After sitting down with writer-director Ben Lewin, actor John Hawkes, and actress Helen Hunt about the surprise Sundance sensation The Sessions, it is clear that the on set atmosphere was as positive as that on screen. They are all proud and happy to have been involved in such a project. The only thing they desire now is investor recognition, for the successes of independent film. They would much rather see more small-budget, well-made films than hear more Sessions Oscar buzz. In the words of Lewin and Doris Day, "Que Sera, Sera."
Interviewer: How did you decide what elements to change in Mark O’Brien’s essay On Seeing A Sex Surrogate? For example, he writes that the surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene takes her payment right away but, in the film, she does not.
Lewin: You maybe right, but I maybe automatically twisted it into a dramatic moment. I think that the sense of, “the money’s not a big deal for me,” was important to establish in the first instance. But, it was more to do with establishing [O’Brien’s] awkwardness, the fact that he puts his foot right in it…In his article, he says he regretted it, as soon as he said it…
I tried as much to stick to the elements that were there in the first place, to use his article as a blueprint. I think it was the tone of it that I changed mostly. There are some bleak observations in the article. I thought, “Eh, maybe he was having a bad hair day,” because overall I thought it was very positive. The view I decided to take of him was the image Susan Fernbach [O’Brien’s partner] gave me; what she thought of him. That view of him was definitely very upbeat.
Interviewer: On the subject of what you dramatized about the story, you have Father Brenan (William H. Macy), a fictional character, standing alongside Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) and Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), who are based on real people. How did you go about constructing Father Brenan, to be sure he could hold up against two people inspired from reality?
Lewin: Yeah, I don’t know who that particular priest was. All I know is that there was a priest who [O’Brien] consulted, and who gave his blessing. Just from that you think this must have been a rather different kind of character. I thought it must have been a sort of priest that fitted into Berkeley, at that time, and that he must have been part of that sexual revolution and flower power. I found the idea of a hippy priest really plausible.
Once it’s cast, the actor reinvents the character, so a lot of that’s down to Bill Macy. The priest also became a way of deflecting some of the really explicit detail, which in some of the earlier drafts really made me cringe. Deflecting that from the bedroom, into the confessional is where it became funny…In a way, he was the easiest character to construct. It was just so clear. A guy, who was both profoundly humanitarian, but bound by dogma.
Interviewer: When I first saw The Sessions, I was struck by how incredibly difficult it must have been to write. How did you go about balancing the differing connotations and taboos of disability, sex, and therapy?
Lewin: I found the taboos easy to embrace, and, in fact, I got energy from the thought that these were “untouchables.” I thought, “Well, that’s the very reason I want to do it…The whole strength of it is going to be, ‘Wow! You’re not supposed to talk about this stuff.’” It wasn’t about avoiding it or working my way around it. It was really just dealing with that as it is. The movie needs to have a certain amount of shock value and be unexpected because that was sort of my impression and reaction to when I first read [On Seeing A Sex Surrogate]. Holy moly! I mean, it was not my typical day’s reading.
It was really a matter of developing it, writing it in a way that was very broadly accessible. I mean, I think of it actually as a family movie, seriously. I have a teenage daughter, and I would have no problem with her seeing this.
Interviewer: I’m interested in how you went about casting the Mark O’Brien role. In an interview with Vulture, John Hawkes said you tried finding a disabled actor for the part, but you never found someone that hit the right tones. What was it that convinced you Hawkes was perfect?
Lewin: Initially, it was the influence of our casting director [Ronnie Yeskel], who was a person that I got very close to. She took the whole project very much to heart, so when she said, “No, no, this is your man,” and really meant it, that in itself was something that gave me confidence.
Beyond seeing the range of his work, and what he could do, what a remarkably versatile actor he was, when we met, I really liked him. That’s maybe not a very professional standard, but it matters to me, and I felt the audience would identify with my feelings. I mean, when you’re casting, you’re really kind of defining the demographic of the film. You think, “How do I relate to the audience?” The director becomes the audience…
I know I had thought of other people and so on, and it was impossible to cast someone who was that seriously disabled. Working actors aren’t that seriously disabled. I felt that to take someone who was a little bit disabled, and pretend that they were as disabled as [O’Brien] was kind of tokenism…It was kind of an interesting dream, initially. “Boy, if I could find a real guy, in an iron lung, to play this.” It wasn’t to be.
Interviewer: One of the first films I ever saw, with disabled actors, in principle roles, was Freaks (1932), and it essentially destroyed Tod Browning’s career. I was just wondering if you could comment on that history, of featuring disabled actors, and straddling the line, of telling a compelling story versus exploitation.
Lewin: I think there has been a very rich history of disabled heroes and heroines in literature and film. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, a guy who could leap from steeple to steeple, and liked pretty girls, some of who liked him back. That’s quite a role model. Today, in Game of Thrones (2011 – present) you have Peter Dinklage, as a major heroic figure. So, I think the use of disabled people in films has been very interesting. I think Freaks, although I have a dim memory of it, was very radical. It really did the “them and us” thing in a major way. I remember that line, “One of us. One of us.”…Not that it wasn’t a wonderful film, but in a way you could see it coming…It was not a big public success, but a tremendous kind of artistic threshold.
Interviewer: You mentioned that your original draft of the script was explicit in a way that made you uncomfortable. I noticed in the film we see Greene’s body a lot, but when she shows O’Brien his body, with the mirror, we don’t see that full-length frame. Was that one way you looked to make the film less explicit?
Lewin: It wasn’t dramatically necessary to show his penis. If I had done it, it would have been more, as a kind of political statement…That wasn’t, for me, the nature of the exercise. I wanted to make this accessible, as broadly as possible, on an emotional level.
It’s really simple. You go over a certain line, and you get an NC-17 or an X rating. You’re then in porno territory, and your film won’t be seen by anybody, or anybody that matters. We’re lucky that the MPAA didn’t ask us to make any changes…The best thing I can do, for those who miss the occasionally penis, is apologize to penis lovers.
Interviewer: I’ll make sure that gets out to the penis loving community.
Lewin: I’m sure you’ll do it for me.
Interviewer: Compared to some of the other roles you’ve played how would you say playing Mark O’Brien impacted you as a person?
Hawkes: Some of the darker ones take a piece from you. I’ve learned to be careful because, to pretend to be in intense darkness and hatefulness, is a thing that is difficult to do…This character brought a lot of light to me. He was a very funny guy; he was a fighter. I’m really attracted to characters, who rather than wallow in their self-pity, even though they have every reason to, the ill equipped in particularly, continue to punch and fight for what they want. Mark was one of those guys.
I was raised in a small town in Minnesota, when the Civil Rights movement was happening…I was taught that people of all color and creed are of equal value; however, as I was being taught that, the disabled kids were somewhere else. I wish I had been taught more…I’ve met disabled people along the way, and was friends with them, but in general, to see someone wheeled down the street, who’s disfigured, I feel it’s a natural thing, for all of us, to want to turn away. I feel this film taught me to just try and see everybody a little more. Speaking figuratively, to say, “I see you,” and to lose fear of those who are different from us, and to realize we are more than our bodies. Things I knew but were just more reinforced. I think that we’re minds, and souls, and hearts as well; first and foremost really.
Interviewer: What was the audition process like?
Hakwes: It was really easy because I didn’t have to audition.
It was short. It was very short. My audition I guess was to meet with Ben Lewin…We sat and talked for a couple of hours. We realized we saw the story in the same way and wanted to tell it in the same way…
So, really the audition was talking, and [Lewin] deciding, before the interview, that I’d be the guy, if I wanted the part. I took several days to decide. It’s a daunting task, to play a character, who is the lead in the film and only moves his head ninety degrees, has no movement below the neck. It was something to think about, for sure. And, the fact that Ben hadn’t directed a movie in eighteen years gave me pause, but I would just read the script every day, as I was deciding, and I just thought, “This guy knows how to tell a story. He’s written this amazing script. This guy knows how to tell a story. Trust in him.” I’m glad that I did.
Interviewer: Regarding your performance, I was really struck by what you just mentioned. How you were limited to pretty much head movements and conveying thoughts and emotions with the look of your eye. How do you prepare for that as an actor?
Hawkes: Wow! You have an hour?
There was a lot…I have no formal training as an actor. I’ve just learned over time an approach that I use, through trial and error. My approach here would be…well, the physical side was a challenge, so I may have even kind of begun there. Jessica Yu’s short film, documentary Breathing Lessons was the greatest tool that an actor could really have, and so that was the physical start. There was Mark interviewed, and his polio ravaged body, his attitude, his sense of humour, literal speaking voice. Once I saw that film, maybe a week after accepting the role that changed everything.
One of my approaches as an actor is to be very specific. I think that the more specific you can be, the more truthful details in any story, the more universal it becomes. There were a lot of details to examine and hold to the light, so I wanted to capture Mark’s physical form and his voice, as best I could…I wanted my first audience, the people that I would most like to have a fulfilling experience watching the movie, is the people, who knew him. It’s an extra weight when you portray a nonfictional person, to try and get the story right, and in this case, do honour to Mark’s memory...
As an actor, I try to, in the most general sense try to figure out what is the story; how can the character I’m playing best tell the story; [and] what does the character want as a whole, and from moment to moment in the script?...Then, all of the physical work, which I wanted to make second nature, so I don’t think about it. The voice, and all of that just make it part of me. And then, to over prepare, and just forget everything, all preconceptions…It’s a complex process; it’s time consuming, but it’s one of my favorite parts about the job, about learning, and I learned a lot on this one.
Interviewer: I think we’ve all heard from actors about how awkward sex scenes are, but your scenes with Helen Hunt aren’t like anything we’ve ever seen portrayed. They seemed to be really intense to film. Can you tell us more about that?
Hawkes: Sure, sure. Helen and I didn’t know each other. We’d never met, before we were casted, in this film. We had a couple of script conferences, I guess you could call them, with the director Ben Lewin…,but Helen and I didn’t really talk to each other during this process. We were kind of speaking through…We found out that Mr. Lewin was going to give us the great gift of shooting the sex surrogate sessions…in chronological order. That was the greatest gift we could have received. We could kind of build our relationship on camera. Without speaking about it, we gave each other a great deal of distance. We kind of avoided each other. The very first surrogate scene that you see, between she and I, is capturing moments that are happening for the very first time…We didn’t rehearse much, so in that first scene…you’re catching things that we were lucky not to have found in rehearsal but, on camera. It was unwieldy, awkward, unfamiliar, unintentionally funny at moments, and all those things are things we really wanted…We were after that awkwardness, and that truth really, of two people meeting for the first time, and taking their clothes off. It was a really wonderful way to work.
Interviewer: You’re in Lincoln, and Daniel Day-Lewis is he shoe in for best actor. Are you going to give him a run for his money with The Sessions?
Hawkes: Well, I don’t really pay any attention to things that are out of my control, to be honest with you, and I think a lot of people were incredibly surprised when I was nominated for Winter’s Bone (2010). I don’t think I was on all the lists, by any means, and believe me no one was more surprised than I was. Again, who knows what will happen? The buzz, the talk, in a way makes me nervous to think about it, the Oscar evening, and the events leading up to it. But, it brings more people to the movie and that makes me really happy.
It’s a testament to the amazing work of Daniel Day-Lewis that, from a poster and, before the trailer comes out, that he’s going to be nominated for an Academy Award.
I have a very small role in Lincoln. Pretty much a supporting role, but I did get to work with him for about, I guess, ten hours, and I never met Day-Lewis, but I did get to hang out with Abraham Lincoln for ten hours.
An amazingly wonderful thing. I can’t wait to someday meet [Day-Lewis] as himself, but Mr. Lincoln was a guy I could have hung out with, for several more weeks. It was great.
Interviewer: Any other projects on the horizon?
Hawkes: Well, sadly, it’s been a fallow year for me. It will be the first year, in three years that I won’t have a film at Sundance. I’ve had such luck there. But, five or six films that I’ve said yes to, all quite small films, have had real difficulty raising their funds, so I could take two years, to do those six movies and be really happy. I’m sure others will come during that time. I’m just waiting for one of them to receive their funding, so that we can go forth. We were talking about quite a small amount of money. I hope that a film like [The Sessions] doses well at the box office, beyond a selfish personal level and more for the whole that maybe investors will see that small, self-financed films can have a life out there, and that people are hungry for stories beyond cartoons and cars exploding.
Interviewer: This is a very sex positive film. During the filming, or any part of the process, were there any judgments that you let go?
Hunt: That’s a good question. I don’t know if there were any specific ones, but it certainly raised the bar on wanting to be positive about sex. I have my hang ups like everybody, but not as many as a lot of people. I think what the movie does, when you watch it, is it brings into relief all of your own weirdness, all the weirdness in all movies that you see, [and] the stuff you see online…I have a stepson who’s fifteen and a daughter who’s eight, so we’re like on either side of that finding out about it moment, and I really want it to go well. I’ve talked to my daughter’s father about, “We have to be like this character [Greene].” We have to exude a positive feeling about sex, when we deal with that at all in our family.
Interviewer: I’m assuming you also met Cheryl Cohen Greene. I’m wondering, when you play someone who is real and still alive is that unhelpful for getting into that character?
Hunt: Sometimes it is because you build a whole character and then you meet the person, and you’re like, “I can’t fit you into this thing I’ve created.” You’re playing them, but you’re not really playing them. In this case, it was the thing that really got me fired up about the part…Once I started talking to Cheryl, more than the things that she said it was her whole vibe, her combination of how loud she talks, how frank her accent is, how like an excited kid she is about something sexual. Those few things together were very new for me. I knew the first half hour of the movie would be people going, “What is going to walk through the door?” They would think hooker, and they would think I don’t know what, something virginal. I had to come in with something that was a surprise and thought being like her would be a surprise. So, in this case, more than any other time I’ve played a real person it was really helpful.
Interviewer: I was really impressed with your performance in the film. Your character has this subtle, layered character arc that is separate from the film’s story. Is that something that was on the page, or did you introduce that yourself?
Hunt: There was even more of it. There was a scene with her son that came out. He notices the envelope of money. I had a really difficult time with it. Now, when I look back, I know why I had a difficult time. It was sort of her awkwardly breaking it to him what she does, and I thought that when that kid was 11, or 8, or 9 she would have said, “Here’s what sex is.” You know, an appropriate version of “what this is” and “this is what I do.” That was very much in the movie, when I read it.
Interviewer: You’re a director yourself, so when you’re working with another director, as an actor do you sometimes find yourself in quarrels?
Hunt: Not exactly that. When I’ve directed, and when I’ve acted, on almost every set I’ve been on, maybe less with Woody Allen or something, but on most sets that I’ve been on, people get that actors should come forward with their ideas. At the end of the day, if it’s a tie, it does have to go to the director because if somebody isn’t in charge, it all falls apart. But, the best directors I’ve worked with are interested in the ideas coming from actors, from cameramen, from a production designer. They have enough confidence to know they don’t have to take your idea. So, when it’s reversed, and I’m acting, I think I know how to wait when it’s my turn to offer something up, while still having respect for whoever’s directing it.
Interviewer: You write, you direct, you act. What’s the next thing you want to try?
Hunt: I wrote another movie, and I would like to get money from somebody, so I can make it, which is very hard to do. I’d like to write more. I have a novel that’s a mess and zillions of pages. I put it down whenever I work, so it’s all in tatters, but it would be great, when I’m a hundred, to finish that. If I found a great T.V. show, a great cable show, or something I’d like to do that.
Interviewer: This is a lighter role for John Hawkes, who has recently come out of much darker roles. You’ve never worked with him before, so what were you expecting?
Hunt: I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen Winter’s Bone, but I didn’t think I was going to meet that guy. I hadn’t seen Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), which I’m really glad I hadn’t seen.
I saw it afterwards, and I was horrified.
It was weird. I didn’t have a lot of preconceptions. I hadn’t seen him in a lot of movies. We didn’t know each other. We talked a little. We were naked. We went home. Which was great, for the movie. It was exactly the dynamic of the movie. There was nothing but the work. It was the simplest way anything I’ve ever done has been done. It was great.