By Solvej Schou
Updated September 14, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
The Session
  • Movie

John Hawkes, the 53-year-old star of Fox Searchlight’s sadly sweet film The Sessions, relied on his emotional eyes and voice to play possibly the most difficult role of his decades-long career — real-life late poet and writer Mark O’Brien, who was paralyzed from the neck down due to polio.

In the movie, directed and written by Ben Lewin, Hawkes’ O’Brien seeks the help of a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, who literally bares all to help him lose his virginity. William H. Macy is bone dry and hilarious as O’Brien’s long-haired Catholic priest and confidant. The film is based on an article O’Brien wrote called On Seeing A Sex Surrogate.

“I had seen the film once, at Sundance, and the reaction was unlike anything I had ever seen, getting standing ovations. I had no expectations, and I still don’t know what to expect,” Hawkes told EW at a cocktail party honoring the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival, which runs until Sunday, right after the film’s premiere there.

Like Daniel Day-Lewis, who won a best actor Oscar as a man born with cerebral palsy only able to control his left foot in 1989’s My Left Foot, Hawkes is an able-bodied performer who truly transformed himself, a shift from other parts he’s played.

A good guy on HBO’s Emmy-winning western series Deadwood, Hawkes has racked up accolades for more darker roles, from a surly meth-addicted uncle in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, which landed him an Oscar nod, to a terrifying cult leader in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. He’s already set to receive the Hollywood Breakout Performance Award at the 16th Annual Hollywood Film Awards Oct. 22 for The Sessions. He’s on that elusive, elite track for another Oscar nod.

But it wasn’t easy, physically, playing O’Brien.

“I was nervous taking on this job, taking work away from physically disabled actors, who are underemployed as it is,” said Hawkes. “Mark can only turn his head to the right. He had about 90 degrees of movement. He’s always kind of facing one direction, which was difficult for the director of photography. I had pain in my neck, and I was a pain in the neck [laughing], as well.”

Hawkes noted the difficulty of staying in one position, and of being handled by other people. In the movie, you feel the strain of his efforts, clenching his teeth over the tip of a thin pen to push buttons to make a phone call.

“I don’t pretend to have pain on a level that many people have in their lives, but it was very uncomfortable. Lying still when people are moving your body, lifting your arms, washing you, as you try not to move is a difficult thing,” Hawkes said. “I approximated the curvature of Mark’s spine, which was severe. I used a piece of foam that was large, and stuck under the left side of my back at all times. I didn’t lose weight for the part. I did try to stop working out to lose muscle tone. You figure out the physical part, and then the approach is similar to any other role. How do I best tell the story as my character?”

To prep, Hawkes watched the 2006 documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. He knew it was also a challenge twisting his face into expressions without going over-the-top, to give O’Brien humanity, humor, with the lack of other movement.

“I wasn’t interested in face acting, or mugging. I wanted to avoid that. It may look that way occasionally, but that was never my intent,” he said. “You guess what an audience might like, in order to connect with them, but it’s not a wise path. Whatever art you’re doing, do it how you want to do it. Don’t guess what the audience wants.”

What about being with Hunt naked? The first time real-life O’Brien actually had sex, his fingers got caught in his shirt, Hawkes said.

Hunt and Hawkes, in The Sessions, simulate sex multiple times, awkwardly, at first slowly, and fairly graphically, with Hawkes spurring laughs with his facial reactions.

“It wasn’t a terrible thing. Who doesn’t like a naked woman! Helen’s lovely,” said Hawkes, smiling broadly. “It’s never really incredibly comfortable or easy to do any kind of love scene. In this one, the more awkward the better.”

Also, for any rabid Deadwood fans out there who loved Robin Weigert as dirt-and-booze covered Calamity Jane, and W. Earl Brown as gun-slinging brawler Dan Dority, you’ll find them reunited with Hawkes.

“I called Robin, and asked her if she would play this small and pivotal role,” as O’Brien’s eventual wife in the movie, said Hawkes. “She’s one of the best actresses I know. A lesser actress would have fallen flat.”

Sitting on a cushioned chair at the Toronto party, Hawkes also turned shy when asked about Oscar hopes.

You get the idea that he’s not it in for the fame-filled glory, but for the artistic thrill, though who doesn’t like an Oscar, eh?

“I’m not so good at giving speeches,” Hawkes said. “I’m not writing one at this point. Any recognition the film gets, any awards buzz or nominations, will help bring more people to the movie, and that’s the most exciting part about it.”

For more film news, including coverage of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival Follow @solvej_schou

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The Sessions

  • Movie
  • R
  • 95 minutes