The Sessions: William H. Macy Takes on Priesthood

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Besides the stellar true story at the heart of The Sessions, star William H. Macy liked the idea of starring as a “cool” priest that debunked what some may think of a Catholic religious leader. “I shamelessly loved the fact that the priest is the good guy. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me. You say priest and you think of child molestation,” Macy said to Movie Fanatic.

William H. Macy The Sessions

“You know, that ain’t the truth of it. There are thousands upon thousands of priests out there whose job description is ‘Do good.’ You’re in dangerous territory when you start to generalize too much.”

The Sessions is the true story of polio survivor, journalist and poet Mark O’Brien. As astonishingly portrayed by Oscar nominee John Hawkes, we see how the disease has left his muscles ravaged and him unable to move any part of his body. O’Brien was confined to a gurney, laying horizontal for his entire life. Yet, his sexual organs worked just fine and the film tells the story of how his sessions with a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) not only helped him find himself, but also true love.

Fellow Oscar nominee Macy marveled at Hawkes' performance and how the actor had to literally contort himself -- to great personal pain -- in order to capture the physical disability of O’Brien.

“With John, everything he did I see now on film, which I’m here to tell you as a fellow actor is really tough. There’s a lot of physicalization there -- the pain-in-the-ass dues you have to pay. Then, on top of that, you still have to act the scene! To hold yourself still like that and only move your face? Not easy to do. You think it is, but try it for the next six weeks. See how you do,” Macy said and laughed.

The powerful film works on so many levels, one of which is the great mentor-mentee relationship between Macy and Hawkes’ characters, but also to see the two as a couple of men talking the birds and bees.

“John made it look effortless. It came off as two guys bullshitting.”

O’Brien seeks counsel in Macy’s priest. He tells of wanting to explore his sexuality and if the Catholic church would see the sex out of marriage as a sin. The poet was a devout Catholic and his priest’s opinion held great weight. “One says that the question that Father Brendan was asked by his parishioner was, ‘Can I have sex outside of marriage?’ But in reality the majority of the film is him advising his parishioner about his heart,” Macy said.

“I mean he had sex in the third scene or something I had with him and after that it was his heart that was in jeopardy, his soul. One of the big reasons this movie works so well is, let’s face facts, it’s a love story. It’s a weird love story but that’s what the priest is advising him on, matters of the heart."

Macy felt that director Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, keenly understood the thin line they were looking to straddle. “Ben was so very aware of how difficult this is when you combine these two subjects -- people with disabilities which really freak us out, if we’re going to be honest about it, and sex, which freaks us out even more,” Macy said and laughed.
William H. Macy John Hawkes The Sessions

With his portrayal of Father Brandon, Macy adds another memorable character to his astonishing resume that includes unforgettable turns in Fargo and Magnolia, to name a few. Yet, he is quick to tribute those who conceived of these people he’s played.

“I think the credit goes to the guys or women that wrote it more than the actor. I thank you. I hope it doesn’t sound disingenuous but some of these great indelible characters that we have in American cinema, another actor could have played it too,” Macy said.

“I mean, there are probably a couple where if it wasn’t Jack it wouldn’t have worked. But a lot of great characters, it could have gone a different way. So I give the credit to the writers for creating these indelible characters.”

When it comes to his career, Macy is brutally frank with Movie Fanatic about what he looks for in a part and how that has changed over the decades.

“In the beginning of my career, I said, ‘What does this have to do with the human condition?’ Halfway through my career, I said, ‘How much am I going to get paid?’ And now I ask, ‘Do I have to get wet?’ he said and laughed.

“Generally now, I like to do the movies that I would like to see. I will take a lesser role for a better movie than the lead in something that’s just not going to see the light of day.”

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The Sessions Review

The opening scenes of The Sessions set the stage for the gloriously humanity-affirming story that is the tale of Mark O’Brien’s life....

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