In recent years, long-time character actor John Hawkes has slowly moved from strong but low-key supporting roles in television shows like Deadwood and Eastbound and Down and indie faves like Me You and Everyone We Know into attention- (and Oscar nomination) grabbing roles like the quietly menacing Teardrop in Winter’s Bone and the, yes, the quietly menacing cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
But this winter, Hawkes is moving directly into the spotlight, starring in The Sessions, the true story of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, a childhood polio victim who spent most of his adult life in an iron lung. Written and directed by Ben Lewin and co-starring Helen Hunt and William H. Macy, the film follows O’Brien (who died in 1999) as he hires Cheryl (Hunt), a sex surrogate, to help him experience sexual intimacy. (O’Brien chronicled his efforts in the 1990 magazine article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.”)
Hawkes’ portrayal of both O’Brien’s physical limitations (the writer had feeling but no movement below the neck) and his irascible, sometimes prickly, nature has already earned him plenty of awards talk this Oscar season. In person, however, Hawkes is, like his characters, soft-spoken and somewhat bemused and even distrustful of fame and acclimation. (In true Midwestern fashion, the friendly Minnesota-born actor seems uncomfortable with the artificial social constructs of a multi-city press tour, and yet never anything but utterly polite, kind, and accommodating.)
Last month several other film writers and I sat down last month in Chicago with John Hawkes to talk about The Sessions and his thoughts about the real Mark O’Brien.
John Hawkes: I think it’s a given when you live in an iron lung, you’re not gonna be a mainstream person. You’re not going to get out a great deal, you’re inside a 600-pound metal tube. Mark said that he felt disabled people were invisible to able-bodied people. We didn’t have to play up the fact that Mark was dealt a bad hand, but instead you play against that with humor. As an actor, if something, even a line, is written really strongly in one way, you often achieve interesting results by playing against the line.
And do you think Mark was able to transcend that outsider status?
Hawkes: I feel like he felt vindicated near the end of his life, to have fallen in love and have someone love him, to have his poetry published, to begin to be noticed, to be interviewed, to have this amazing documentary short about his life win an Academy Award [Jessica Yu’s Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien in 1996]. These things made him feel less alone in the world.
When playing a real person, some actors say they want to avoid a strict impersonation and aim instead for an overall feel for the character. But you’ve said you did your best to impersonate Mark.
Hawkes: A hundred percent. If you’re playing Richard Nixon, someone where there’s footage of the person, you’re going to have to try to emulate that character. If the person’s completely unknown, you can take a different tack.
But in this case you have Jessica Yu’s film of Mark. I was actually afraid to watch it during my first week of preparation, but when I saw it I still had another seven weeks to get ready, and watching her film changed everything. I like specificity as an actor, and Breathing Lessons is very specific as to Mark’s attitude and how his body was twisted, the sound of his voice, the timbre, the music of it, the dialect.
So yes, I tried to impersonate Mark as best I could because first, I feel like the more specific you can be in truthful details, in any story you tell, the more universal the story will become. And secondly, I knew people who knew Mark would see the film—a couple of them were helping out and advising on the film. I wanted them and other family members and friends of Mark to recognize something of Mark in my performance.
When working to visually present Mark on screen, what was the most important physical tool you had?
Hawkes: I had Yu’s amazing documentary to reference, which was the greatest tool an actor could have. It shows Mark’s twisted frame, his voice, his dialect. But you gotta begin and end with the script, and it’s mentioned a couple times that Mark’s spine is horribly curved. Mark says, “I haven’t seen my penis in 30 years.” Cheryl says the curvature of his spine may make certain types of intercourse impossible.
Since we weren’t going to use a body double—no CGI, no prosthetics, no make up—I knew I needed to approximate the horrible scoliosis he lived with. The props department and I came up with a firm piece foam the size of a soccer ball and wrapped in duct tape, and placing that under the left side of my body, gave me the look I wanted. There were lots of other things that went into the performance, but that was key.
Mark could be prickly and testy. How did you find your way into that aspect of the character?
Hawkes: A lot of it it’s in the script to start with, and then a lot of it is very much an attempt to fight self pity. That was a real mandate before I even accepted the role. At Ben’s and my very first meeting we spoke about a lot of things about the character that we ended up cleaving to throughout. We were in agreement about how to tell this story on some level. Also, it was challenging lying uncomfortably on that foam ball, my body twisted into an unfamiliar shape and trying not to move from the neck down. A lot of times that would make me angry and frustrated enough that if I needed to feel that way in the scene, I wouldn’t have to act, it was already there.
You mentioned seeking specificity and doing a lot of preparation for your roles. As an actor, do you think of yourself as a very technical, analytical preparation guy, or do you think of yourself as an artist or poet?
Hawkes: I try to be both, you know? I’m an untrained actor—I have no formal training at all—but I think the analyzer part is the preparation, and the poet part is forgetting everything that I’ve preconceived when the director calls “Action.” And by the way, on the technical side, I was never not on my mark in this film. [Laughs] Unless someone pushed me to the wrong spot, I was always right there. I had my blocking down.
And here you are in your early 50s, shooting a “losing your virginity” scene in this film. How did you prepare for that?
Hawkes: One thing that really helped was that Helen and I kind of avoided each other before we began to shoot. Also, we were told that the four sessions would be shot chronologically, and that was a great gift from Ben.
That first session scene has several long takes, and we didn’t know each other. Sex and love scenes in movies by nature are gonna be awkward, there’s gonna be some humor and nervousness, a kind of by the numbers thing. It’s not sexy at all, there are people all around, the director is yelling at you, “Stroke her thigh!” And then the scene is edited and music is added to make it look like a perfect fantasy. We weren’t interested in that—that’s the great thing about film versus theater—I love both media, but film has the ability to capture something happening for the very first time between human beings and capturing it for all time.
So a lot of what’s going in the first session scene between Helen and me is happening in real time and things are happening for the first time. That was key. And then over the next week and a half we took an afternoon to shoot the next couple sessions, usually days apart. And in between, in that time, Helen and I got to know each other more and we were more comfortable as our characters got more comfortable with each other.
Hawkes: It taught me that you can move your head 90 degrees and have that be the sum of your movement as a lead character and have that work okay. Take for instance Todd Haynes’ short Karen Carpenter: Superstar, which is just Barbie dolls whose mouths and faces don’t change at all. The first five minutes I’m laughing uproariously at it, five minutes later I’m really into the story, believing in these fucking dolls. You realize as an actor, “Jeez, I probably don’t have to do too much.”
And as a whole, I feel like many people—it’s not anything to be proud of—I haven’t had a great ease amongst every disabled person I’ve come across. But I’ve always tried to be very inclusive and open, wanting to believe that every person I come across has value and worth until they prove otherwise, no matter what they look like, their gender, the color of their skin, and in this case, their disability. Hopefully after this I just see people more. When you see somebody extremely disabled, you don’t want to stare, but you don’t want to turn away. You just want in a very respectful way to say, “I see you, I know you’re here, and I know you’re more than your body.”
After The Sessions, what kinds of roles are you looking for?
Hawkes: I just want the best script, the best story. I don’t care if it’s six villains in a row or six comedies. If I can find a great story that’s really well told in the script and has a great role for me, and seems to have capable people around it, then I’m in. That’s hard enough to find. But you do a job like this, and it’s gratifying on many levels. And when Ben and Judy Lewin are at the helm, it’s cliché, but it really does feel like family. These are people I hope to always know, if I’m lucky.