Minn. native John Hawkes draws Oscar buzz for 'The Sessions'

Hunt, Hawkes
Helen Hunt and John Hawkes met only briefly before filming intimate scenes in "The Session." Hawkes believes this made them more realistic.
Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Alexandria native John Hawkes likes a challenge. But the actor who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an Appalachian meth addict in "Winter's Bone" initially felt the role in his new film "The Sessions" might be beyond him.

In it, he plays a man ravaged by polio who decides he doesn't want to die a virgin. The film, which opens in the Twin Cities this weekend, is both poignant and funny — and it's drawing more Oscar buzz for Hawkes.

"The Sessions" is the true story of Mark O'Brien, a California poet and journalist who lost the use of most of his muscles to childhood polio. He spent 20 hours a day in an iron lung to help him breathe. But his mind was razor sharp and active, and he found ways to get out and about.

At one point he used a motorized gurney which he steered with his mouth. He was also an incurable romantic, who, as is shown in the film, fell in love with the woman who he hired to care for him.

"All I wished for were hands that moved," O'Brien says in the film. "Just to touch her. That would have been enough. And so with a gentle, fearless, heart, she took me in. I thrived in her garden, and I wanted more."

Minnesota native John Hawkes
Minnesota native John Hawkes as Mark O'Brien in "The Sessions." Hawkes also appears in the new Steven Spielberg film "Lincoln."
Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

"I think the film is about a man's journey to, odd as it sounds, become a human being," Hawkes said in an interview.

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Hawkes felt drawn to O'Brien's story. The film is based on a 1980s magazine article written by O'Brien about sexuality for people with disabilities. O'Brien learned about sex surrogates, therapists who provide hands on experience for people in his position.

Petrified, but resolute he wasn't going to die a virgin, he made an appointment with surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene. Helen Hunt plays her in the film. Their first meeting gets off to a rocky start.

WATCH "THE SESSIONS" TRAILER

"Your money is on the desk over there," O'Brien told Cohen Greene as she walked in the door.

"Yes it is," she replied. "Thank you."

"That was the wrong way to start off," said O'Brien said regretfully.

"It really was," said Cohen Greene. "Shall we start again?"

"Please. You start," said O'Brien.

Lewin, Macy
Screenwriter and director Ben Lewin talks with William H. Macy on set of "The Sessions." Macy plays Mark O'Brien's priest in the film. Together they wrestle with O'Brien's desire to avoid dying a virgin, even if this means having sex outside of marriage.
Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

"The Sessions" doesn't pull punches. William H. Macy plays a priest who O'Brien, a devout Catholic, consults about the moral implications of his plan. Director Ben Lewin developed the project and wrote the screenplay. Lewin suffered his own bout with polio as a child, and still uses crutches. Hawkes said, with Lewin in charge, the cast and crew never felt bound by political correctness.

"He doesn't seem really interested in flag waving or any kind of cause," Hawkes said "He's just a guy and I think he saw Mark as just another guy."

But Hawkes admits to misgivings about taking the O'Brien role. He told Lewin he should cast an actor with disabilities in the part. Lewin told Hawkes he had searched extensively for such a person, but no one was right.

"When he told me that he had done his due diligence, that took some of the hesitation away on my end," said Hawkes.

Hawkes faced other challenges, like the responsibility that comes with portraying a real person. O'Brien died in 1999, but Hawkes met several of the people involved in the story, including the surrogate Cohen Greene.

In addition to reading O'Brien's articles, Hawkes watched an Oscar-winning short documentary about O'Brien called "Breathing Lessons." For an actor who loves to research his roles it was a huge gift.

WATCH "BREATHING LESSONS"

"There was his body. There was his attitude. There was his voice and his dialect. All those I was able to study and emulate and put to use," Hawkes said.

Still, Hawkes had to learn how to play a character who had almost no ability to move. He also had to perform a series of intimate scenes for the story. He said there was no spoken agreement, but he and Hunt somehow realized they should have little contact before filming.

"We didn't know each other," he said "And we didn't rehearse. And so all of that awkwardness, the unfamiliarity, the nervousness, the, even, humor at times, well, it was all there."

And it worked. "The Sessions" took the coveted Audience Award and the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. And Hawkes' name keeps being mentioned as a likely best actor Oscar nominee.

Hawkes takes pride in his low-key Minnesota ways. He's not terribly interested in awards. But he's proud of this film and said if the buzz gets people to go see it, then he'll be happy.