She has seen the rave reviews. She has caught wind of the early Oscar buzz. She has heard her performance described as ”daring” and ”brave.” But two days before the premiere of her new film, The Sessions, as she sits in a Los Angeles restaurant eating poached eggs and toast, Helen Hunt is wondering aloud about what kind of feedback she’ll receive from other actresses when they see her work in the film. ”That will be interesting,” she says, cupping her mug of green tea in her fingers and smiling. ”’What are you — nuts? You know what they mean by brave? Crazy!”’
Crazy is in the eye of the beholder, but there’s no question Hunt’s turn in the R-rated indie dramedy (which opened in select theaters Oct. 19) falls far outside most actors’ usual comfort zones — including her own. The Sessions recounts the real-life story of poet and severely disabled polio victim Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), who, with the blessing of his priest (William H. Macy), hires Cheryl Cohen Greene (Hunt), a sex surrogate — a brand of sex therapist whose approach is, shall we say, very hands-on (see sidebar) — to help him lose his virginity. Hunt spends a large portion of the movie, in her words, ”as naked as the day I was born,” as Greene assists O’Brien in exploring his sexuality in a way that is both deeply intimate and strikingly matter-of-fact. For Hunt, who comes across in person as plainspoken and direct, if slightly reserved (”If I don’t know you, I try not to gush too much,” she says), the film’s unvarnished frankness about sex was a huge part of its appeal. ”With audiences who’ve seen the film, I feel there’s this breath of relief that we can have this subject not be filled with shame and strangeness for a minute,” Hunt says. ”This movie is a little break from how weird we are about sex.”
Ironically, Hunt’s revealing performance in The Sessions follows a period in which the 49-year-old actress seemed to have almost disappeared from the screen. In recent years, her acting career — which exploded in the ’90s with her work on the hit sitcom Mad About You and in films like the 1997 romantic comedy As Good as It Gets, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar — had quieted down, as she focused on raising her now-8-year-old daughter, Makena, with her boyfriend, TV producer Matthew Carnahan. (Hunt was married to actor Hank Azaria from 1999 to 2000.) ”I had to work very hard to have my kid, going through a rigorous fertility dance,” Hunt says. ”The idea of saying [to my daughter], ‘You’re here — good! Now I’m going to go pretend to be someone’s mother in Prague while you’re with a sitter’ — that didn’t make any sense.”
During that period, Hunt turned her attention to writing, directed her first feature film (2008’s Then She Found Me), and allowed her acting career to slip into a lower gear. ”There’s a certain ebbing and flowing,” she says. ”Was I supposed to get every great part on every great TV show and in every movie every year and no one else gets to play?” She pauses. ”Having said that, there were some moments of, like, ‘Remember when I was acting in huge movies all the time? Did I blow that?”’
The fact is, acting in huge movies had never been her plan in the first place. Raised in Los Angeles — her father was a theater director and her mother a photographer — Hunt began acting at an early age, but for years nothing had clicked in a big way. Then, in 1992, she shot a pilot with comic Paul Reiser for an NBC sitcom about a young married couple in New York. ”I thought, ‘This will probably disappear,”’ she remembers. ”I was like, ‘How do you explain the concept? It’s about two people who are married — and what, they live on the moon?’ It’s like there was something missing from the pitch.” When Mad About You became a massive hit, Hunt had difficulty adjusting to her newfound fame. ”There was a moment where I got really nervous,” she says. ”I thought, ‘Have I done something I can never take back?’ I didn’t get that it would change. And it has. I’m not as famous as I was then. I go places and some people look — but a lot don’t.”
At a time when many TV actors were struggling to transition to films, Hunt made the shift with relative ease, starring in hits like the 1996 blockbuster Twister and the 2000 comedy What Women Want. Winning the Academy Award in 1998, she says, ”was a Cinderella moment.” But ask how the Oscar changed her career and she pauses. ”Maybe it ruined it?” she says. She laughs. ”Other than that, I don’t think it did anything. If there’s some presumption that now that I’ve had this moment, I should only take brilliant parts — there are so few brilliant parts.”
When The Sessions came along, it was clear to Hunt that this was one of those few. Still, the prospect of taking on a role that required so much nudity was daunting. ”I remember saying to [director] Ben [Lewin], ‘I don’t know if I have the body you want in the movie,”’ Hunt says. ”He said, ‘I want it to be a real body.’ Well, I have some version of that.” When it came time to shoot the sex scenes, a great deal of effort went into making them as true to life as possible. ”A love scene, by nature, can be the most awkward, unsexy thing ever,” says Hawkes. ”Then it’s edited to have rose petals falling through the air and violins to look like a fantasy. We weren’t interested in that.” The fact that, like their characters, Hunt and Hawkes hardly knew each other before getting naked together proved to be a powerful advantage. ”I think they drew energy from that,” says Lewin.
Ultimately, Hunt found the experience liberating: ”I was so happy to be able to even pretend to be a woman who was loving and embracing her own body. If I can’t totally feel it, I like that I got to act like it.” That said, she adds with a dry laugh, ”by the end of the day, I wanted my clothes on. ‘Give me my f—ing sweatpants and an In-N-Out burger right now.”’
In the wake of The Sessions, Hunt is eager to keep working, whether it’s on the big screen (where she’ll next be seen as a cancer researcher in the indie drama Decoding Annie Parker) or the small one. ”I’d be thrilled to get a call this afternoon going, ‘Here’s a great TV show,”’ she says. ”I’d love-love-love that.” In the meantime, she’s securing financing for her next directorial effort, a dramedy she has written about a New York City mother who is dismayed when her son drops out of college and moves to L.A. to surf. ”I think it could be good,” she says. ”I’m so ready.”
As for that Oscar talk surrounding her performance in The Sessions, Hunt isn’t getting ahead of herself. ”It’s fine for people to ask about it, but are they going to be there if it doesn’t happen?” she says, laughing. If by chance the Oscar gods do smile on her again, though, she’s determined to handle the next Cinderella moment differently than she did the last one. ”I remember worrying about everybody else, which if it happens again I hope I won’t do,” she says. ”I focused on the people I was with, the people on the movie, the people I forgot to thank, the people who didn’t win. I guess it was my discomfort with being celebrated.” She’d better start getting used to it.
What’s a Sex Surrogate?
Before she signed on to play Cheryl Cohen Greene in The Sessions, Helen Hunt had never heard of a sex surrogate — a reaction the real Cheryl Cohen Greene gets a lot. The 68-year-old Greene, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., and has been practicing since 1973, describes her job as ”a coach or a guide,” helping clients get past any hang-ups or misconceptions they have about their sexuality. ”I’ve had people ask me, ‘What’s the difference between you and a prostitute?”’ says Greene, whose memoir, An Intimate Life, will be published Nov. 1. ”My goal is to get people out there so they have more confidence in who they are.”