different View Of The World

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In 'The Sessions,' A Different View Of The World

In 'The Sessions,' A Different View Of The World

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. The new movie "The Sessions" is a story of sexual awakening based on the life of the late California poet and journalist Mark O'Brien. Stricken with polio at age 6, his body twisted and deformed, O'Brien spent most of his life in an iron lung.

And at age 38, he decided it was time to lose his virginity. To do that, he hired a sex surrogate. In the movie, Mark O'Brien is played by John Hawkes, the sex surrogate is played by Helen Hunt.


HELEN HUNT: (as Cheryl) Explain to me so that I really understand exactly what the iron lung is for.

JOHN HAWKES: (as Mark O'Brien) That keeps me breathing. I can spend a few hours outside with that portable respirator depending on how I feel. But I work and sleep in the iron lung.

HUNT: (as Cheryl) And how do you feel right now?

HAWKES: (as Mark O'Brien) Out of my league.


(as Cheryl) And how is you're breathing?

HAWKES: (as Mark O'Brien) Oh, fine. In fact, better than usual.

HUNT: (as Cheryl) That's great. Shall we get undressed?

HAWKES: (as Mark O'Brien) Sure.

BLOCK: And John Hawkes joins me here in the studio. John, thanks for coming in.

HAWKES: Oh, thanks for having me.

BLOCK: I was watching your face as you watched that clip. You were - it looked like you were smiling and wincing at the same time. What was going through your mind?

HAWKES: That's an involuntary reaction.


HAWKES: It's a - it was a physically painful role to play. And I guess that just hearing that voice kind of brought me back to the uncomfortable body position that I contorted myself into to play the role.

BLOCK: Let's talk about that position because the whole movie, we see you, you're lying down either on a gurney or in the iron lung or on a bed. And your arms are by your side, you're completely immobile, your head is twisted to one side. Your back is arched, we see all your ribs. What did you have to do to get into that contorted pose?

HAWKES: It's mentioned in the script several times that Mark's spine is horribly curved. And as an actor, as much as you'd like to maybe just disregard that information, you must honor it. And so I asked for and helped develop, along with the wonderful props department, a crude piece of foam rubber about the size of a soccer ball that we wrapped duct tape around and placed under the left side of my back at all times so that I would have that spinal curve.

You know, this is a character that is not exactly paralyzed but has literally no movement from the neck down. He's got feeling, but no movement, so I would get myself into a fairly contorted position, as I've said. And the difficult thing was just not moving, you know, lying in that position and not moving, really. Certainly, it was incredibly painful, but a small amount of pain compared to what many people unfortunately have to deal with moment to moment in their lives.

BLOCK: Does being still like that go against everything you would instinctively do as an actor which would be to use your body?

HAWKES: Of course. To lie lifelessly while Helen Hunt is undressing you is - well, presents several challenges, actually.


HAWKES: You want to help, and you want to, you know, you want to assist her. And it was difficult to just be kind of dead weight when another actor is struggling to accomplish their goal.

BLOCK: The first time that your character meets with the sex surrogate, you are extremely anxious and talking a lot and clearly very apprehensive about what's going to happen. Had you talked to Helen Hunt much about that first encounter and how you would approach that awkwardness together?

HAWKES: Something really interesting happened, I think, or didn't happen, in a way. We didn't get to know each other at all before shooting. And Ben Lewin, the director, was - I think did a really wise thing. He took those surrogate sessions, and we shot them chronologically. What you're seeing on camera is the truth of what's happening for the first time.

It's awkward for her to get my shirt off. And it's, I'm sure, uncomfortable for her to remove her clothing in front of myself and the crew. And so, we had an unfamiliarity about each other that I think really worked in our favor. And then as she and I were getting to know each other, our characters were getting to know each other in the later sessions - scenes.

BLOCK: You think it would have felt very different in that scene if you did know each other better, if it wasn't so alien in a way?

HAWKES: I think so, because love scenes, by nature, when you're shooting them, are always awkward and unwieldy and kind of by the numbers and funny, even in spots. And then they're normally edited and music is added to try to make them the perfect fantasy. We weren't interested in that, and it wasn't right for our film. So any discomfort that we were feeling or any feeling of being kind of lost in the moment and all of the things that go with our bodies - humiliation, exhilaration, humor, all those kind of things - were all present for us.

BLOCK: I'm talking to John Hawks about his new movie, "The Sessions."

We've been talking about the physical component of this part, but there's a lot that you must have had to do to get emotionally, mentally prepared to play this character who saw himself as something that was repulsive in many ways. He's filled with self-hate and humiliation. And let's listen to a scene from the movie. This is one of the sessions that you have with the sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt.



HAWKES: (as Mark O'Brien) You know, whenever I'm naked, everyone else says the room is always dressed. And now that I'm in bed with another naked person, it's very confusing.

HUNT: (as Cheryl) Why is it confusing?

HAWKES: (as Mark O'Brien) I always expected like God or my parents would intervene to keep this moment from ever happening.

HUNT: (as Cheryl) Not this time.

BLOCK: What about that side of this character of Mark O'Brien?

HAWKES: Well, I think it's a valuable side. Ben Lewin, the director of the film, is a polio survivor himself. At our first meeting, when he was sizing me up and I was sizing him up, and we were trying to figure out whether or not we could do this together, told me that he wasn't interested in Mark being either a victim or a saint, as disabled people are often portrayed.

Again, as a disabled person himself, Ben was interested in Mark being a human being with all that entails and a full range of emotion and attitude. He was interested in Mark occasionally being a jerk sometimes, as well, as he had every right to be. And so, yeah, that was a good thing, I think.

BLOCK: How did you come to understand what this journey or this awakening was and what it represented for Mark O'Brien in real life? He talks in the movie about wanting to lose his virginity at age 38 because he's getting close to his use-by date.

HAWKES: Ben mentioned something the other day in an interview that I would convey, and that is that he feels that a lot of the film really is less about losing your virginity or even falling in love, which is the theme of the film, but the simple idea of touch, of being touched. If you're a person who can't move at all, you can't reach out and touch someone.

And for the first 38 years of your life, you've mainly been touched in a very utilitarian way: to be washed, to be dressed and undressed, to be fed. And the idea of someone touching you for pleasure or just to show affection was a foreign concept to him. And I think just imagine what that might be like for someone to actually want to touch you for reasons other than, as I said, the needed reasons.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. And that's what we see on your face in so many of these scenes, that discovery of something...

HAWKES: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: ...that you've never experienced before in that way.

HAWKES: Yes. It's true. Hmm.

BLOCK: John Hawkes, it's a pleasure to see you again. Thanks for coming in.

HAWKES: Thanks for having me. Always good to be here. Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's actor John Hawkes talking about his new movie, "The Sessions."


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