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.