Helen Hunt is an actress, screenwriter and director, best known for her Oscar-winning turn in 1997’s comedy As Good As It Gets, and long-running US sitcom Mad About You. In Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, she plays Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a professional sex surrogate who comes to the aid of polio-stricken poet Mark O’Brien, who’s on a quest to lose his virginity. We caught up with Hunt to discuss her brave performance, and the challenges she faced with the role.
GFW: It’s a fearless performance - did you have any second thoughts or were you committed on day one?
Helen Hunt: I thought it was very important that she be naked right away. Because part of what she embodies is whatever the opposite of coy is. So her job is to come in and say it’s okay to have a body - and here’s mine. So I didn’t have any resistance to that - I had nerves about it, but I was never tempted to change that.
Did you meet your character, Sheryl, in real life?
I did and I thought I’d talk to her once or twice, because often you don’t get a lot from speaking to the real person, but in this case, I got so much that I spent a lot of time with her… She was Catholic, and she confessed to her priest that she was having sex - and he said that she was ruining the lives of these boys. He didn’t seem to care too much about her life. So the fact that she was able to find a part of the world that would be more embracing and more accepting of who she was was a real blessing.
Did you like her, broadly speaking?
I adore her. We just had a premiere in LA and I brought her over to meet my family because I just wanted them all to have a little moment with how wonderful she is.
Hollywood and American cinema in general has a mixed record with the representation of disability. How do you think this film treats disability differently than ones in the past?
I think the only thing Hollywood has a weirder relationship with other than disability is with sex, so I was interested in that part of it. I’ve seen a lot of movies with sex and there’s the entire world of what’s online, and I just think the whole thing has gotten very weird. I think it’s a break from that weirdness.
The awkward question about prostitution was brought up in the film - what’s your take on that?
I said in the film what Sheryl said, which is that she has nothing against prostitutes - it was really important to her, to say that. And the difference as she sees it is that a prostitute wants your return business and a sex surrogate does not. A sex surrogate works with you so you can go out into your life and have the sexual life that you want to have.
Were you aware when you were making it that it was going to be a funny film?
Well, they shot the scenes with Bill and John first, and the director called me and said, “just to keep you updated, it’s a comedy”. And he was as surprised as anybody that the scenes were as funny as they were. I think those scenes being so funny helped my entrance into the movie succeed.
What was it like to be in a film with William H. Macy, even though you don’t share any scenes?
I’m good largely because of how funny he is in the beginning of the movie. I think the honesty with which his character wrestles with, whether this is okay or not in the eyes of God, is beautiful and it wouldn’t have been the same if his character hadn’t been played in the way it was.
And what was it like to work with John Hawkes? How did you approach those intimate scenes?
When the script is good, a ton of your work is done. And when the other actor is good, a ton of your work is done. So I just felt very lucky to be working with someone who was so gifted.
What, for you, is the key message of the film?
That you’re not crazy - sex is not like the movies, usually. Sex is more like this movie, where it’s improvised and imperfect and silly and beautiful and scary - it can be what you want it to be. Maybe pull back a little on all the other images being shown to us, because they run the risk of making us feel very alone, I think.
'The Sessions' is released in the UK January 18, 2013.