John Hawkes

John Hawkes film still

The disarmingly cool indie star reveals how he got to grips with quadriplegia for his new film, The Sessions.

If acting is a physical craft, how do you set about portraying someone who's paralysed from the neck down and confined day-and-night to an iron lung? It's an unusual challenge, one scaled with method-like conviction by John Hawkes in Ben Lewin's The Sessions, where he plays Mark O'Brien, a devoutly Catholic quadriplegic polio victim and poet who hires a sex surrogate to pop his cherry. LWLies sat down with the self-effacing indie star to get the skinny on his outstanding performance.

LWLies: When did you first hear of Mark O'Brien's story?

Hawkes: I’d had some luck after the movie Winter’s Bone and got sent some scripts to read, and this one was on that pile. I thought it was a really terrific story; the character was interesting and well written and fascinating to me. When I met Ben Lewin he seemed like a very capable storyteller and, although I was aware that he hadn’t made a movie in many years, as I was making my decision I kept rereading the script and came to realise that this guy really knew how to tell a story.

You got a lot of exposure off the back of Winter’s Bone. How much were the scripts piling up?

A little bit, but that was small movie, it’s not like the big studios suddenly saw me as an action star or a romantic lead.

Polio victim in an iron lung who wants to lose his virginity must just jump out at you.

Yeah, I mean you read one of those every week but this was the best of those... I’m just kidding; I hadn’t read anything like it before. Certainly it’s not unprecedented; there are other stories where the lead character is quite incapacitated on one level of another. But this was the first one that had been sent my way of that ilk.

Did you have any initial reservations about playing the part? 

For sure, my first question to Ben Lewin when we met was, 'why not a disabled actor?' That was the first thing I wrote on the script as I was reading through. For two reasons, one being altruistic in that it’s an underrepresented group of actors and I’m somewhat a caring person, at least about those around me. The other being more selfish in that I just felt like I didn’t think I could be more effective in the role than someone who has been through that experience a little bit more. But there aren’t really that many seriously afflicted polio victims left, and part of that is to do with the fact that the virus has been eradicated in the western hemisphere for the most part. It’s a great thing.

I didn’t realise until our meeting that Ben had suffered from polio himself – he got it when he was six-years-old. That made me feel a little less worried about the prospect when he told me he’d taken several years meeting with able-bodied actors and disabled actors and hadn’t quite managed to find the right guy to play Mark O’Brien. And the other major concern was the idea of playing a character with only 90-degree movement of his head. That was a slight a concern but the script was so entertaining to read and so vibrant that I thought it would probably translate really well into film.

Did it help having Ben there, as someone with first-hand experience of polio, in terms of understanding the character?

I think so. But there were so many tools given to me by the people who knew Mark – from Jessica Yu's phenomenal short documentary called Breathing Lessons to a lot of writing Mark left behind as a journalist, an essayist, a book reviewer and mainly and most excitingly to him, a poet. It was so exciting for me to read the autobiography that he’d written, 'How I Became A Human Being'. So there were a lot of questions answered by that and by those people, but I still had a lot of questions for Ben – 'What is that like? How do you feel?' I was surprised that someone could be paralysed from the neck down and yet still have their penis work, still have sensation in there. I asked a lot of questions about sensation and although I didn’t lean on him a lot in terms of the physical aspects of the role, I’d say that his input was valuable.

I was lucky to have a couple of months to prepare. A lot of times you’ll have a week or two weeks to prepare for a role but with this one, because there was so much to learn, it was a great luxury to have that much time. I did try to really emulate the Mark that I saw in Breathing Lessons. I feel that the more specific you can be in truthful details when you tell a story then the more universal that story will become for people. People get it more if you delve into the truth, even if it’s a foreign world or a foreign character. That was one reason why I poured over every detail of Mark’s world. The other was that I wanted the people who knew Mark to see as much of their friend or relative in what I was bringing to the screen as possible.

Was sex surrogacy something you were previously aware of? 

Yeah, I feel like a really swinging hip guy because for some reason I knew about it. I think because I lived in San Francisco in the early '80s and while Mark was in Berkley just across the Bay I was certainly aware of people who aren’t prostitutes and yet help people deal with their sexual issues on a visceral one-to-one basis.

Your chemistry with Helen Hunt is very real. Had you met before being cast together?

No, we got together with Ben two or three times but me and Helen weren’t close and I don’t think felt a need to know each other well. When we found out that we were going to be shooting our intimates scenes in story order it seemed easiest to not known each other rather than get to know each other and then fake that we didn’t. It was nice having a familiarity there.

The natural awkwardness between you definitely lends itself to those scenes.

Yes, yes. That was really a way to work that involved risk on our part and trust of each other and trust in Ben and from Ben. Film, unlike other storytelling mediums, it seems to really love first moments between human beings, things that will only happen once that the camera is able to catch. It charges the actors and even it’s something that’s unspoken and unseen it translates to the audience as a moment of truth, something that hasn’t happened before. You know, if you’re watching a play and a glass falls often that’s the truest moment you’ll see all night. Theatre is a medium I love but it requires finding moments in rehearsal and then replicating them for the audience each night, whereas I think film really rewards preparation but also spontaneous moments or moments of first contact.

It’s an extremely physical performance, what was the toughest aspect of that for you?

It was mentioned in the script that Mark’s spine was horribly curved and I felt like I needed to replicate that somehow. I thought it would be hard to hold myself in a curved position through long takes so, with the help of the props women, I conceived and made a soccer-ball sized piece of firm foam rubber wrapped with Duct tape that we stuck mid-way under the left side of my back throughout filming, and that gave me a pretty horrific curve of my spine. In Mark’s autobiography he talks about how each part of his body is uniquely twisted and in Jessica Yu’s documentary I could see that so I wanted to replicate that. It was a very unfamiliar position and it was painful to lie in that position, especially during wide-angle shots when I couldn’t move. Also the iron lung itself took time to get in and out of. So I think that most difficult times were the 45 minutes where I’d stay in the iron lung in between takes when they had to reset the lights – because it would be easier to lie there than to get out – and because we were such a low budget film we needed to shoot quickly. So there wasn’t a lot of time for massage.

What do you love about movies?

I love stories. So I guess what I love about movies is what I love about a good television show or a good book. I just love a good story well told, and I think that movies are most effective for me when a character isn’t speaking. A lot of the most interesting moments on film for me are when a character is alone in their thoughts, listening or observing something going on. I also like the size of them, that’s something television can’t do. And they do the work for you, which a book can’t do. Alfred Hitchcock had a cartoon in his screening room, a single-panel drawing of two goats in a dump with all this refuse around them and film canisters lying around and they’re chewing on the film. And the caption says: I like the book better.

The Sessions is released  nationwide on 18 January.

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