On Movies: Playing a paralyzed writer in 'Sessions'

John Hawkes is a disabled writer in "The Sessions."
John Hawkes is a disabled writer in "The Sessions." (MCT)
Posted: October 28, 2012

John Hawkes had two concerns when he was considering the role of Mark O'Brien, the real-life journalist and poet who was paralyzed from the neck down - a childhood victim of polio - and who decided, at age 38, to hire a sex surrogate so he could lose his virginity.

The first concern: why not a disabled actor? It was a question Hawkes posed to Ben Lewin, the writer and director, when they first met.

"Ben is a polio survivor himself," says Hawkes, who was nominated for a supporting actor Academy Award for his turn as Teardrop, the Ozarks meth dealer, in 2010's Winter's Bone - and who could well be nominated in the lead actor category for his staggering and sweet portrayal of O'Brien in Lewis' movie, The Sessions.

Lewin told Hawkes that he had searched and tested some "terrific" disabled actors, and he planned to put some of them in the film. But because of age or experience, none seemed right to play O'Brien, a man with a biting humor and a deep religious faith, and a man who could only function outside of his iron lung for a few hours at a time.

"Ben said that for a role this size, there were just qualities that he could never quite find in the actors he was seeing - and he felt like I would be able to do it," Hawkes recalls. "And the fact that Ben is disabled himself [he walks with crutches], and put the time in trying to find one of those very uniquely qualified actors, but was unable to - and literally had taken a couple of years searching - well, it took some of my trepidation out of it, for sure."

Hawkes' other concern was more practical: the physical challenges posed by the role. An actor's tool kit is his being - his face, his eyes, his voice, his hands, his legs, every part of him. But here he would be severely restricted, lying on a gurney, or on a bed, his body drawn into a rigid, awkward curve.

"Certainly it gave me pause to basically play the lead role in a film where you only moved your head 90 degrees," Hawkes notes. "But that was much less intimidating than the first big question. When that was answered, and I read the script a couple more times, and took a few days to consider whether or not I wanted to play it, it's just such a rare, amazing story, really well told . . . and a really fascinating character to try to play. I was eager. . . .

"And ultimately, I didn't think of myself as just a head that moved 90 degrees and a body that was lifeless. I felt like a human being, with another human being in the room, doing what I, as an actor, always do."

The Sessions - opening Friday at the Ritz East and Rave Motion Pictures/NJ - was called The Surrogate when it played the Sundance Film Festival in January, winning the audience award for best film and a special jury prize for ensemble acting. Helen Hunt, in a turn that is bold and beautiful, plays Cheryl Cohen Greene, the woman O'Brien hires in his comic but committed attempt to be deflowered. In a series of meetings, the sex worker and the polio victim navigate logistical challenges, and emotional ones, on their way to accomplishing their joint mission.

And along the way, Hawkes' character falls in love, and Hunt's is thrown for a loop. O'Brien's wit and passion, his soul, gets to her.

O'Brien wrote about his experiences with Greene in an article for the magazine The Sun, called "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." And he wrote a memoir, How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man's Quest for Independence. A 1996 documentary short, "Breathing Lessons," by Jessica Yu, offered a portrait of O'Brien - and won an Academy Award. Hawkes relied heavily on O'Brien's writings, and Yu's film, during his research and preparation for the role - "along with a ton of other research and insight into Mark's life. I tend to over-prepare things," he says, laughing.

"And when they call 'Action!' and the scene begins, you try to just forget everything and be present with the other actors."

In the end, The Sessions is a celebration of the human spirit, of the way people connect. It's about our fears and our needs, about overcoming obstacles - and becoming a better person for the struggle.

"To be honest, I don't know that it would be the first film that I would see, based on its description," Hawkes says on the phone from Boston recently. "But I would predict that there won't be a lot of people who see it who aren't really amazed. It's a very special film.

"Selling it is the hardest part - getting people into the theater. Once they're there, I believe that word of mouth will carry the day."

Hawkes, 53, landed his first film job, in the slasher comedy Future Kill, in 1985. He has worked on film, and on stage, steadily since, with small roles in big movies ( Rush Hour, The Perfect Storm) and on TV ( The X-Files, 24, Deadwood). But it was Winter's Bone that turned people's heads around.

Since his Oscar nomination, he's had bigger parts, notably the creepy cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and been in bigger films (he's a key supporting player in Steven Spielberg'sLincoln).

" Winter's Bone was a turning point for me, certainly," he says. "But I would go back and point to many things before that. Encouraging times along the way. . . .

"I think it was Groucho Marx who said, 'All it takes is that first 50 good breaks and you're on your way.'

"So that's what I'm working towards."


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies

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