John Hawkes talks to Jeremy Kay about tackling two of US cinema’s biggest taboos in The Sessions.

The first time John Hawkes discussed the role of Mark O’Brien with film-maker Ben Lewin, the writer-director of The Sessions did not sugarcoat anything. “Ben said he didn’t want to portray Mark as a saint or a victim,” says Hawkes. “In Ben’s words, he could be a real asshole sometimes.”

O’Brien, who contracted polio in infancy and died in 1999 at the age of 49 after spending most of his life confined to an iron lung, could be forgiven occasional malaise. A journalist and poet, at the age of 38 he resolved to lose his virginity by hiring a sex surrogate, which informs the plot of The Sessions.

The film, whose original title was The Surrogate, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival where it proved a left-field crowd-pleaser. Hawkes - who had haunted Park City in the previous two years with sinister turns in Winter’s Bone, for which he earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination, and Martha Marcy May Marlene - was feted for his uplifting, quirky lead performance.

“He tried to find truth in the absurdity of the situation,” says Hawkes of Lewin’s screenplay. The bizarreness of the broader situation is not lost on the actor, who in truth prefers to stay out of the spotlight and, according to several people who know him, would be happy not to become a household name so long as he keeps on doing good work.

“I had some luck with Winter’s Bone and got sent scripts and this was the best one,” says Hawkes over the phone. He speaks in a Midwestern drawl and considers his words. “I loved the story itself. It was unusual and uncomfortable but fascinating to me. Mark O’Brien was a compelling guy with a sense of humour.

“I met Ben and was very taken with him. A gentle, warm soul but with a good wit when he needed it. That combination at our first meeting was enough. I didn’t know he [Lewin] was a polio survivor until we met.”

Actor and film-maker hit it off quickly. They shared a desire to honour O’Brien’s spirit. “The story is potentially depressing at the outset and I wanted to find truthful humour wherever we could, without being too gaggy or cute,” says Hawkes. “There was a lot of absurdity in the situation and Ben sees that in his experience.”

Lewin, an Australian veteran of the TV business, had not directed a feature for nearly two decades, since 1994’s Lucky Break. He never met O’Brien and learned about him during research for a sitcom idea called The Gimp, about a man who trades a disabled parking permit for sex. The director read O’Brien’s essay On Seeing A Sex Surrogate and was captivated.

Hawkes was intrigued by the result. The Sessions tackles two of US cinema’s biggest taboos - sex and disability. “I feel like there are not a lot of movies that deal with the human body and sex in an honest way that’s beautiful and fascinating and sensual [without being] dirty and exploitative,” says Hawkes. “Ben pulled off a unique thing.

“My first question was, ‘Had [Lewin] considered a disabled actor?’,” he says. “There was controversy around able-bodied actors playing disabled roles, but we have done word-of-mouth screenings for disabled people, some of them actors, and most [approved].

“I have received a lot of kind support from the disabled community and they told me to get over [any concerns]. I was told there would be people who would be against it, but I guess if disabled actors only play disabled people and able-bodied actors only play able-bodied people it defeats the purpose.”

Chronological shoot

As for the depiction of O’Brien’s first encounter in a hotel with his sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene, played by Helen Hunt, suffice to say there is much to be said for unfamiliarity. “Helen and I didn’t know each other before we were cast,” says Hawkes, who frequently praises his co-star as well as fellow cast member William H Macy.

“We met through Ben and did the typical script conferences that you do. Helen and I didn’t talk much at all because we didn’t know each other well. But we were given the amazing gift of shooting the scenes chronologically and that made for an unintentionally awkward, funny, nerve-wracking attempt to do that first scene. Film is unique at catching first moments exceptionally well, rather than theatre, where you do it again and again.”

Hawkes never received any formal training as an actor. “I have made up my own method from reading books and observing good work around me and it’s mainly trial and error. I enjoy learning. I focused mainly on Mark’s work and listened to music he liked to identify with as much as I could, but not to judge him.”

He read as much of O’Brien’s work as he could and studied Jessica Yu’s Oscar winning short film Breathing Lessons: The Life And Work Of Mark O’Brien. The latter enabled him to capture the strangely haunting timbre of his subject’s voice. “I wanted people who knew Mark to recognise their friend in what I’d done,” he says.

“Ben and I were interested in making the same movie. I wanted to fight self-pity. It’s more interesting for me as an audience member to see someone fighting for what they’re trying to accomplish rather than wallowing in self-pity. There are moments where Mark is pretty crestfallen but you always feel he was trying to achieve something.”

The role was physically demanding. Hawkes spent time in an iron lung and would stay inside it between takes. “The challenge for me in such long scenes is to not move my body except my head. I was lying on a soccer ball-sized piece of foam because Mark’s spine was curved.” The contraption, dubbed “the torture ball”, has cropped up in many a Hawkes interview this season. “Mark’s spine was terribly curved and I tried to do what I could to capture the essence because I love specificity and detail.”

The pain was worth it. “The studios have abandoned for the most part the mid-level movie made for adults that they used to make 40 years ago. Independent film fills that gap,” says Hawkes, who has a small but significant role in Lincoln and whose upcoming projects include playing Joe Albany in Low Down, a biopic of the jazz pianist.

“There is such a glut of stimulus in media and entertainment. I am just trying to find a really great story.” Hawkes says he would not rule out genre. “I would do a horror movie if I found the Citizen Kane of horror movies.”