John Hawkes had more than a few qualms when asked to step into the iron lung of Mark O’Brien, who penned numerous poems and essays up until his death in 1999, including a magazine piece titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which served as the inspiration for “The Sessions.”
John Hawkes had more than a few qualms when asked to step into the iron lung of Boston native Mark O’Brien in “The Sessions.” For one thing, the Minnesota native didn’t have “the accent.” For another, he wasn’t seriously disabled. But with a lot of prompting from writer-director Ben Lewin, who, like O’Brien, was stricken at a young age by polio, Hawkes finally agreed to fill the role of an immobile man who could move mountains. Now, all Hawkes had to do was get used to being buck naked through much of a frank and funny depiction of how, at the age of 39, O’ Brien lost his virginity to a sex surrogate.
“I had trepidation about taking work away from an under-represented group, and an actor who might be uniquely qualified to play this part,” Hawkes said during a recent visit to Boston to promote the film, which opens Friday. “But Ben assured me he had taken several years and met with some terrific disabled actors, some of whom he thought might be able to play the role, but they didn’t have the years in them needed for Mark. Once we got past that, we spoke in depth of the script and the approach we wanted to take. Still, I took a few more days before I decided to give it a shot.”
Now, nearly two years later, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Hawkes in a role that’s garnered the hard-working actor some of the best notices of his career, and could well earn him his second Oscar nomination. The first, of course, was for his unnerving portrayal of a brutal meth maker in “Winter’s Bone,” the movie that put Hawkes on the map.
“After the luck I had with ‘Winter’s Bone,’ I was fortunate to be sent a number of scripts to consider, which was an unfamiliar but enjoyable moment for me,” said Hawkes, a youthful looking 53. “And this one just grabbed me. I loved it. It had the lowest budget amongst the group, but luckily I have an understanding manager and agent, and they blessed the journey.”
Yet it almost never came to be. Like Hawkes, Lewin initially had reservations about casting the tall, lanky Midwesterner whose career had largely been limited to small but memorable supporting turns in films like “A Perfect Storm” and TV shows like “24” and “Deadwood.”
“I wasn’t really aware of John,” Lewin said of Hawkes. “But as soon as he got his Oscar nomination, Ronnie (Yeskel), my casting director, called me right away and said, ‘This is your man.’ I really took her seriously. But when I took a look at “Winter’s Bone,” I went, ‘Really! This creepy old guy!’ It wasn’t my image of the part of Mark. Then we met, and I felt that quite apart from being a creepy guy, he was the opposite. He was in many ways closer to the personality of Mark O’Brien – wry and witty and very warm natured. It also really helped that he’s kind of scrawny and he was willing to go a long way in creating the physical characteristics of the part.”
Hawkes was also patient enough to spend what seemed like an eternity inside the iron lung that served as Mark’s office, bed and precious source of life. Unable to survive outside of it for more than a couple hours at a time, the giant cylindrical contraption almost becomes a character unto its self. But Hawkes definitely had his perks, chief among them getting to do numerous takes with a naked Helen Hunt straddling him in the role of Mark’s sex surrogate, Cheryl.
Yes, the nudity is plentiful, and the discussions about what goes where and when are borderline blue. But the beauty of the movie is that the sex is neither clinical nor anywhere close to pornographic.
“I think the sex in the film is not an end unto itself,” Hawkes said. “I think that Mark, like most people, wanted to love and be loved, and I think a part of the whole experience with the surrogate was to figure out what his possibilities were in satisfying a partner if he ever met someone who wanted to care for him and spend time with him and fall in love with him.”
And in a way Hawkes has fallen in love with O’Brien, an eternal optimist who refuses to allow polio, a disease that ravaged his body at the age of 6, prevent him from reaching incredible heights as a person of devout Catholic faith and as a prolific writer. With the assistance of his revolving door of caregivers, O’Brien penned numerous poems and essays up until his death in 1999, including a magazine piece titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which served as the inspiration for “The Sessions.”
“The three things I really admired in Mark were his creativity, his underdog status and the fact that he had a pretty wicked sense of humor, and I related to that,” Hawkes said. “I think on some level I have the wit and humor of Mark on my best days.
“I enjoy playing underdogs; I’ve played a lot of them,” he added. “It’s really interesting to me to play someone who has every right to give up or wallow in self-pity, but continues to battle, to fight for what they want to achieve in life. And even though they might not be well equipped with the tools to do so, it’s compelling for me to watch someone continue to work hard to achieve their goals.”
That’s probably because Hawkes himself has been an underdog for much of his career, continually plugging away anonymously until finally becoming a “25-year overnight sensation.”
“Groucho Marx said all it takes are those first 50 good breaks, then you’re on your way,” said Hawkes, whose humbleness and self-deprecating humor prove that success has no chance of going to his head. “I’ve always just been happy to work. I like my life as it is, so I’m not reaching for some kind of brass ring. People are beginning to notice and that’s pretty much a good thing. I think one strength that I’ve had is to be kind of an unknown, and it makes me nervous to be less of an unknown because people begin to have expectations, and also begin to associate you with other roles when they see you.
“I love this film we’re talking about, but a part of me wants to keep things pretty much as they are, if possible. I can move about freely in the world. I can be invisible amongst a crowd for the most part still and observe human behavior, which is my job. And if I start to become the center of attention in those situations, it’s going to become more difficult, and may make me a less-effective actor.”
There are, however, two people he’d love to see take notice: fellow Minnesotans Joel and Ethan Coen.
“There are 10 filmmakers I could list that I would love to work with, and they are certainly on the top of that list for me,” said Hawkes, who would have killed (no pun intended) to have been in “Fargo,” which starred “Sessions” costar William H. Macy. “I’ve never gotten to use the Minnesota accent that I was born with. That accent has slowly whittled away, as I’ve moved around the country, but it’s one that’s certainly familiar to me and one that I’d like to have the chance to use before it’s completely gone.”