Helen Hunt, left, and John Hawkes star in "The Sessions," based… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
To say that John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are "relaxed" around each other — after spending a month last year making "The Sessions," a film that reveals a strikingly intimate series of sex therapy sessions — doesn't quite do justice to their friendship.
A good clue comes early on when Hunt, all mock seriousness, answers a question that hasn't been asked. "We had a torrid affair," she says with the air of one just trying to help. "You know that — I thought that was in the press materials."
She turns inquisitively to Hawkes, whose angular, interestingly creased face projected such menace in such films as "Winter's Bone" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene," as he lets out a wide-open laugh. To portray the real-life story of largely immobilized polio victim Mark O'Brien, whose memoir of losing his virginity to sex surrogate Cheryl Gordon Green in late-'80s Berkeley provided the raw material for writer-director Ben Lewin's film, Hawkes spent a good part of last year's 22-day shoot lying arched uncomfortably on a foam bolster. So, in some ways, meeting an unclothed near-stranger and simulating sex with her after just three discussions of the now-funny, now-touching script was the easy part.
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Hawkes agrees with Hunt that on the first day of shooting a sex scene, both actors and the director tiptoed a bit. "Certainly, we were all nervous at some level. It didn't hurt for me to feel a little bit of it, because my character was feeling a lot of it."
Both the shooting and the dramatic moment were helped along by some business that comes straight from O'Brien's 1990 article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," in which the author recounted offering Green her fee a little too brusquely, almost as if she were a prostitute. "For me, and for the story, the humor was huge," says Hawkes. "It's so fraught to begin with, and the potential is there to make it mawkish and sentimental and just sad."
With O'Brien's awkward approach, says Hunt, "you take this man whose best thing has been his ability to use words and be funny, and that doesn't help. That's not what's happening this day. It's thrilling to see a character have their best skill ripped away."
"You're so insightful on this film," says Hawkes, delivering a sincere compliment but also having some fun with his costar. "I'm beginning to think maybe I should have gotten to know you better, gotten prepared that way."
"You do not need my help at all," says Hunt, who much admires the "Winter's Bone" performance that earned Hawkes a supporting actor Oscar nomination in 2010. She didn't see the actor's understated but grimly intimidating portrayal of a cult leader in "Martha Marcy May" until after filming "The Sessions" with him.
"Thank God," she says of seeing that film a little late. "I swear, I'm grown up, I know the difference, but my boyfriend and I watched it, and I turned to him and said, 'Had I seen this movie first, could I have put this totally startling performance out of my head?'"
For Hawkes, just over 50, and Hunt, just under, the shoot was a meeting of esteemed equals. To Hawkes (currently also to be seen briefly in "Lincoln"), a favorite Hunt performance is one the academy saw fit to honor with a lead actress Oscar, her role in 1998's "As Good As It Gets." Although he vouches for "just about anything with Helen and Nicholson and the tug of war that goes on there, the private moments are always interesting to me — when the character's thinking and nothing else is going on in the film. Alan Bates said, 'Thought registers on camera' — you have to trust that."
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"But," says Hunt, "it takes a lot to trust it."
Hawkes had signed on to "The Sessions" well aware that industry veteran Lewin, a witty and warmhearted presence (who, like O'Brien, contracted polio; he gets about with the help of canes), had his own insights into the story.
But for his preparation to play O'Brien, a poet and journalist who died in 1999, Hawkes watched Jessica Yu's documentary on his life, "Breathing Lessons," to guide him. Hunt was able to actually meet with Green and took a cue from her sheer vocal volume, along with a rich Boston accent and a particular blouse she'd chosen: "You know, you're desperate as an actor basically — so if you get that blouse, you can't let anybody take it away."
A surprise revelation about the film came to Hunt when Lewin, having shot four days of scenes between Hawkes and costar William H. Macy, who plays a priest and friend to O'Brien, called her with an update. "He said, 'They're really funny; it's a comedy!'"
Indeed, even some of the film's more somber scenes are dusted with humor, though near the film's end we watch both the ad hoc relationship and eventually O'Brien's life end. The Green character, married and the mother of a teenage son, is driven into an aching realization of what's permanent in her life. "Maybe it all gets blurry near the end for a second," Hunt says. "But I think that's life — you can have some errant arrow prick your heart, but these two characters have an intention to keep to their mandate that this all is supposed to serve him. And both of them stick to that, painful as it is."
"That," says Hawkes, "is love."
"That's a big deal," says Hunt. "That's all I ever want."
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