NEW YORK — The first time actor John Hawkes heard about Mark O’Brien, the polio-afflicted author, journalist and poet he portrays in the new film “The Sessions,” it was due to the Oscars. Documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu had just won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for 1996’s “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.” Hawkes read a quote from her in the newspaper basically noting that the dress loaned to her for the evening cost more than the budget for her film, and he enjoyed a chuckle over that.
Hawkes knows a little something about low-budget filmmaking, too. After working consistently for years as a character actor on screen and TV, he’s become something of an indie darling. “The Sessions” in fact marked his third-straight trip to the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year (at which point the film was titled “The Surrogate”). And 16 years after the Oscars managed to put O’Brien on his radar, he looks entirely likely to pop up on Oscars’ radar for his performance of the man.
But going back to “Breathing Lessons,” it was a crucial tool for Hawkes when it came to inhabiting O’Brien. “I watched it probably 40 or 50 times,” he says. “There was Mark in all his glory. There was his twisted body and his voice and his attitude and his poetry, all prevalent. There are a lot of things I could mime from that film. It afforded me a chance to capture some of the real sound and feeling and vibe of Mark himself.”
But the performance needed to be about way more than mere physicality. O’Brien spent over four decades in an iron lung. But from that prison his spirit flew on the page. The wealth of writing available to Hawkes was equally beneficial, he says, and indicative of the undying light he most wanted to capture in his performance.
“I suppose a guy who lives 49 years and 43 of them in an iron lung and exceeds a lot of expectations, just by nature that person is going to be a battler,” he says of his way into playing the part from within. “A character who’s been dealt an unfortunate hand, I would want to avoid self-pity. You don’t want to watch a character wallow in their grief, but rather try to solve their problem, and that seemed to be a good part of Mark’s life. And humor was hugely important, to find humor wherever we could in the script. The situation is fraught from the outset.”
And indeed, there are light touches throughout that keep the film not only balanced, but realistic as a result. The story told by “The Sessions” is a specific one, though, that of the time O’Brien spent with sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (played by Helen Hunt in the film). Knowing he was nearing the end of his rope and had never been with a woman intimately due to his affliction, O’Brien enlisted Greene’s services for six sessions of sex therapy. But the bond depicted in the film crosses sterile therapist/patient boundaries and becomes something moving unto itself.
Adding a sense of realism to the dynamic is the fact that Hawkes and Hunt had never met prior to the film. So a lot of the spark of introductory awkwardness is alive in those scenes, Hawkes says, while the growth of the relationship was helped further by the fact that the sessions were filmed sequentially.
“You hear the word ‘brave’ thrown around about acting performances a little too freely, but I think in this case it actually applies,” he says of his co-star’s work. “It’s a really courageous performance on a lot of levels. And you also hear ‘the nudity was necessary’ for the movie or the story or whatever and in this case it’s not bullshit. It’s such an integral part of the movie and her character needs to handle it in such a specific way, and she does it so beautifully.”
Hawkes says the Sundance experience has been “phenomenal” and that he laments the fact that he won’t be at the fest with another film in 2013, but three years in a row have meant a lot. And it seems they’ve all been leading to this moment, when he finally assumes leading man status in a vehicle of his own.
“For me it’s been the first time I’ve seen each of those movies [‘Winter’s Bone,’ ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ and ‘The Sessions’],” he says. “It’s been a nervous thrill to watch those with a crowd and Sundance has been really great to me…It’s kind of an overwhelming festival but I really admire Mr. Redford. I mean you think of all the people who’ve been inspired and given chances to work there, from the labs to the festival itself, and it’s literally hundreds of filmmakers. That’s an honorable and rare and wonderful thing.”
The first of that string brought Hawkes his first-ever Oscar nomination, but he says that hasn’t really changed his life all that much. “I think part of that is how I’ve approached it,” he says. “Maybe I’ll be in a summer blockbuster, sequel eight of some film along the way, but so far I’ve been able to avoid that. I don’t need much money to live. I’ve saved money from the TV shows I’ve been on. I have a low overhead and I just prefer to do things that stir me. There are some really amazingly great, big movies out there, but I just haven’t really been asked to be a part of them, so I prefer to do the little ones at this point. I’m made nervous by higher visibility on many levels. Since I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have any children, it offers me freedom to kind of do what I want to do, which is low budget films that not that many people see, normally.”
Nevertheless, his work in “The Sessions” will bring him to a whole other level. And “two-time Oscar nominee” starts to have a much different ring to it. He’ll find himself in a race with formidable competitors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Anthony Hopkins and Denzel Washington — actors who have been well-rewarded by the Academy, in other words. Might his affable portrayal spark a desire to award new blood at the Dolby Theatre? Perhaps. But Hawkes isn’t likely to miss a beat if it does.
“There’s no goal beyond the life I already have,” he says.
“The Sessions” opens in limited release on Friday, October 19.