Helen Hunt and John Hawkes star in a revealing movie based on the true story of a sex surrogate and a polio sufferer. Helen Barlow reports...
It might seem like something from yet another outlandish comedy: John Hawkes is lying immobile on his gurney confiding in his priest, William H Macy.
"My penis speaks to me," he says. But the scene, which is a part of the trailer for The Sessions, essentially a movie about a 38-year-old virgin isn't another Judd Apatow sex farce.
It's part of Hawkes playing American writer and poet Mark O'Brien, who due to polio had little movement in his body for his adult lifetime and had to spend much of his time in an iron lung.
At 38 O'Brien decided to engage a sex surrogate, Cheryl Greene - played by Helen Hunt - to finally enjoy a sexual relationship. The film inspired by O'Brien's writings On Seeing A Sex Surrogate, by Australian director Ben Lewin, who himself was disabled by polio, is being talked up as an Oscar contender, especially for Hunt who has been keeping a low profile in recent years - "there are few good screenplays out there," she says.
Hunt certainly marks her return in memorable fashion. The Sessions required the 49-year-old Oscar winner (for As Good As It Gets) to do multiple and frank sex scenes in the nude.
"It's not nothing to take your clothes off in front of a room of people," she says, "but my desire to bring this story to life outweighed my fear. I remember talking to my friend about doing it and describing how beautiful the screenplay was and saying how I'm older or whatever and I'm gonna be naked, but it just didn't seem as big a deal as the chance to be part of a movie about being human, which I feel like the movie really is about.
"I'm drowning in gadgets like all of us and I'm really sick of them. I feel like this is almost an anti-digital age movie. That was really a very moving, healing thought for me, to be in a movie that was simply about touching each other."
Still, even if Hunt had played many real life women in the past, nothing quite prepared her for meeting Greene, a regular mum.
"When I read the screenplay I wondered who is going to walk through the door? A hooker? You imagine some kind of male fantasy. I don't think you imagine a slightly loud, frank person who makes you do all of these things. I like the idea that at the start she wasn't the kind of person he'd imagined too, that she might not be the easiest person to go on this journey with.
"Ultimately there was none of this weirdness or shame or hiding in a darkened room. Cheryl embodies a positive feeling about sex."
In person Hunt is the kind of outgoing type we remember from her Mad About You sitcom days, while Hawkes, who was Oscar-nominated for his portrayal as a meth addict in Winter's Bone, is a reserved, soft-spoken kind of man.
In real-life O'Brien was far more gregarious. Hawkes was up for anything.
"Every time when you do a film it's a leap of faith and this one more so, I guess," notes Hawkes, 53. "It didn't feel dirty or odd but it was unusual to be lying immobile with a beautiful naked woman. I always felt a sense of trust, that I was in good hands," he notes, blushing and chuckling at his innuendo.
Before filming, Lewin - whose career has mainly been in television directing the likes of Ally McBeal and Touched By An Angel - spent a great deal of time individually discussing the film with his lead actors who he kept apart until their characters first met.
Hunt: "With more than any movie I've made I hope audiences see The Sessions in theatres because everyone is rolling with laughter. We become him and we're terrified for him, of this woman coming in. When we first saw it we felt all the audience was naked; all the audience was vulnerable."
Hawkes says he approached the role as an able-bodied person despite facing substantial physical challenges.
"There were so many wonderful tools at my disposal including Ben himself and Jessica Yu's amazing documentary short Breathing Lessons, based on Mark's life. I had to learn to be still, to lose all movement from the neck down and to work a mouth stick to turn the pages of a book. Mark's spine was terribly curved so together with the props department we developed a foam kind of soccer ball for beneath my back to approximate the curve. I could still get up and stretch and walk away so that was a tiny bit of pain compared to what many people feel constantly throughout their lives. I'm not complaining."
Who: Helen Hunt and John Hawkes
What: The Sessions
When: Opens November 8