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It's not easy for John Hawkes to watch clips of himself in his new movie, The Sessions. He plays a man named Mark O'Brien, based on a real writer and poet, who spends most of his time in an iron lung as a result of childhood polio; that meant the role was hard on Hawkes' body. As he tells Melissa Block on All Things Considered, "It was a physically painful role to play." Not only did it require him to act primarily from a horizontal position, but it called for him to create the illusion of a curved spine.
"It's mentioned in the script several times that Mark's spine is horribly curved. And as an actor, as much as you'd maybe like to just disregard that information, you must honor it. So I asked for and helped develop, along with the wonderful props department, a crude piece of foam rubber about the size of a soccer ball that we wrapped duct tape around and placed under the left side of my back at all times so that I would have that spinal curve."
If you're thinking that sounds like it would hurt, especially if you did it all day, you're right. "It certainly was incredibly painful," Hawkes says, "but a small amount of pain compared with what many people unfortunately have to deal with moment to moment in their lives."
In the film, Mark decides in his late 30s that he wants to lose his virginity and, after checking with his friend and priest (William H. Macy), he connects with a sex surrogate named Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt. Hawkes says that he and Hunt got to know each other in the same progression that Mark and Cheryl do, over the same series of meetings.
"We didn't get to know each other at all before shooting," he remembers. "Ben Lewin the director ... I think did a really wise thing: He took those surrogate sessions, and we shot them chronologically. What you're seeing on camera is the truth of what's happening for the first time. It's awkward for her to get my shirt off, and it's, I'm sure, uncomfortable for her to remove her clothing in front of myself and the crew. And we had an unfamiliarity with each other that I think really worked in our favor. And then as she and I were getting to know each other, our characters were getting to know each other in the later sessions scenes."
Of course, some of the challenges of the scenes he did with Hunt were the same as they are in any other movie that involves physical intimacy, even if the setting made them play out differently: "Love scenes by nature when you're shooting them are always awkward and unwieldy, and kind of by the numbers and funny, even, in spots. And they're normally edited, and music is added to try to make them the perfect fantasy. We weren't interested in that, and it wasn't right for our film, so any discomfort that we were feeling, or any feeling of being kind of lost in the moment, and all of the things that go with, as I said, the needed reasons — exhilaration, humor, all those kind of things were all kind of present for us."
Hawkes says that in making The Sessions, he and Lewin — who is himself a polio survivor — wanted to avoid the sense that Mark was either "victim or saint." He explains: "As a disabled person himself, Ben was interested in Mark being a human being with all that entails — a full range of emotion and attitude. He was interested in Mark occasionally being a jerk sometimes as well, as he had every right to be."
What Mark discovers in the story is not just sex itself, as Hawkes explains. "The simple idea of touch, of being touched, if you're a person who can't move at all. You can't reach out and touch someone. And for the first 38 years of your life, you've been mainly touched in a very utilitarian way — to be washed, to be dressed and undressed, to be fed — and the idea of someone touching you for pleasure or just to show affection was a foreign concept to him.
"And I think, just imagine what that must be like for someone to actually want to touch you for reasons other than, as I said, the needed reasons."