Writer/director Ben Lewin has a personal connection to The Sessions, a bold and unique independent drama from Fox Searchlight Pictures. Since contracting polio as a child, Lewin has had to use crutches for most of his life. His experiences inspired him to pen the real-life story of poet Mark O'Brien, a man paralyzed from the neck down who hires a sex surrogate to lose his virginity. After years of searching for his O'Brien, Lewin found a perfect match in Oscar nominated actor John Hawkes (Winter's Bone). Along with Helen Hunt (Then She Found Me) as sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene and William H. Macy (Shameless), O'Brien's conflicted priest.
After a successful premiere and two awards at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, The Sessions is shaping up to be one of the more courageous and original stories to come out this year. Buzzine's Paul Wassberg met with Hawkes, Hunt and Macy to find out what challenges they faced with each of their characters and the strength of O'Brien's story.
Paul Wassberg: This is a truly unique film— how did you first get involved? What made you decide to really go for this character?
Helen Hunt: I read the script and I loved it and had never seen anything like it, so right then you're in the 1 in 10,000 category. I said yes before I really thought about the opportunities and the challenges of the part.
Then, I thought, "Wow, I've never heard of a sex surrogate and I bet most people in the audience won't have. For half an hour before I come in, they're going to be talking about her, so people are going to wonder, 'Is this a hooker? Is this a kind of male fantasy of some pure virginal woman?' If you take those two boring extremes and put them on hold, what might be left?"
And then I met the real woman that I played, and she is sexy, enthusiastic, frank, and interested in the other person. As excited about her work helping someone have their first orgasm as she is about spending time every Thursday with her granddaughter as she is about this movie. I thought, "That's what people aren't going to be expecting—a sex worker to walk in the door with."
PW: This particular character, we've actually never seen one onscreen before—
HH: I don't think we have.
PW: —so knowing that you're going into uncharted territory, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced as an actress, both mentally and physically?
HH: Well, I wanted her to be new, so I felt that the qualities I collected—I hadn't seen her anyway, and I was interested in meeting that woman. It was scary to be naked, but the biggest challenge was desperately wanting to do right by this story, partly because it was a real story of a man's heroic daring to act on his own behalf, and we didn't want to mess that up. Scary because I felt vulnerable and John felt vulnerable.
The challenge was also the opportunity, which was to get to embody what I want from me and from my kids—a real sense of loving the body that God gave you, whether you believe in God or not. This is what we were handed, and I'm highly invested in my daughter having great love for herself. And the sense that sex can exist without shame.
PW: Ben, the director, brought this all together. He wrote this. What did he bring to the film, and what is truly unique about his direction?
HH: He trusted. He trusted the story to be interesting. He must have trusted his writing, which was beautiful. He trusted his cameraman and he trusted his actors. He said what he needed to say, but I think he had faith that it would come together in the right way.
PW: Everybody always wants to know is there a particular scene in a particular movie—from any movie—that motivates you, that inspires you? Or a song that puts you in the moment, like, "I'm ready. I'm ready to go out. I'm ready to do it."
HH: It changes for every movie. I've made a big playlist—
PW: Even for this?
HH: I can't remember; I'm sorry. It's been a year. I think for me, the thing that I kept coming back to in my dressing room before I went out there was the way this woman talked; how she moved and the presence in her voice.
Paul Wassberg: What is this film truly about for you? What were some of the particular aspects of the character that you were excited about exploring?
John Hawkes: Playing a guy who's an unusual lead character: a character who can only move his head 90 degrees, who's lived in an iron long, essentially, since he was 6-years old. To begin with, that's a challenging thing.
When I first read the script of The Sessions, I was struck by the singularity of the way the story is told by the character of Mark O'Brien, and really, by how funny it is, was what attracted me to the project, I think.
PW: Your character’s experiences are tough enough to explore emotionally, but there must have been physical challenges as well.
JH: Yeah, there were physical challenges. There's a documentary/short film by Jessica Yu called Breathing Lessons, and there it shows Mark's twisted polio frame and shows the curvature of his spine, which is mentioned several times in our story. It was something that I needed to emulate, so yeah, it's not like a movie from the 1970s where, because the character is laying down, they're disabled. This is something that needed to be told in a more interesting and truthful way.
There is no body double or a CGI and makeup—anything like that—so in order to approximate Mark's curvature of his spine, I helped design a soccer ball-sized piece of foam that I put midway up the left side of my back. Mark wrote very specifically and Jessica Yu's film shows very specifically his physical body and how it was twisted, so all of those things were part of it.
Finding that position was a difficult and painful thing, and then to hold it through long takes was difficult and challenging. A small amount of pain, what I was feeling, compared to what many people deal with on a day-to-day basis, but painful nonetheless.
PW: It looks very grounded in reality, both from your performance and with Ben Lewin's writing and direction. What did he bring to the film, and, after working with so many great directors, what made him stand apart from the rest?
JH: Ben Lewin, the director of the film is a polio survivor, but that's just a tiny piece of him. He's a gifted writer, he's a very funny man, he's a very kind guy, and—I think—has a terrific eye as a director. That was, again, something very appealing to me, too, in taking the film. I was, at the outset, wondering why or if he had explored the idea of a disabled actor to play the role. He had. He'd seen able-bodied and disabled actors for several years and hadn't found his Mark O'Brien, so I went forth, and I'm glad I did.
PW: I'm glad you did, too.
JH: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it.
William H. Macy
Paul Wassberg: You seem to be very particular in your role choices. What was it about The Sessions that you wanted to explore as an actor?
William H. Macy: I have a small role in it. I love the question of a relatively orthodox Catholic priest having to make a judgment call that steps outside of church doctrine. I like that. It's simple. I love that he makes the right decision, the moral decision, and he does it strongly.
On a broader sense, the reason I like the film and I wanted to be in it is that it deals with two things that make us cringe to a certain extent: sex—in France you don't cringe as much as we do, but in the United States we'd rather kill you than see you naked—sex and disabilities. We don't know how to deal with disabilities.
I worked with United Cerebral Palsy, a wonderful organization here in the States, and people in the disabilities world have a phrase. They say, "Don't talk to the chair. Talk to me. Don't talk to the chair." These two issues, this film brings them crashing together in such a sweet, gentle tale. It makes you feel great about humanity when it's over.
PW: You mentioned that most people have a predisposed notion of what they think religious figures are like. What were some of the challenges you faced to ground your character in reality?
WHM: Oh, it was a cakewalk. It was a cakewalk. [Laughs] It's not hard. It was a lovely written script, and so all I got to do is show up, say the words, don't trip over the cables, and I'm going to do just fine—plus, they put me in a really cool costume. It's fun to dress up like a priest. The ladies like it. I'm not saying anything, I'm just saying I got those vibes. [Laughs]
It's funny. They're well-written. There was nothing challenging about this.
PW: Ben Lewin clearly has a very strong personal connection to this script. What do you think he brought to the project that was different from what you’ve experienced before?
WHM: He wrote it, so he brought everything to the script, really. Ben understands disabilities in a way that, perhaps, others don't. Surprisingly, what that understanding did is—it's such a light touch. It's really not about disabilities, and it sort of laughs at and in the world of disabilities, which perhaps, if you're awed by it, you would think we have to be so serious about it.
A sense of humor, a sense of lightness; there's a devilish glee in the talking about a sexual surrogate. I mean, my character says, "What's the difference between that and a prostitute?" and John Hawkes answers, "I'm not sure, but I think there is one." It's good enough for the priest.
PW: Many actors say that there are certain scenes that really motivate them, going into a project, that inspires them. What was that scene for you?
WHM: "The scene" was the scene for my character where John Hawkes's character—who's disabled, flat on his back, can only move his head—says to his priest, "Do you think I can do this, I can hire this woman to have sex with me? I want to know what it's like to be with a woman. I want to know what that feels like. I want to know about sex before I die. I want to know that." We shot in a church. I looked up at Jesus, this magnificent altar, and I answer—I think, correctly.
PW: Do you have any particular songs that you use to inspire your characters? I know that, working with Paul Thomas Anderson, he always provides a soundtrack for you. Do you do that independently as well?
WHM: No, but I do know actors that do that. I don't. It's the nature of my career. I don't have to "go there," do you know what I'm saying? I don't go to the deep places that often.
PW: You just are.
PW: Thank you so much. It was great talking to you.
WHM: Thanks a lot.
'The Sessions' was released in theaters Friday, October 20th, 2012 and is currently playing in select theaters nationwide.