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.
TA: Why was that very specific moment with the Styrofoam ball distorting your spine so important?
JH: Mark's spine was terribly curved. I was lying just outside the iron lung. I removed my shirt and lay on the foam, twisted my head, and realized from that point I wouldn't need a body double. There was a way I could approximate Mark's four foot six inch frame, and his sixty pounds, and that was a big moment.
TA: And was it also a big moment when you began shooting with Hunt?
JH: Yes. It was a big moment when Helen and I had our first session. We'd met but we hadn't gotten to know each other. And we knew we would be lucky enough to shoot the surrogate scenes in order. We wouldn't want to know each other before because, unlike theater, a lot of what you see in the surrogate scenes with a great partner like Helen represents a lot of firsts for both of us. It was quite a game of tennis, all the awkwardness and insecurity. It's very true to the discomfort that I was feeling physically. Shooting love scenes tend to be awkward, and they're generally edited to seem like wonderful fantasies. The discomfort is real. Awkward is the best word.
TA: Was there any controversy about casting an able-bodied actor to pay a disabled character?
JH: I don't know if there are any people in iron lungs any more since the eradication of polio in the Western hemisphere. I know Ben looked hard to find any actor to play the part.
TA: Speaking of casting, Steven Spielberg cast you as Colonel Robert Latham in "Lincoln," which is also on the Oscar track this season.
JH: I have a very much supporting role in a cast of 150. Tony Kushner's great script attracted me. It was one of the best I've read in years. I met Steven Spielberg and he seemed interested and excited and he's an encyclopedia of film history. As Mr. Latham, I had one ten-hour day with Daniel Day Lewis who plays Lincoln. He is a fantastic actor, one of our greatest. He was in character but he has a sense of humor about it. There was nothing mean or creepy about it. I'm not threatened or think it's weird.
TA: You also were in another high-profile project two years ago. Debra Granik's indie film "Winter's Bone" earned you a supporting actor Academy Award nomination, alongside Jennifer Lawrence. While you were shooting that film, did you have any notion of what a big phenomenon she would become?
JH: I didn't really know. It's hard to tell. The camera catches something. She was young. And had the unique ability to do an emotional scene and immediately snap back to her normal teenaged self. I didn't know for sure that she had the career she's going to have. She was a great partner, for sure, a very game actress. I loved that film so much.
This year's awards season may constitute a family reunion since Lawrence is a sure-thing for a nomination for "Silver Linings Playbook." And, even though Daniel Day Lewis appears to be the early frontrunner for "Lincoln," he already won in 1990 for "My Left Foot," the rollicking real-life story of cerebral palsy challenged artist Christy Brown. That was the kind of handicapped optimist that defines Hawkes' portrayal of Mark O'Brien in "The Sessions," and the Academy loves.
Watch film clips from 'The Sessions':
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