John Hawkes: The Only Actor To Ever Regret Being Too Muscular In A Nude Scene

By Katey Rich 2012-10-18 16:30:50discussion comments
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When you tackle this movie, the dual challenge of playing a real guy and also the physicality, do you learn one first? Do you learn him first and then tackle the physicality?
It's different every time. I think I began-- well certainly I began more on the brain side more than the physical side, because I had a script to work from and I had access to as much of Mark's poetry and articles as a journalist as I could fun. The script and those were the jumping off point. Jessica Yu made a wonderful, wonderful documentary about Mark called Breathing Lessons, which won the Academy Award in the 90s. That was my most valuable tool, outside of Ben the director and the wonderful script he'd written. Once I had watched that I made my own mouth stick, a piece of dowel rod, a pencil eraser, and a bunch of foam and tape I could hold in my mouth. When the house was empty and no one was home I would lay on the couch in an odd position and position a table near me, and try to turn pages of a book.

There are a handful of other actors who have tackled playing similarly disabled characters. Did you look to any of them?
No, as much as I hugely admire Daniel Day-Lewis, and put him at or near the top of actors and actresses today, I feel fortunate not to have seen My Left Foot. Now I can watch it. I didn't see Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and now I'm going to watch it. Short of the movies of the week I saw as a kid, where it was an actor who looked really good essentially laying down-- that was the disability-- short of that, I feel lucky to not have had that other influence. I'd rather work with the director with my own mind and soul to come up with it.

Do you have to learn new methods of acting when you can't use most of your body?
Not so much. All I tried to do was to be present in the scene. I fashioned, along with our props department, a large soccer-sized foam ball in order to approximate Mark's spinal curvature. Mark says "I haven't seen my penis since I was six years old," so when you read the script, you have to honor that. I needed to approximate my body, which was to curve the spine horribly. It seemed important to me. That was not a comfortable thing-- again, my discomfort is tiny compared toI'm guessing the average disabled person's, what they feel on a minute to minute basis. But it was a challenge, it was difficult.

How much did Mark describe the sex therapy scenes? How much do we know what happened in there?
You're never going to have a 100% accuracy in that person's story. But hopefully we captured the spirit of Mark, and i know I was elated that Ms. Yu thought that we'd done right. That meant so much to me. She was my first audience, to be honest, Jessica Yu. That was the person of all I hoped would feel we'd done some justice to Mark. from her reaction and talking to her, she hopefully feels vindicated somewhat.

Stories like this can feel rote often, an inspiring story of someone overcoming a disability. That seems like something to keep in mind as an actor as well.
It is fraught from the moment we meet him. Here's a guy who has very little movement who lives in a huge iron tube for the majority of his life. There doesn't need to be an piling on of sentiment for me. The mandate is to fight self-pity and fight sentiment at every turn. To find as much humor as we could find. As I understand it Mark had a very funny, bitter, acerbic sense of humor that really was a huge part of his identity as a person.

The inspiration for the film, what got Ben going and inspired to write a script, was an article Mark had written online called "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." It's very detailed and very explicit. The relationship between the real Sheryl Cohen-Green and Mark is heightened in our film. Our film makes it a bit more of a love story than it is. It's not a far cry to fall for your first-time lover.

Had you ever been that nude on film before these sex scenes?
I think I showed my butt in an AFI movie one time. And there's the question of why there's no male genitalia in the movie, which is a legitimate question in my mind. Sadly our culture doesn't really permit that. Investors, people who've put forth this money, we'd love to pay them back. It sounds like having sold the movie, we'll be able to. That's a great first goal, to pay back the people who are kind enough to help you.

So you can handle the amount of naked you are.
I can. Yeah, it's odd. There are moments in the film where I feel like you see musculature. I'm a skinny guy to begin with, and I stopped working out a couple of months before and just did yoga throughout, but that unfortunately tones you a little. There are a few moment in the film where I feel like my body betrays a bit of Mark's disability, but it doesn't seem to get in the way as a whole. And I also said to Ben early on, please no body double. He was thinking of using another person's body to show things, and I think he's glad he didn't, and I certainly am. It was important to me that there's no fakery in the film. All there is is the torture ball, and that's it. There was no help, no prosthetics.
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