American actor John Hawkes made a huge breakthrough with an Oscar-nominated turn in 2010’s Winter’s Bone. He followed this with an equally impressive performance as a charismatic cult leader in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. But in his new film, Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, he has his most challenging role yet. He plays Mark O’Brien, a severely disabled polio sufferer confined to an iron lung. All Mark wants to do is lose his virginity, and when he meets professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), this seems to be on the cards. We sat down with the actor recently to discuss his approach to playing such a challenging role, and his career to date.
GFW: To what extent would you say this was one of the more challenging roles you’ve taken on?
John Hawkes: I would say to a great extent! There were physical challenges; that was probably the most difficult part. But there was also a lot to figure out about the mindset of a man who lived in an iron lung since he was six years old and only had 90-degree movement of his head.
How did you go about researching this role?
There was a short documentary about Mark’s life called Breathing Lessons by a filmmaker named Jessica Yu which won the Academy Award in the late 90s… I could look at Mark’s body in that film and figure out how to best honour that. Mark’s spine was horribly curved - I figured out a way to do that by helping design a soccer-ball sized piece of foam that lay midway on the left side of his back and learned to tie it with a mouth-stick and to turn pages of a book, and to make telephone calls. And again, Jessica Yu’s film had Mark’s physicality in such a way that I was able to just try and capture that, his voice, so that people who knew him that might see the movie would hopefully recognise as much of their friend or relative in the performance as possible.
Did you have mixed feelings towards the character at any stage?
What I liked about him in our script particularly was that he didn’t wallow in self-pity but instead tried to solve his problem, which is a much more dynamic and interesting thing for me as a viewer when I’m watching a film like this. I found a lot to like in Mark; he loved women, he was flirtatious, he was mainly just funny. He saw the absurdity of his situation; he was fearless really in his approach to life in many ways.
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?
We’re not a Hollywood film per se; it’s a self-financed movie, very low budget, attracted really wonderful actors, we’re really lucky in that way. But I feel like that rather than take these love scenes and try to make them the perfect fantasy, which most movies do, I think we found a real humanness and a truthfulness about the graphic sexual side of the film. It’s not exploitative, it’s not dirty, yet it’s sensual, it’s beautiful while being quite graphic.
There are many intimate scenes in this film. What was it like to work with Helen Hunt? How did you approach those scenes?
We approached these scenes by not having familiarity. We didn’t know each other before we were cast… We were lucky to shoot the surrogate scenes in chronological order, that was a great gift, so that the fact that Helen and I didn’t know each other, that there was an awkwardness and unfamiliarity about us, and a real literal nakedness that was part of the scene and worked in our favour.
You’ve developed a reputation as an actor who’s very capable of playing intense characters, as in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone. Was it a relief for you to sink your teeth into someone who’s a more gentle character?
I try to find an amazing story that well-written with a character that’s vital to the story that’s unique and interesting to me, and a capable storyteller and other actors and crew around me. Whether that’s dark material, light material, doesn’t really matter to me. I’m not worried about a lot of villains in a row, a lot of comedy in a row - I’m just looking for the best story, the best character. When I find them, I beg to be part of them.
The Oscar buzz around this film has come a bit later in your career than others – any thoughts on that?
It’s good - I’ve enjoyed my life as an actor all the way along. There’s no brass ring for me or top rung of the ladder; in fact, I’m made nervous by any notoriety. Not to sound ungrateful! I’m glad that people want to pay to go see movies, I realise that’s why I have a job. If someone stops me on the street and someone’s connected with something I’ve done, I’m flattered. But I need to be invisible in a crowd if I’m going to observe human behaviour and then translate that to screen, that’s my job… Oscar buzz is wonderful for our movie - it brings more people to the theatre, so I’m all for that!
'The Sessions' is released in the UK January 18, 2013.