John Hawkes is generating a flood of praise and Oscar buzz for his performance in “The Sessions,” in which he plays the poet Mark O’Brien, who was left paralyzed from the neck down by childhood polio and spent much of his life in an iron lung. Awards are nice and all. But the viewers Hawkes cares about most are not the ones judging him just on artistic merit. They’re the people who knew and loved O’Brien, who died in 1999 at 49.
“Hopefully I’ve made the character recognizable for a friend or relative to see Mark in there,” Hawkes, 53, says during a recent interview in Boston, where “The Sessions” will open on Friday. “Playing a real person carries a great responsibility to do right by their memory.”
One of those viewers was Jessica Yu, who made the 1997 Oscar-winning short documentary about O’Brien, “Breathing Lessons.” Yu came up to Hawkes after “The Sessions” screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. He recalls, “She told me it was like spending an hour and a half with Mark.”
Hawkes chokes up as he speaks these words. Struggling to compose himself, he wipes away tears, apologizes, and says, “Our film’s not a documentary or a biopic. It’s one piece of a guy’s life. You just hope to capture his essence and get something right.”
Ben Lewin, 66, who wrote and directed “The Sessions,” says Hawkes is “what you call a real mensch.” A mensch? The man who terrorized Elizabeth Olsen as a Charles Manson-like cult leader in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and who played a backwoods meth addict in “Winter’s Bone”? Hawkes may be adept at playing sinister characters but in person he’s soft-spoken, unfailingly polite, and scruffily handsome in the black dress pants and suit jacket he wears to meet the press. When he takes a break between interviews for a stroll outside, he dons a soft brimmed hat that makes him look positively hip. The guy’s a musician after all — he played in the bands Meat Joy (with Gretchen Phillips) and King Straggler, and can be heard on the “Winter’s Bone” soundtrack — and calls himself a “lifelong sideman.”
Which is another way of saying that Hawkes is a veteran character actor who immerses himself in a role. Lewin didn’t know Hawkes’s work when his casting director suggested him for “The Sessions.” Then he watched “Winter’s Bone” and could not envision the skinny, scary Hawkes as earnest, funny, introspective Mark O’Brien, who decided at 38 that he wanted to lose his virginity. After consulting with the Catholic priest who served as his friend and confidant (played by William H. Macy), O’Brien, who was born in Boston and lived most of his adult life in Berkeley, Calif., hired a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt). Their six sessions together turned out to be life-altering for him. (Greene hails from Salem, and Hunt manages a convincing local accent in the film.) O’Brien wrote about his experience in a 1990 essay titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” Lewin came across it on the Internet “quite by accident,” loved it, and set about adapting it into a screenplay.
“My reaction was visceral. I thought, if it can move me and I can turn it into a movie, it will do that to an audience, if done properly,” says Lewin. “And it was doable. It’s mostly two people in a room. Normally that spells boredom, like a lot of French films with meaningful stares. This was the most dynamic two-people-in-a-room story I’d come across.”
After his breakout role in “Winter’s Bone” (2010), which earned him a supporting actor Oscar nomination, Hawkes says he got many scripts. “Ben’s had the lowest budget on the pile but it just jumped off the page. I met with Ben to discuss it, and he was a charming, wonderful, warm, funny, interesting guy and a polio survivor himself. The one concern I had was why not hire a disabled actor? He told me he’d reached out to a lot of wonderful actors and had cast some but had not found his Mark. After that, I took a week with the script. It concerned me a little that Ben had not directed a [theatrical] film in 20 years, but every time I reread the script I’d think, this guy knows how to tell a story.”
Lewin walks with a pair of canes. But he didn’t take on O’Brien’s story just because he could relate to it. “Having had polio liberates me from political correctness,” he says. “Embracing the subject was easier . . . it helped me avoid sentimentality.”
Lewin says, once cast, Hawkes immersed himself in the role with Method-like intensity. “I think it went beyond professionalism for John. He really took it personally. He started to relate to this dead guy, he went to where he lived, just hung out to absorb the karma. He did everything he could to respect the truth of the situation. It wasn’t just a matter of technique; it was the intensity of his commitment, the fact that he took this way more personally than just an acting role. He embraced the discomfort and used it and was ever-mindful of how people who have a direct connection to this story will feel about it.”
“I didn’t want a body-double, prosthetics, or computer graphics; the film was so low-budget that this was a good idea,” says Hawkes. “I was lucky to have a couple of months to prepare. Mark was prolific; I read everything he wrote. Other than the script, ‘Breathing Lessons’ was the most valuable tool for me: to see Mark physically, his twisted frame, his attitude, his humor, reciting poetry, to hear his . . . speaking voice. It’s mentioned several times in the script that Mark’s spine is curved, so I conceived of and worked with the props department to come up with a foam ball the size of a soccer ball with duct tape wrapped around it. I’d stick that up the left side of my back for every moment of the film, which gives my body that kind of curve I saw [on O’Brien] in ‘Breathing Lessons.’ ’’
Once Hawkes was on board, many actresses in Hunt’s age group sought the part of the surrogate. Some demurred at the amount of nudity and sexuality that would be required — one actress told Lewin she didn’t want her children seeing naked pictures of her on the Internet. “I take casting very seriously,” Lewin says. “I make sure my head is clear and my judgment is as good as it can be because there’s no going back; you are pretty much redefining the whole thing once you cast it. Helen and John didn’t know one another and didn’t rehearse anything, particularly in the early scenes. When she undresses him [onscreen], that was the first time she undressed him. I would never have thought I’d play that all in real time, but I felt it established the plausibility of the relationship.”
It was also important to Hawkes that the sex scenes, though graphic and intimate, be humorous and unsentimental. “When you shoot a love scene, a sex scene, it’s always absurdly funny. The director is shouting; it’s awkward, unwieldy, and uncomfortable. The unfamiliarity Helen and I had was key for us,” the actor says. “Most love scenes probably have a similar process, but the result is to make it look like a fantasy, not awkward. But that [awkwardness] was essential to what we were doing.”
Now Hawkes looks to be a contender to join the ranks of actors who have won Oscars for playing men with disabilities: Daniel Day-Lewis (“My Left Foot”), Jon Voight (“Coming Home”), Cliff Robertson (“Charley”), Dustin Hoffman (“Rain Man”), and Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) among them. But this star is unfazed by the accolades. “I like my life as it is. More visibility makes me nervous,” he says. “It’s not like I’m wanting to climb to the top rung of the ladder. But I believe in this film and I want people to see it.”
As Lewin says, a real mensch.