Every year, there are actors whose performances are so jawdroppingly brilliant you not only want to celebrate them, but also the very art and craft of acting and how much a great performance can elevate good material beyond anything anyone can possibly expect.
That was certainly the case with Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, becoming the third year in a row that a Sundance movie showed off the talent and skill of actor John Hawkes. For years, Hawkes was known for playing smaller character roles in all sorts of media, but his Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone–opposite Jennifer Lawrence, no less–has allowed Hawkes to get a hold of more interesting material.
The Sessions is a quieter drama based on the real life of Bay Area journalist and poet Mark O’Brien who spent much of his adult life unable to move from the neck down due to childhood polio. At the age of 38, he decided it was time for him to experience sexual love. He calls upon a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, to help him get over the stigma of still being a virgin at that age.
Playing O’Brien allows us to see another side of Hawkes, one possibly closer to his real nature, but it’s surprising how much charm and personality he can exude using only his body from the neck up. It’s also such a different role from the powerful and imposing figures Hawkes became known for after playing Teadrop in Winter’s Bone and the cult leader Patrick from last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene.
A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net sat down with Hawkes for a chat about his process of turning himself into Mark O’Brien.
ComingSoon.net: Congratulations on getting such an amazing role. I remember seeing you in “Winter’s Bone” and then “Martha Marcy,” and in both cases I thought those were going to be the roles that defined your career. When I spoke to you this time last year, I don’t think we even talked about this movie and a few months later it was at Sundance and it was nothing at all what I expected. It was great. John Hawkes: Oh cool, thank you.
CS: I also just watched the doc that was made about Mark O’Brien and I really thought you nailed it and became him. Hawkes: As best I could. I mean, you know, I’m not four foot six and weighing 60 pounds or whatever Mark was. He was a very emaciated person and diminutive because of his disability that ravaged his body, but you do your best. I certainly found Jessica Yu’s “Breathing Lessons” short documentary to be an incredibly valuable tool in the process because there was Mark interviewed and I could see him. I could hear him. I could feel an attitude from him. All those things were hugely beneficial, and had there not been that documentary, the Mark that I would’ve created would’ve been a very different and I think less interesting character. I like specificity and why not go for the real thing? Why not try and get us close to the real Mark O’Brien as I could? One, for his memory, and also for the people who survived him, hopefully they would see some of their relative or their friend in what I did. That film with a lot of other things was very key in trying to capture the Mark that I saw in that short as best I could.
CS: Had you seen that short or read the article or know any of his work before getting the script? Hawkes: I didn’t. I didn’t watch the Oscars, but in the ’90s when Jessica Yu won, I remember reading a quote in a newspaper and her quote was something like, “This gown that they’d loaned me for the evening costs more than the entire budget of the film.” And that made me interested, but I think that Mark escaped my memory in the 15 years hence until I read the script.
CS: When you read the script, what was it that grabbed you? Hawkes: Well, you see it in the movie. I mean, it’s a fascinating story that’s then told really well. The screenplay, to my mind, to my subjective opinion, was fantastic. I related to Mark. I laughed. I just found it unusual and found the character so unique. When I met with Ben and spoke to him, I found him unusual and unique. When we met, realized he was a polio survivor himself and uniquely qualified to tell the story and just was charmed by the guy and remain so to this day. He’s terrific.
CS: You’re doing a movie where literally you’re only moving your head and you’re basically lying down for the entire movie, yet you still create an incredibly charming character. Hawkes: I guess so. I don’t really know how to be charming, but it’s all there in the script, and just trying to find the truth of it hopefully makes him a charming guy. You know, it was more than just lying down. It’s mentioned twice in the script how horribly curved Mark’s spine is, and in Jessica Yu’s documentary, you can see that, so it wasn’t just lying down. It was twisting my body into an incredibly contorted position and lying on a soccer ball-sized piece of foam that I conceived to place midway into the left side of my back.
CS: Even during the scenes in the iron lung where you don’t see anything below your neck? Hawkes: Everywhere, yeah, every moment, not because I have some sort of masochistic streak, just because it informed his voice and exactly how his head was turned and all those kinds of things. There was no reason to cheat, it just didn’t seem right. It just seemed easier than acting. I could lie there and pretend that that thing was under my back and that my voice was a certain way, but it’s just much easier to have the big ball that we designed under my back. Mark describes the way his body was twisted in his autobiography, how he became a human being in depth. It’s certainly there in Jessica’s movie. There was the challenge of trying to find that contorted position in a way that was believable to the audience and true to what I’d seen in Jessica Yu’s film. The most difficult thing was lying for long periods in wide angles of long takes without moving a muscle below the neck. That was the hard part. It’s one thing to get into that position, but to not move when you’re extremely uncomfortable or when a fly lands in your face or whatever, and just not ruin a take by moving was a challenge as well.
CS: Even though we can’t see the ball, it seems really painful. Hawkes: Yeah, it’s painful, but again, it informs the character, it informs Mark’s life. It’s a minute amount of pain compared to what many people suffer daily in their lives. I can’t think of myself as some sort of hero or martyr, but it was physically challenging and painful. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.
CS: Were there any worries about doing actual damage to your spine? Hawkes: Supposedly, I don’t know. I was hearing from my chiropractor that it wasn’t great for me, and then partway through the process he suggested that I move the wall to the other side and turn my head the other way and flip my right hand underneath and flip my left hand, you know, just basically to mirror the image and lie that way for a few minutes to try to get things to shift back into place. But yeah, if you take a soccer ball and lay it underneath your back and turn your head away and twist your arm and feet into the position that I did to approximate Mark’s, and then lie still for a really long time, it can’t be really good for you I wouldn’t think, but I have neck and back issues, but I can’t say that they’re definitely related to the film, necessarily. I just am kind of sorry that that got out. People have seemed to have latched onto that, but I don’t know for sure.
CS: I didn’t hear about that. Hawkes: Okay, yeah, well I didn’t know for sure. I’d mentioned it earlier on that the chiropractor said my organs might be migrating a bit, which wasn’t a good thing. But literally, things begin to shift inside you when you lie in bizarre positions for long periods of time. Anyways, I’m fine. I think anyone over 30 or 40 certainly has neck and back issues.
CS: I know I do. What about doing the scenes with Helen, I was curious, did you two spend any time together beforehand? Was there any sort of rehearsal process? Hawkes: Our only rehearsal process was to meet with Ben and discuss the scenes we were going to do, almost from a mechanical way or what’s important in this scene. We didn’t rehearse them on their feet, we just spoke about them and the things that you would normally want to ask. “What’s important in this scene or can we just cut this line entirely because that is already implied? Or, should this word change? What does this line mean?” But Helen and I didn’t get to know each other at all. We sat on the other side of Ben and shook hands and we met and said “goodbye” to each other and then did that one more time. When we actually worked together, Ben was wise, I think, and it was a great gift to us as actors that we shot the surrogate scenes in chronological order.
CS: I thought that might be the case, yeah. Hawkes: A lot of what you see happen on screen is happening in real time and one of the great things about film is it can capture something that’s never happened before and hold it forever–unlike theater, where you rehearse and you try to find a moment and then you recreate it each night for an audience. The strength and something that’s unique to film is that very thing, to capture first-time moments and we have a lot of those. Helen and I didn’t know each other. The love scene, the first time through, was unwieldy and awkward and uncomfortable and unfamiliar and funny and painful and all the things that you’d expect. Now normally, that would be edited and music would add it to make it look like the perfect fantasy, but we weren’t interested in that. We wanted the kinda warts and all approach, and I think that was wise for Ben. So as Helen and I began to shoot the other scenes in order over the next two weeks, we, as our characters got to know each other, became more comfortable. We were doing the same. It was really, I think, as I say, a wise approach by Ben.
CS: You mentioned the ball you were lying on, so how hard as an actor–or even as a person– is it to restrict your movement for long periods of time? movement for long periods of time? Hawkes: It sounds easy and you know
CS: I can’t even imagine it being easy. If I tried to do it right now I’d probably last a minute. Hawkes: (Laughs) Yeah, again, I don’t want to overstate it, but it was a difficult thing, it was hard. Yeah, I don’t know what else to say. To lie that way was difficult. I would say that I wanted to practice with the mouth stick to be able to turn pages of a book and type and make telephone calls and got Mark’s twisted body position figured out and designed the ball and figured a way of approximating his spinal curve and the way that he was as a horizontal person and how his head was, got his voice down as best I could. Then, I wanted to really forget all of that and just play the scene as I would for any other character. Mark was a human being, and so, ultimately human beings have what you’d call a super objective. Me, I have no formal training as an actor. I just read books and figured all this stuff out on my own through trial and error.
CS: That’s really amazing. Hawkes: Oh thanks, but I have no formal training at anything, sadly. But, to make all that stuff kind of second nature and just not be thinking about it, but instead do what you do again, which is to try accomplish whatever you’re trying to accomplish within the moment of that scene, and to focus on the other actor or actors in the scene and at least be out of your head and more available to them to let things happen as they may. Once the physical stuff was taken care of, it became similar to any other role I’ve ever played in approach.
CS: I like the balance that this movie has created with “Martha Marcy” and “Winter’s Bone,” but also Vera Farmiga’s movie because that was also a nicer likable character. At this point, do you have to turn down scripts if they give you another villain type of role? How do you decide? Hawkes: Maybe in my mind somewhere, but I have no agenda. I’m just looking for something very rare, and that is a story that interests me that’s very well-written, a role that is vital to the story that is something also that interests me and that I feel like I would be suited to play. Or if I’m not suited to play, then I could somehow figure out how to play. Great storytellers around me and the cast and the crew and the director, whoever else is going to be involved in the project, capable people to tell that story. It’s hard to find all of those things. So if that means three villains in a row, that’s fine with me. If it means three comedies in a row, that’s fine too. If it’s something that stirs me and strikes me and makes me feel alive when I read it, then I want to be a part of it.
CS: Now, working with Steven Spielberg on “Lincoln” must’ve been an amazing experience. Hawkes: It was. You know, it’s a huge movie and I have quite a small role in it. So, when you do a bunch of independent films in a row where you’re constantly working, and then you go do a big film where you’re sitting in your trailer for 12 hours and then get sent home and then come back the next day and sit in your trailer for 10 hours and then work for two hours and then come back the next day. You know, it’s a different animal. My attraction to that script was – well, was the script. Tony Kushner wrote an amazing script, like reading a terrific book, and that’s always the first thing I look for. The idea that I’d be working with my friend Tim Blake Nelson, who’s a talented guy, who I would be kind of joined at the hip, that was a good thing. Daniel Day-Lewis is an actor I hugely admire. Steven Spielberg I’d met and seemed to be a guy who loved making movies and was a wealth of knowledge. He’d be interesting to hang around with the Civil War period. It fascinates me. So, there were many reasons to do it. Plus, I just wasn’t doing anything at the time, and it was also an excuse to research more about the Civil War and learn more. I read about five books and it was terrific. So, yeah, I don’t know how much I’m in the movie. I wouldn’t guess much. It’s not going to be a benchmark in my career by any means, but it was something that basically Tony Kushner’s script pulled me in. (Note: We did this interview before seeing the movie and Hawkes was definitely underplaying himself and his role.)
CS: Do you have any idea what you’re doing next? It’s kind of interesting you might be doing an Elmore Leonard movie. Hawkes: Yeah, there’s talk about that. It’s been hard for any independent film that I’ve been associated with to get their money together. Financing is difficult. Hopefully a movie like “The Sessions” can remind investors that just because the budget’s small doesn’t mean that they can’t make some money. There’s six projects I’d like to do, five for sure, over the next two years that have involved money struggles, but it’s lead roles in a lot of them. They’re independent in the best way and they’re things I really want to do, but I’m patient enough to try to wait for those. I could always make music in the off-time.
CS: How important is it to you as an actor to always be working? Is that not that important to you? Hawkes: No, I’m not an incredibly driven person I don’t think. You know, I’m happy with where my career is at this moment. It doesn’t have to get bigger. There’s no climb to the top of the mountaintop, beating my chest and screaming, “I’m the king of the world,” I don’t have a mortgage. I don’t have children. I can afford to have a freedom that allows me to just do the projects I want to do. I get bored after a while if I don’t have a lot of work, but then again, I like resting too. There’s a Spanish proverb that says, “How wonderful it is to do nothing and then to rest afterwards.” It’s not a bad way to live.
CS: I love that proverb. I’ll never get to experience it myself, but I do love it.
The Sessions opens in select cities on Friday, October 19. Look for our interview with writer/director Ben Lewin and our review very soon.