John Hawkes on Playing Mark O’Brien in ‘The Sessions

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

The Sessions” and John Hawkes’ performance in it as journalist and poet Mark O’Brien have earned some of the most rapturous praise of any movie in 2012. The film tells the story of how O’Brien, who was confined to an iron lung due to being stricken by polio as a child, hired sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity at the age of 38. Hawkes, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in “Winter’s Bone,” has talked extensively about his concerns about taking on the role as well as the physical challenges he faced in playing O’Brien.

Hawkes’ biggest concern was whether or not it might be better for a disabled actor to play O’Brien instead of him. As a result, he’s still waiting for some sort of backlash to hit him. Ben Lewin, who directed “The Sessions” and is himself a Polio survivor, did take the time to find a disabled actor to play Mark, but he eventually became convinced Hawkes was the man for the job.

“Of course, that was my first question: Why not a disabled actor? They are a uniquely qualified group of people for this role, who are undervalued and underused,” Hawkes said. “I’ve had a lot of disabled actors come to me after screenings, and they told me to get over it.”

“It is the 800-pound gorilla in the room in a way,” Hawkes continued, “but it’s something that, Ben (Lewin) being a polio survivor himself, and the fact that he put the time in to look for disabled actors, he felt like, would it be politically correct to hire a slightly disabled actor to play a severely disabled actor? He ultimately just hadn’t found his guy. We met, and he felt like I could do it.”

Once cast, Hawkes became determined to mirror the physical condition O’Brien was stuck in for the majority of his life. To that extent, he and the props department created what was described as a “torture ball;” a soccer ball-sized foam pad that he tucked under the left side of his back to force his body to curve dramatically. In addition, he also used a mouth stick which was much like the one O’Brien used to turn the pages of a book or dial a telephone. It was this “torture ball,” however, which threatened to leave Hawkes with permanent physical damage to his body.

“Finding that position was difficult and did hurt. I’ve got a guy that I’ve been seeing for years, who is a combination massage therapist and chiropractor. I’d have 15 minutes with him, two or three times a week, or half an hour, if I was lucky. He told me that I wasn’t doing very good things to my body, but it was my choice. I’m not a martyr or masochist, but when the script says that your spine is horribly curved, you can’t just lie flat on your back and pretend,” Hawkes said.

But ultimately what makes Hawkes’ performance so good is that he doesn’t turn him into just another pity case. Filmmakers are typically expected to give us an emotionally manipulative experience when it comes to portraying physically disabled characters, making us feel sorry for them and of what they are unable to accomplish because of their limitations. Hawkes and Lewin, however, were determined not to go down this route.

“A character like that had every reason to wallow, but that’s just not interesting to watch on screen,” Hawkes said. “I’ve played a lot of underdogs and I like people who aren’t equipped to solve their problems but just keep trying anyway. There’s something really noble and interesting about watching someone keep banging their head against the wall.”

One of the other things which helped Hawkes was watching the documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien” which won its director Jessica Yu the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1997.

“There was Mark’s body, and there was his voice,” Hawkes said, referring to the documentary. “And so, I didn’t invent a lot. I just tried to really take as much of the Mark that I saw and tried to make it my own, to embody him.”

The effect Hawkes’ performance has had on those who were very close to O’Brien has been profound. Just ask Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex surrogate whom Hunt’s character is based on.

“The first time I heard John I got chills,” said Greene. “I’m sitting there on the set with headphones thinking, that’s Mark. It’s scaring me. John got him completely.”

John Hawkes’ performance as Mark O’Brien looks very likely to earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and many will agree that he deserves the recognition for his work. It marks another memorable role for this actor who first came to Hollywood over a decade ago, and he has many more great performances ahead of him.

SOURCES:

Jordan Zakarin, “John Hawkes: Hopeful, but Ready for Backlash and (Maybe) Permanent Back Pain,” The Hollywood Reporter, October 22, 2012.

Christina Radish, “John Hawkes Talks THE SESSIONS, Conveying His Performance Using Only His Face, Being Confined in an Iron Lung, and More,” Collider, October 16, 2012.

Rebecca Keegan, “John Hawkes enters virgin territory in ‘The Sessions,’” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 2012.

Oliver Gettell, “‘The Sessions’: John Hawkes and Helen Hunt on playing real people,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 2012.

Daniel Day-Lewis on Portraying the 16th American President in ‘Lincoln’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

While there are many actors who physically and mentally transform themselves for a role, none are as fascinating to watch or as serious in their concentration as two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Whether he’s playing poet Christy Brown in “My Left Foot” or portraying Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood,” Lewis disappears so deeply into each character he takes on to where it’s almost like he ceases to exist. With “Lincoln,” he gets his biggest challenge yet as director Steven Spielberg convinced him to portray the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

Lewis spent a full year preparing to play President Lincoln by reading through his speeches and writings. The actor also lost quite a bit of weight to look more like the rail-thin leader, and he took a tour of Lincoln’s home and law office in Springfield, Illinois along with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. As for the physical side of playing Lincoln, Spielberg indicated Day-Lewis had many of the President’s features when he arrived on set.

“That was his hair, his beard, he had very light makeup on his face. And we added the mole, of course,” Spielberg said of Day-Lewis. “I don’t know how much (weight he lost), but he was as lean as I’ve ever seen him.”

In the process of reading Lincoln’s writings and speeches, Day-Lewis became delighted at his use of certain words like “disenthrall.” The actor’s father was once England’s poet laureate, and he taught his son a great love of language which lasts to this very day. As a result, Day-Lewis strongly encouraged Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for “Lincoln,” to include those words into the script.

“I’d never seen that word (disenthrall) before and I’m always looking for a context ever since where I can use that word, I love it so much,” Day-Lewis said. “The richest source, which creates a very broad, illuminated avenue towards an understanding of Lincoln and his life is through his own words and his own language.”

One aspect of Day-Lewis’ performance people are desperate to know more about was how he came up with Lincoln’s voice. Since Lincoln died long before audio recording became a reality, no one can ever truly be certain of what this American President sounded like. Looking at him in historical pictures, most people came to assume Lincoln had a deep booming voice. Day-Lewis, however, went with a high-pitched tone instead which came about when he read Lincoln’s writing aloud.

“I began to hear a voice that, as I grew closer to the man, that seemed to give me the full expression of his character,” Day-Lewis said. “You look for the clues, as within any aspect of the work, you search for the clues, and there were plenty of them, but for me, if I’m very lucky, at a given moment, I begin to hear a voice, not in the supernatural sense, but in my inner ear, and then the work begins to try to reproduce that sound.”

As with his previous roles, Day-Lewis stayed in character and kept the accent even when the cameras were not rolling. This was not lost on his fellow co-stars which included James Spader who plays political operative William N. Bilbo.

“He’s doing an accent and voice that he held onto all day because I think that’s really the only way one could do that,” Spader said of Lewis.

While doing his research, Day-Lewis’ biggest surprise was discovering Lincoln’s sense of humor and what an important aspect of his personality it was.

“I think it was tactical (Lincoln’s humor), in the political sense. At times, it was undoubtedly used in a conscious sense, for some purpose and to make some point,” Lewis said. “There were accounts of people that came to ask him a question of great importance to them, found themselves in his presence, got a handshake and a story, and were out of the room before they even realized [they never asked it]. That’s good politics. But I think that was innately part of him.”

Daniel Day-Lewis never ceases to amaze us with his unsurprisingly brilliant performances, and the one he gives us in “Lincoln” is just the latest example. While he was initially reluctant to play this American President in Spielberg’s film at first, it is clear he did his homework which led to his unique interpretation of this unforgettable historical figure. It would be utterly shocking if he were to be denied an Oscar nomination for his intense efforts here.

SOURCES:

Bryan Alexander, “Daniel Day-Lewis: A true ‘Lincoln’ transformation,” USA Today, November 9, 2012.

Rebecca Keegan, “‘Lincoln’ was a tall order for Spielberg, Day-Lewis,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2012.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ ‘Lincoln’ voice historically accurate?” CBS News, November 9, 2012.

Christina Radish, “Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg Talk LINCOLN, Showing Lincoln as Politician and Father, and Release Timing around the Election,” Collider, November 10, 2012.

Max Thieriot on Playing Ryan in ‘House at the End of the Street’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

Max Thieriot’s acting career has been on the rise ever since his film debut in “Catch that Kid,” and now he gets one of his biggest roles to date in the horror movie “House at the End of the Street.” In it, he plays Ryan Jacobson, a sole survivor of a vicious attack which claimed the lives of his immediate family. Thieriot talked about how he prepared for the role and of what it was like working with Jennifer Lawrence who co-stars as the new girl in town, Elissa.

Thieriot got really excited about playing Ryan after he read the script, finding him very complex and full of many layers which get peeled back as the screenplay unfolds. The challenge of the role for him was to find a way to make this soft spoken and quiet character more unique than the ones which usually inhabit horror movies.

“I watched a lot of videos, and all sorts of stuff on people with different issues, and tried to find some common ground and similarity between them and their actions, and Ryan,” Thieriot said. “I put together a lot of stuff, and came up with what I did.”

Like many horror and thriller movies, “House at the End of the Street” contains endless twists and turns as filmmakers love to keep audiences guessing. Thieriot said it is actually rare for him to find a script like this one which has twists he did not see coming. The trick became to not reveal too much as it can be ridiculously easy to give a lot of things away.

“One of the hardest parts is when you’re playing a character and you know what’s going on with the character, it’s easier to not show it,” said Thieriot. “In this film, there are moments where you reveal little secrets without telling people that it’s happening – whether it’s a look and being able to have them noticeable enough that when you finish the movie, you go, ‘Oh!'”

Of course, many people have asked Thierlot what it was like working with Jennifer Lawrence whose career has gone into hyper drive thanks to the success of “The Hunger Games.” He spoke very highly of Lawrence and described her as really cool and that he had a lot of fun playing off her and working with her. What also made them work so well together in “House at the End of the Street” is they have similar backgrounds in regards to how they grew up.

“Immediately, I could tell she was a fantastic actress. It was always very real with her. It made it so much easier for me to come off like that,” Thieriot said. “She was a down-to-earth, small-town girl. I’m from a small town in Northern California. We understood each other. It (this movie) was before any of her success. Nobody in the industry knew her. That’s how it always is – you’re unknown until you get that one chance to show it.”

Up next for Max Thieriot is playing Norman Bates’ older brother Dylan in the upcoming A&E drama series “Bates Motel.” He has previously only been in one horror movie before “House at the End of the Street” (Wes Craven’s underappreciated “My Soul to Take”), but he is certainly making his presence felt in this genre. It will benefit from actors like Thieriot who are out to give audiences something that’s not just the same old thing.

SOURCES:

Christina Radish, “Max Thieriot Talks HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET, PSYCHO Series BATES MOTEL, and DISCONNECT,” Collider, September 20, 2012.

Joel D. Amos, “The House at the End of the Street: Max Thieriot Explores His Dark Side,” Movie Fanatic, September 20, 2012.

Sam Rockwell on Playing Billy Bickle in ‘Seven Psychopaths’

It is so much fun watching Sam Rockwell in Martin McDonagh’sSeven Psychopaths.” In the movie he plays Billy Bickle, an unemployed actor and friend to alcoholic screenwriter Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell). In addition, Billy is also a part-time dog thief who, along with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken), kidnaps dogs and then returns them to their owners who offer them a generous reward for their return. But Billy’s criminal deeds come back to haunt him when he steals a Shih Tzu which belongs to the vicious gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), and Charlie will stop at nothing to get his beloved dog back.

Rockwell described the screenplay for “Seven Psychopaths” as great and said the part of Billy was “amazing.” You couldn’t agree with him more as this role gave him the opportunity to really chew up the scenery. Throughout, Billy fools around with his friend, unveils parts of his psyche which we do not see coming, and he eventually comes up with what he believes to be the mother of all action movie climaxes.

It’s also no mistake how Billy Bickle shares the same last name with Robert De Niro’s famous character of Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” However, it was another De Niro character which came to inform Billy more for Rockwell.

“Johnny Boy (from ‘Mean Streets’) is definitely a template for Billy, probably more than Travis Bickle I think,” said Rockwell. That kind of flamboyance that De Niro has in that and also in ‘New York, New York’ and ‘Midnight Run.’ He has a kind of flamboyance that is particular to those films.”

Other characters which inspired Rockwell’s performance in “Seven Psychopaths” were Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates) in “Misery,” and Timothy Treadwell who was the subject of Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary “Grizzly Man.”

In regards to the friendship between Billy and Marty, Rockwell remarked he found inspiration through the performances of Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in “The Fisher King” as well as the work of Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn in “Hurlyburly.”

“There are many examples of that kind of codependent, male-bonding relationship. Alpha-beta and beta-alpha switching,” Rockwell said of the above movies.

When it came to fleshing out the relationships of the characters played by Rockwell, Farrell and Walken, Rockwell said they all took the time to form a bond before shooting began. To that effect, they rented a house near Joshua Tree Park which is where the last half of “Seven Psychopaths” takes place. As for the bear hat Rockwell wears, Farrell ended up picking it out after finding it at a rest stop.

Many will come out of “Seven Psychopaths” saying Rockwell’s best scene comes when he discusses his idea for an action movie climax in a cemetery. In his best roles, Rockwell has such an unpredictable energy which continually makes him so fascinating to watch. It makes one wonder how much of this scene was scripted and what parts of it were improvised. Hearing Rockwell explain it is very interesting.

“It has to be in the writing or you can’t do it,” Rockwell said. “But certainly, all actors want to be spontaneous that’s the trick of acting, to be truthful under imaginary circumstances. You want it to be truthful, meaning it has to be fresh, it has to be spontaneous, so you have to trick yourself that it’s happening for the first time and trust this actor’s faith, so to speak.”

“I think that’s the little kid part of acting. Being with a kid is like hanging out with a drunken person or schizophrenic,” Rockwell continued. “One moment they’re crying and they’re sad, then they’re like hitting things, and that’s what actors have to do. They have to manipulate their emotions. You just got to really go back to that place of spontaneity and no boundaries.”

Watching “Seven Psychopaths” makes you realize just how much fun these actors had playing their roles. This is especially the case when you watch Sam Rockwell here, and his performance as Billy Bickle is another reminder of just how endlessly creative he is. To hear him talk about it, this was clearly one of his best experiences he has had so far in his career.

“What’s memorable for me is the experience that we had on the film. It was such a great experience,” Rockwell said. “We took our jobs very seriously, but we also had a lot of fun, and that’s what is really memorable for me. Of course, we want the movie to be a smash hit, but who knows what’s going to happen. I have memories of films that nobody ever saw, that I was very proud of, and those are still great memories. It would be great, if people saw this movie. It’s a cool movie.”

SOURCES:

Steven M. Paquin, “Exclusive Interview: Martin McDonagh and Sam Rockwell talk ‘Seven Psychopaths’ and Writing for Women, Psychos, and More,” Just Press Play, October 12, 2012.

Christina Radish, “Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken Talk ‘Seven Psychopaths,’ What Inspired Their Performances, Memorable Moments, and More,” Collider, October 11, 2012.