Entertainment » Movies

John Hawkes gets his close-up in ’The Sessions’

by Jake Mulligan
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Oct 30, 2012

Though untrained, John Hawkes is one of our country's foremost character actors, playing roles in films by directors as diverse as Steven Soderbergh ("Contagion"), Ridley Scott ("American Gangster"), Steven Spielberg (the upcoming "Lincoln"), Robert Rodriguez ("From Dusk til Dawn") and Spike Lee ("Miracle at St. Anna"), among others.

He is best-known, though, for two recent, chilling roles: as the cult leader in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," and, more notably, Jennifer Lawrence's meth-addicted uncle in "Winter's Bone." For that role he received an Oscar-nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Those seeing him in "The Sessions," his latest role, will no doubt be taken with his versatility. Playing the late journalist/poet Mark O'Brian, he couldn't be more gentle in a film with warm, audience appeal. It also marks Hawkes move from supporting to major roles.

"The Sessions," directed by Britisher Ben Lewin, tells the true story of Mark O'Brian, who was confined to an iron lung for the majority of his life after he was paralyzed from childhood polio. The film offers a chapter in his life: when he was 38 years old (in 1988), he decided to have sex for the first time. To do so, he finds a sex surrogate (played by Helen Hunt). What begins much like a raunchy teen comedy - he's just searching to get laid - depicts O'Brian's heart-rending journey to self-discovery.

Some have been moved to tears by Hawkes’ performance, which has earned comparisons to Daniel Day-Lewis’ similar turn in "My Left Foot." It’s a connection that rings true.

"Mr. Hawkes is entirely convincing in his portrayal of a man who is by turns vulnerable, wittily self-lacerating, charming and erudite. You can feel how increasingly difficult it is for both partners to follow the rules once they have reached a certain level of intimacy," wrote Stephen Holden in the New York Times.

Hawkes spoke to EDGE the day after a successful screening of the film, ecstatic about having the chance to have a lead in a major indie film. Long a background player, he’s firmly (and finally) getting his close-up. Don’t be surprised to find Hawkes mentioned amongst front-runners for the Best Actor Oscar come January.

Screen chemistry

EDGE: You have chemistry with Helen Hunt that really impressed me - you guys can pull off both compassion and complete awkwardness, which feels like a near-impossible range. How can you manage those two extremes?

John Hawkes: We took great pains to not know each other at all, (in order) to have discomfort. As our characters got more comfortable with one another, it mirrored what was happening between Helen and me. Except the sex part, of course.

EDGE: I suppose as an actor, it’s easier when you don’t have to worry about moving to the wrong place.
John Hawkes: I was always on my mark the entire film, unless someone pushed me to the wrong place. [laughs]

Comparisons to Day-Lewis

EDGE: Speaking of the people who push you, William H. Macy is just amazing in this film. He almost steals it from you.

John Hawkes: He’s just a hero of mine. I think I called Ben [Lewin, the director] like three times asking, "It’s the William H. Macy that was in ’Fargo,’ right?" It’s such a tiny, low budget movie that I was surprised he would come aboard. That was the day where I thought, "Wow, this could fucking be something."
EDGE: You’re performance has been compared to Daniel Day-Lewis in ’My Left Foot,’ among others. Do you get as intensely into character as someone like him?

John Hawkes: I have no formal training as an actor, so I make up my own formal method, which begins like this: What is the story? How can my character most effectively and truthfully tell that story, and in the most interesting way? And what does the character want as a whole, and moment to moment? I am an over-preparer, I could fill notebooks with the preparation that I do. If I put 300 hours of preparation into a role, I get five seconds of truth that I wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. It’s worth it. Plus, I love learning and researching things. It’s a great excuse and I’ve learned some awesome things. Ticket scalping, drumming, long-line swordfishing... a lot of great things over the years because of movies.

Daunting and exciting

EDGE: It must also be a more complicated process when everything’s coming from a real person, and not just from the page, right?
John Hawkes: My first audience-the people I want to please, everyone else be damned ultimately-were the people who knew him (Mark O’Brian) and survived him. I wanted them to watch the movie and see something of their friend or relative in what I’ve done. As daunting as something like that is, you need to honor that and find a way to replicate it.

Mark’s right hand turned to the sky, his left hand twisted back, his toes together, his neck turned to the side-all this needed to be second nature to me. The most difficult thing about the contorted body position was this. (To do this) the props people helped me find a soccer ball-sized piece of foam, wrapped in duct tape, that would lay midway up the left side of my back. It hurt a lot to lie there, and to hold that position [during long takes] was the real challenge. It was physically the most challenging thing I have ever done.
EDGE: It’s always been clear to me that you were one of our best character actors, but here you step into the lead. Does it change the way you think about things at all? Is it daunting?

John Hawkes: It is daunting and exciting, but it does not change my preparation at all. Just because someone is a character actor does not mean they can’t have a big part or carry a movie, because they’re all characters, aren’t they on some level? And if you’re lucky, they’re really interesting characters.

Connecting with Mark

EDGE: So it’s all about disappearing into the role?
John Hawkes: There’s a guy playing a guy who delivers bottled water. But when they look at me I want them to say, there’s a guy who delivers bottled water.

EDGE: Was there something about Mark that you connected to in preparing for the role?
John Hawkes: His sense of humor was original and unique, I related to it. And his writing was fascinating to me. Mainly what he loved the most was poetry. I’m a fan of poetry and found his to often be interesting and vital, in a singular voice that was his own.
EDGE: Clearly, you have a lot of options as far as roles go. And you’re started working with some of the biggest names in your career right now - Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, to name two. These characters are diverse - is there anything that connects the characters you play?

John Hawkes: I’ve played a lot of underdogs; I’m attracted to them and feel like one myself. I love characters that have every right to give up, who are ill-equipped to solve their problem, don’t have the tools but keep punching ahead nonetheless. It’s great to run away and join the circus and not only have the circus welcome you, but be able to find a life in the circus.

"The Sessions" is in limited release. To find more about the film, visit the film’s website.

Watch the trailer to The Sessions:


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