Oscar hopeful John Hawkes talks “The Sessions,” “Lincoln,” and Jennifer Lawrence
John Hawkes in 'The Sessions' (Photo: Fox Searchlight)
When I first heard the plot of "The Surrogate," now called "The Sessions," it sounded like a parody of a Sundance movie from "The Onion." A polio survivor in an iron lung (John Hawkes) turns to a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt) to lose his virginity after consulting his priest (William H. Macy). Really?
The surprise was that Hawkes, best known as the threatening meth-maker in "Winter's Bone" and the ominous cult leader in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," breathed life and humor into the erotic adventures. Based on the real-life experience of California journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, the result was a crowd-pleaser that broke out of Sundance, traveled the festival circuit and launched Oscar buzz for Hawkes even before its theatrical premiere today. And as for those sex scenes with Hunt, Hawkes had one word to describe them: "awkward," but in a good way.
Thelma Adams: What was the hardest part of your transformation — the physical or the mental?
John Hawkes: The physical, although both presented challenges. Physically, "The Sessions" was the most difficult thing I've done. I had to lie on my back in a contorted position atop a soccer-ball sized piece of foam and try and assimilate Mark O'Brien's polio-ravaged body. The hardest thing wasn't just lying in the position but staying still for a long time while twisted in a bizarre way.
[Video: Watch the trailer for 'The Sessions']
TA: But it's not all about recreating the body. The beauty of the movie is the way in which you capture Mark's spirit.
JH: [Director] Ben Lewin said he wanted the character to be neither victim nor saint. Mark might have been a slightly darker person than we portray him, but we show only a short period of his life. While Mark would have had every right to wallow in his grief, our mandate was not to wallow in self-pity. The movie is served by comedy since the situation is so fraught it's important to play against that.
TA: Some of the most humorous moments are shared with William H. Macy, who plays Mark's priest and confidant. The two of you have a great chemistry.
JH: When we were pulling the cast together, Ben was kind enough to include me in looking for the rest of the players. I had no idea that Macy would come on to play the priest. I asked Ben, "Are you sure it's the Bill Macy that was in 'Fargo'?" I was surprised and elated. He brings levity with such truth. He never goes easy. It's not pandering. We find our truth,
TA: In truth, the two characters -- parishioner and priest -- have their virginity in common, but only for the first part of the movie. When during the production did you start to realize that you were going to be able to pull off this difficult transformation?
JH: The moment we first tested the iron lung with a cinematographer present. The script calls for Mark's spine to be horribly curved. Without Jessica's film…
TA: That's Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning documentary short "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien"
JH: Yes, without that short, I would definitely have created a different character for Mark. I had that documentary as a template. I studied Mark and tried to emulate his physical form and his voice because when you tell a story the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes.