Helen Hunt on Portraying a Sex Surrogate in ‘The Sessions’

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

Ever since her Oscar win for “As Good as It Gets,” it seems like Helen Hunt has been keeping a markedly low profile. She has kept busy with other projects and even took the time to make her directorial debut with “Then She Found Me,” but we do not hear about her as much these days as we did back in the 1990s during her “Mad About You” heyday. But now she is back in a big way with her critically acclaimed performance as sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene in Ben Lewin’s “The Sessions,” and it serves as a reminder of how great she can be when given the right material.

β€œThe Sessions” is based on the true story of poet Mark O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) who hired Greene to help him lose his virginity at the age of 38. O’Brien had spent the majority of his life in an iron lung and was paralyzed from the neck down due to getting polio as a child. However, a certain part of his body below the waist still works, and Greene became the person he hired to help him exercise it.

Now playing a real-life person has its challenges because you want to honor the individual without impersonating them. For Hunt, however, the challenge became understanding Greene’s job of being a sex surrogate as she was never aware a job like this existed before. Talking with Greene opened Hunt up to how she could respectfully portray such a person onscreen.

“She used the term ‘sex positive,’ ” Hunt said of Greene. “And I went: ‘Wow, I want to be sex-positive. I want to be part of a movie that is that; I’ve never seen that.’ So, it was more her vibe about her positive, enthusiastic, nonjudgmental way of talking about this topic that is usually laden with weirdness.”

Hunt ended up doing 90% of her research for the role with Greene, and it was Greene’s enthusiasm and frankness about everything which made Hunt ever so excited to portray her in “The Sessions.”

“She (Greene) has a sense of adventure about her grandkids growing up, helping someone have an orgasm, making this movie, meeting me and my boyfriend, chocolate from the raw restaurant I took her to,” Hunt said. “All of those things light her up. I thought, ‘What if I could be like that about sex in a movie?’ That would be amazing.”

Greene also made it very clear to Hunt how her job as a sex surrogate differs greatly from being a prostitute.

“The prostitute wants your return business, and she (the sex surrogate) doesn’t. She wants you to learn what you need to learn, so you can go off and have a relationship. That’s a substantial difference,” Hunt said of Greene’s description of her work.

Director Lewin went even further in describing Greene as being “a middle-class soccer mom who has sex with strangers.” As a result, the role Hunt plays in “The Sessions” proved to be more complex than the one Hawkes plays.

“Her preoccupation was in achieving the emotional journey,” Lewin said of Hunt. “I got a real buzz talking with her because there were aspects of the character I hadn’t thought through that she had. She’s a frighteningly intelligent actor.”

The sex scenes between Hunt and Hawkes have a wonderfully awkward feel to them as his character gets to experience sexual intimacy for the very first time. Hunt said neither she nor Hawkes ever did a full read-thru of the script or even rehearsed together much. Instead, Hunt spent a lot of time on her own writing down her own feelings about sex, and what she ended up saying about the act really shows up in the film.

“Sex is never perfectly elegant: The light isn’t just right, and the underwear doesn’t fall on the floor perfectly, and the hands don’t clutch, and you don’t come at the same time. It’s all bullshit, basically,” Hunt said. “And the disability of this character renders all of that impossible, so you’re left with something much more like your own experience as a nondisabled person, which is that you’re human and that it’s good and it’s bad and it’s weird that it’s silly, and it’s embarrassing that it’s scary, so I think that the disability is just a way to get to what it’s actually like.”

Like her co-star Hawkes, Helen Hunt deserves all the accolades she has been getting for her performance in “The Sessions.” You believe her when she says that parts like this one don’t come around often enough, and you can sense her sheer excitement in playing Greene in this movie.

“She was someone who radiated this unabashedly humanistic view of what the human body is capable of,” Hunt said of Greene. “As an actress, I was hungry to play someone like that. As a person, I’m hungry to live that way.”

SOURCES:

Jordan Zakarin, “Helen Hunt, Star of ‘The Sessions,’ Wants to Be Sex Positive,” The Hollywood Reporter, October 19, 2012.

Julie Miller, “Helen Hunt on Overcoming Inhibitions for The Sessions, the Difficulty of Playing a Real Person, and ‘the Sexiest Quality There Is,'” Vanity Fair, October 18, 2012.

Marshall Fine, “Helen Hunt says intense emotional journey of sexual surrogate made ‘The Sessions’ a can’t-miss role,” NY Daily News, October 18, 2012.

John Horn, “Helen Hunt fully invests in ‘The Sessions,’” Los Angeles Times, August 31, 2012.

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.