‘The Sessions’ Interview with Actor John Hawkes

In The Sessions, John Hawkes plays true character Mark O’Brien, a man with polio who spends much of his life isolated from human touch in his iron lung. In hopes of feeling something remarkable, he hires a sex surrogate (played by Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity. William H. Macy plays Father Brendan, a spiritual consultant for Mark during this life-changing event.

For the role, Hawkes spent the entire time laid on his back, barely moving his head. Hawkes’ work in the film was informed by the Oscar-winning documentary about the man he plays entitled Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.

While this performance has Hawkes buzzed for an Academy Award nomination, it wouldn’t be his first time in the Oscar rodeo. In 2010, Hawkes was nominated for his supporting role in Winter’s Bone, playing opposite Jennifer Lawrence. In recent years, he has alternated between creepy villains (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and average guy softies (Contagion, “Eastbound and Down.”) In a couple weeks, Hawkes will also be seen as Robert Latham in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie.

In a roundtable interview with Hawkes, we discussed his film, the training he went through to use Mark’s mouth stick, what the very experienced actor learned about acting from this movie, and more.

The Sessions opens in Chicago on October 26.

What was the most important piece of physicality that you wanted to project in Mark O’Brien to get his disability correct?

Something that’s mentioned twice in the script is that even if there wasn’t Breathing Lessons, a short film by Jessica Yu which was the greatest tool an actor could ever have, which shows Mark’s twisted frame and his voice. But in the script is where you’ve got to begin, and end. It’s mentioned a couple times that Mark’s spine is horribly curved, so I knew I needed to approximate that. Cheryl says that the curvature of Mark’s spine makes it so he wouldn’t be able to do certain ways of intercourse, these aren’t things you can disregard. And since we weren’t using a body double, I wasn’t interested in that — no CGI, no prosthetics, no makeup or anything, I knew I needed to approximate the horrible scoliosis that he lived with, and formulated in my mind the idea of some sort of device that working with the props department was kind of a firm foam the size of soccer ball with duct tape, and placing that under the left side of the back, giving my body the odd look that I wanted for the film, and was the best way to physically illustrate the disability.

We didn’t have to play the fact that Mark was dealt a bad hand, you play against that with humor, when something is so obvious. Or a line, written in a really strong way, you get interesting results by playing against whatever the line is.

Do you think he transcended feeling like an outsider?

I feel like he felt vindicated to have fallen in love, to have someone love him, to have his poetry published, to begin to be noticed, be interviewed for articles, and have an amazing documentary short made about him, which won an Academy Award. These are things that made him feel less alone in the world, sure.

How did you train the mouth stick?

I went to the hardware store, and got a rod and sawed it off to proper length, got a replaceable pencil eraser for the end, wrapped duct tape at the bottom but it tasted bad so I used kiddie balloons and stretched them over the duct tape so I could hold them. And then I was just lying on couch like this and set up a typewriter, and a phone, and a book on a stand, and just turned the pages of the book, dialed a phone, typed. If I was going a play doing this character, I probably would have put 100 hours into training, but I probably put 10-15 hours in the film because even though we were rushed for time, I knew that if somehow I dropped the mouth stick, it wouldn’t so much matter. But I was a little upset there wasn’t more mouth stick in the movie. I got really good at it, but the film isn’t about a mouth stick.

There’s a sense that people who are differently-abled are like us, but in a way they’re not – they’ve had a very different emotional experience. When you tried to get into Mark’s head space, and his sense of humor, how did you find your way into that?

A lot of that’s in the script to start with, and a lot of that is an attempt to fight self pity, and just at the outset that was a real mandate when I talked to Ben before accepting the role, and he agreed. We said a lot of things to each other the very first meeting that we ended up clinging to, I think we were in real agreement on how to tell this story. Also, lying uncomfortably on that ball with a body twisted in an unfamiliar shape and having no movement from the neck down, that was a challenge, so that would make me angry and frustrated, so if I felt that way in the scene, I would feel that way.

When actors take on certain non-fictional roles, they claim they didn’t want to do an impersonation. But with this performance, you have said that you did try to emulate him.

One hundred percent. If you’re playing Richard Nixon, someone who there is actual footage of, you’re going to try to have to emulate that character. If the person is unknown, then you can take a different tact. But there’s Jessica Yu’s film, and there’s Mark, and I was afraid to watch it in my first week of preparation, even though I had seven weeks to get ready to do the movie … it changed everything. I like specificity as an actor, and it was very specific as to his attitude, and how his body was twisted towards the timber, the music of it, the dialect of it literally. For two reasons, I tried to impersonate Mark as best I could, because I feel the more specific you can be with truthful details in any story you tell, the more universal the story will become, and secondly I knew that people who knew Mark would see the film. A couple of them were helping with advising, and other family members and friends, to recognize at least something of Mark in my performance.

It’s interesting when Mark spoke to his attendant about her “first time.” What did you bring in from the experience of your first time to the character?

I am an untrained actor, I have no formal training, so I don’t really know … I’ve read that part of the method might be to use sense memory, but I don’t ever do that. When something is so well written and interesting and vital to pretend, that is enough to bring the emotion that’s needed for the scene. One thing that really helped, I didn’t have to go back to my first time, but Helen and I’s avoidance of each other before we began to shoot. We were told that the four sessions would be shot chronologically, which was a great gift from Ben. With several long takes, you see it again in the first session scene, we didn’t know each other. Sex and love scenes in movies are going to be awkward, there is some nervousness, it’s not sexy at all, there’s people all around, the director is yelling, “Stroke her thigh!” But then its edited and there’s music, and it looks like a perfect fantasy. But we weren’t interested in that, so the great thing about film vs. theater, and I love both media,but film has the ability to capture something happening for the very first time between human beings, and capturing that for all time. A lot of what is going on in the first session scene between Helen and I is happening in real time, and things are happening for the first time. And then as the characters got to know each other, usually a couple days apart from each other, Helen and I got to know each other more.

You’ve talked about being someone who over-prepares, and you work in a technical business. Would you say you’re more of an analyzer, or a poet?

I try to be both. I think the analyzer part is the preparation, and the poet part is forgetting everything that you’ve preconceived when the director calls action. And by the way, from technical side, I was never not on my mark with this film. I was always right there.

You have been in a wide range of roles beforehand, with films of different genres. Did this film teach you anything new about acting, or even life?

It taught me that you can move your head 90 degrees, and have that be the sum of your movement, playing a lead character, and have it work okay. It takes very little, probably as seen in Todd Haynes’ short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story which is Barbie dolls, whose mouths and faces don’t change at all, and I’m laughing hysterically. Five minutes later, I’m very into the story, and you realize as an actor, “Wow, I’m probably not going to have to do too much.” I was reminded of that with this story. As a whole, I feel like many people, and it’s not something to be proud of, I haven’t had a great ease towards every disabled person I’ve come across. I think this helps me to … I’ve always tried to be very open, and wanting to believe that every person I come across has value and worth, until they prove otherwise. I just feel like hopefully I just see people more, and I see somebody more. It’s weird when you see someone disabled, you don’t want to stare, but you also don’t want to turn away, but I also want to say in a very respectful way, “I see you, and I know you’re here, and I know you’re more than your body.” As Mark said, [in O'Brien voice], “If I’m just a body, I’m fucked.”

Has this role encouraged you to do more physical roles in the future?

I just want to find the best script ,and the best story. I don’t care if its six villains in a row, or six comedies in a row. It’s just hard to find great material, and to find a great story that’s really well told in the script, and has a great role for me, and seems to have capable people around it, then I’m in. That’s hard enough for me.

So ‘Winter’s Bone’ won’t be getting a sequel?

[Laughs] I don’t think Teardrop will be around for that.

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