For three years in a row, John Hawkes found himself the center of attention at the Sundance Film Festival. That's an incredible winning streak for any actor, but an especially sweet victory for someone like Hawkes, who toiled for years in thankless roles in thankless movies like Home Fries and I Know What You Did Last Summer before seeming to emerge out of nowhere as the terrifying Teardrop in Winter's Bone, which was a Sundance sensation and eventually earned Hawkes an Oscar nomination. He learned of that nomination while back at Sundance a year later, with another terrifying supporting performance in the acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene.
But as he completed his Sundance hat trick earlier this year, Hawkes was getting attention for a very different, very challenging kind of role, playing the disabled poet and writer Mark O'Brien in the quiet little drama once titled The Surrogate, now being released as The Sessions. O'Brien contracted polio when he was six years old and spent most of his life inside an iron lung, but near the end of his life sought out a sex surrogate-- yes, this was a real job in 1970s San Francisco-- to help him lose his virginity. It's the kind of story that can easily veer off into easy sentiment, but Hawkes's deeply committed performance really grounds it, as does the remarkable rapport he has with co-star Helen Hunt, with whom he shares some of the most awkward but tender sex scenes you've ever seen on screen.
Even back at Sundance, Hawkes's Oscar nomination for this role seemed guaranteed, but what's fun about doing interviews there is both you and the actor are still figuring out how to talk about the movie, and the conversation can be more wide-ranging and open than midway through a massive publicity tour. When I talked to Hawkes at Sundance I asked him about his supporting turn in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which he had just finished shooting, plus his incredible winning streak at Sundance, the physical challenges of playing a man whose spine was twisted by scoliosis, and the fact that he's probably the first actor in history to wish he was less muscular in a nude scene (he stopped working out entirely months before The Sessions began shooting). Usually it's hard to read tone in a printed interview, but the fact that he refers to "Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lewis" when talking about Lincoln, and is the first to bring up the idea that a disabled actor could have played his part-- I think it's pretty easy to tell this guy is a top-tier gentleman.
Check out our conversation below, and please see Hawkes, Hunt and William H. Macy in The Sessions as it opens in limited release this weekend.
This is kind of your third year in a row coming to Sundance and having this excellent reception. What happens if you come without a hit?
I've been here with movies that didn't take the festival by storm, but I've been lucky the last few years to have movies that were deemed interesting and important to this festival. It's an incredibly lucky run. There's nowhere to go but down from here, unfortunately. But it's been lovely. The Surrogate was chosen out of a fairly large stack after my good luck during the awards season last year, and I had one other script that I chose called Arcadia, which were two of probably the lowest budget of the stack. I've got very understanding agents, manager and lawyer who allow me to just continue to do work which doesn't pay much to any of us, but rewards us hopefully in other ways.
I hadn't realized that you were in Lincoln, which is kind of the opposite of this, it's humongous. Is it important for you to keep that balance now that you've got that stack of options?
I don't really think of it as a balance, I just look for story. And to be honest, Lincoln I'm a very small part in, and wasn't paid big studio money. It was basically a scale job. But when guys like Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg can get guys to come for not much money because they make such interesting films. But what drew me to Lincoln, besides Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lewis, who's unbelievable, was the script. Tony Kushner wrote a phenomenal script. I'm looking forward toe eyeing the movie beyond my involvement. In fact I'll probably be less interested in the scenes I'm in. [In fact, Hawkes has a nice, comedic supporting turn in the film that's very fun to watch. Lincoln comes to theaters November 9]
What made The Surrogate emerge to the top of that stack of scripts?
Just wonderful writing, a great script and a great story. And also a really interesting, challenging role for me. My trepidation before accepting the project was twofold. When you play a real person, particularly someone who has passed away and is beloved by many people, there's a huge weight of responsibility to try to get that right and do right by that person and do right by the survivors of that person. Beyond that, in the very first meeting I had with Ben [Lewin, the film's writer/director], before he'd offered me the role and before I'd accepted the role, my first question to Ben was "Why not a disabled actor play Mark?" Ben is a polio survivor himself, and he assured me he'd seen several polio survivors himself, and some of them very talented people. But he didn't quite seem them as fitting for Mark. He did cast several disabled actors he'd seen in the film.
Is the idea of a role scaring you important in how you choose them?
I don't have to be frightened by the role, but it makes it more interesting if you can do a role justice that you have no idea how to do. There's appeal in that for sure. But I'm not that much of a daredevil. I want to do good work and I don't want to waste peoples' time by being ineffective in roles. That's going to happen from time to time, but roles like this-- I was going to say it's lightning in a bottle, but that's three years in a row of lightning in a bottle.
I suppose it's just what your career is now.
I suppose it is. I've been lucky, but I've also been incredibly judicious and thoughtful about what I'm going to do. I always try to find an amazing script, an amazing story, told by very talented people, in a role for me that's interesting, that matters to the piece as a whole.
Had you had that choice in previous years? You've been in good stuff, but actors always have to say they don't have much of a choice.
I still don't have a choice, but it is different from when I began. I was an actor for 10 years for free, doing theater in Austin, Texas with wonderful, wonderful people, then having a slow rise for about 10 years in Los Angeles before things really began to click. I'm used to having a low overhead, so to speak. I've worked my whole life, as a waiter and a carpenter-- that's noble work, but I took any acting job that came along. That's not really a recommended path. I know a lot of people who show up and already have discernment about them. I didn't. I just took what I could to pay rent and eat. Now I don't get to do all the parts I want to do, but I don't have to do parts I don't want to do anymore.
Did that make you better as an actor, doing all that work and working with so many people?
Sure, I think you learn every time. It's not all Shakespeare. I came across some scripts and directors and things who maybe aren't at the top of their game, but you learn that way too, to try and find life, try and find soul in pieces that lack them.
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.