In search of intimacy
''IN EVERY role I approach, there's self-doubt,'' John Hawkes says. This is not just inevitable, it's also essential, the actor adds. Hawkes has a strong, varied, increasingly acclaimed body of work, often playing dark or dangerous characters, most recently a manipulative cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and an unnerving backwoods meth addict in Winter's Bone, for which he received an Oscar nomination.
Doubt, he says, is ''what makes me prepare to the utmost. I try to begin each job by admitting that I don't know how to play the part.'' That's his way of working out ''how to solve the problems that will enable me, before the camera rolls, to say I do know how to play it''.
Regarding his role in The Sessions - for which he is considered an Oscar front-runner - he had other reasons to doubt himself. Written and directed by Australian Ben Lewin, The Sessions is based on the true story of Mark O'Brien, a San Franciscan in his 30s who had been in an iron lung since the age of six, after polio left him paralysed from the neck down. The film - an utterly engaging work; singular, moving, funny and unpredictable - focuses on O'Brien's quest to have sex for the first time, with the help of a sexual surrogate.
Director Ben Lewin, says the challenge in The Sessions was to avoid ''schmaltz and bleeding-heart melodrama''. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer
Hawkes read the script and wondered, straight away, if a person with a disability should play the part. And, characteristically, he scrutinised his own response rather carefully as well. ''Perhaps there was an altruistic motive,'' he says, ''because I thought that someone from an under-represented group of actors would be losing a role uniquely suited to them. On the other hand, perhaps it was self-preservation. Perhaps I thought, 'I don't know how to do it'.''
He asked the director about this at their first meeting. Lewin, who had polio as a child and uses crutches, had indeed made every effort, over several years, to find an actor with a disability to play the role. He was able to cast actors he encountered during his search in smaller roles. But he couldn't find someone to play O'Brien until his casting director, Ronnie Yeskel, suggested Hawkes.
He wasn't sure, at first, why she was so adamant, but he trusted her. ''When I met [Hawkes], I realised he was a total chameleon, one of those rare actors who could inhabit someone else's body,'' Lewin says now. In Helen Hunt, who plays the surrogate, a therapist, Lewin found ''a frighteningly intelligent actor'', someone ''who could really wrestle with the subtleties of the situation''.
She also brought an effortless quality, ''a kind of banality, to the nudity and sex scenes'', he says.
There was plenty of material for Hawkes to draw on. O'Brien died in 1999, but left a considerable legacy. A journalist and poet, he had written a good deal about the experience of disability in vivid, strongly personal terms, often with a dark humour. What originally inspired Lewin to make the film was an article O'Brien wrote about his search for intimacy, his encounter with a therapist and sexual surrogate who gave him his first experience of sex. It's matter-of-fact, unsparing, graphic and wry, and there's much of its tone in the film. The article ends on a somewhat melancholy note but, as Lewin discovered, there was a coda, something about O'Brien's life that opened out the movie further.
O'Brien was also the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, Jessica Yu's Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien (1996). And there were several important people in his life who were happy to talk about him.
Hawkes drew on all this. ''It is a responsibility,'' he says, ''playing a real person. You want to do honour to his memory, you want to connect and tell a meaningful story to the people who survive him. I like to be specific, and it was all there for me, I didn't have to invent.'' He watched Yu's film repeatedly. ''I wanted to capture Mark's voice, and the shape of his body.''
The way Lewin recalls it, Hawkes went to great lengths in his quest for authenticity. ''He's an incredible perfectionist, sometimes way too much.'' He remembers that Hawkes would play tapes of O'Brien's voice in his car; that he went to the area in San Francisco where O'Brien lived to hang out and absorb the atmosphere; and that he insisted on using a device that would help him to twist his spine when he was on the set.
Hawkes says there were also aspects of himself he could draw on. He knows Lewin identified ''a devilish sense of humour'' in him, something he and O'Brien had in common. And he feels there are things about his own background that helped ''bring memories of a small town in the country, and even though I have lived in cities for the last 30 years, I still have a kind of innocence about me, I guess, an occasional gullibility. That implies a vulnerability, and Mark certainly had that. I've never been married or had children, I've been alone most of my life, and that also lines up a bit with Mark.''
But it was important the film steer clear of sentimentality. One of the first things Lewin said to him was that ''he wanted Mark to be neither victim nor saint. And that really resonated with me.
''My mandate was to mine the humour at every opportunity. It's a fraught situation from the outset: it could easily be treacly or mawkish or sentimental or overly gloomy. But when I read the script, it was funny to me.'' It was important ''to find the humour wherever we could, in a true way, and to fight self-pity''.
For Lewin, the challenge ''was playing desire without turning it into schmaltz or bleeding-heart melodrama. A person in Mark's situation wants the same as a person in any situation: independence and intimacy.''
To Hawkes, that detail is important. ''The greatest thing'' - and he's keen to insist it's the film, not his performance, that makes it possible - ''is that people have come up to me and said things like, 'It's a long time since I related to another character in a film the way I related to that horizontal guy you played'.''
■The Sessions opens on November 8. The film screens Sunday, November 4 at 12.20pm at Cinema Nova, followed by a Q&A via Skype with Ben Lewin and producer Judi Levine.