Above all else, because the man Oscar nominee John Hawkes portrays in The Sessions meant so much to so many, he wanted to channel the essence of Mark O’Brien as best he could. “I wanted to bring a recognizable person to those who have survived him and knew him, so that they can hopefully see something of their family member or friend in what I had done,” Hawkes said to Movie Fanatic of his role in the film that also stars Helen Hunt and William H. Macy.
The true story of the poet and polio survivor who spent his life constrained to a gurney and most of his day in an iron lung has made its way to the big screen in The Sessions. The film covers the last several remarkable years of a remarkable person as he discovers his sexuality, but also the love of his life. Hawkes’ O’Brien visits a sex therapist, played by Hunt, who helps him… in her words, “Love the body God gave us.”
Given his constraints, Hawkes had to give his entire performance in terms of emotion solely with his face and at the same time, replicate the twisted frame that O’Brien had to live with, even though Hawkes is clearly perfectly healthy. Needless to say, it was a classic moment of experiencing pain for one’s art.
“Every day, I would try to get my spine realigned, somewhat. Because the script says that Mark’s spine is so horribly curved, I tried to help conceive of and design a soccer ball-sized piece of foam and laid it halfway under the left side of my back. That gave my spine a great curve. Mark’s limbs were also twisted in a very specific way,” Hawkes said.
Most actors may be tempted to overact with one’s face, something Hawkes was keenly aware of. “I wanted to make the physicality so ingrained in me and so second nature that I wouldn’t think of it when the camera rolled and would just do what an actor does, every time out. I would forget that I was horizontal,” Hawkes recalled. “It’s a hard film because he’s horizontal! I’m not a martyr or masochist, but when the script says that your spine is horribly curved, you can’t just lie flat on your back and pretend.”
Contorting his body for scenes was perhaps the easier half of his physical challenge. He had to film many moments in the film stuck inside an iron lung that essentially kept the real O’Brien alive. Some claustrophobia could be easily understood.
“It was difficult to be in the iron lung for long periods. It was a production to get in and out of it, so rather than come out sometimes, I agreed to just stay in the position I was in, inside the iron lung, while they moved the lights or changed the camera position,” Hawkes said.
The actor is quick to point out his discomfort was nothing compared to what real people who experience this type of disability live through each day. “It was painful and it was difficult, but I’m not here to tell you that I did the impossible, or anything, by any means.”
Many performers have told Movie Fanatic over the years that portraying a real person is more difficult than one that is pure fiction. For Hawkes, the reasons are vividly different.
“It’s true, but it’s not for that reason. It was not because I felt constrained. In fact, I didn’t have to write a backstory. Mark’s autobiography was the backstory,” Hawkes said and laughed.
The real weight of responsibility with The Sessions, he said, is to do honor to the person he’s portraying in terms of the people who actually knew him. “That is particularly true if you’re playing a contemporary character. It’s a good kick in the pants to keep focused and doing your best,” Hawkes added. “That’s the first audience for me. If they get it, it’s a great relief and whoever else gets it is fine.”