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.
“The 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.”
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.