Helen Hunt on the thrill of sex without shame in ‘The Sessions’

BEVERLY HILLS – Helen Hunt may be incredibly nervous on the inside, but she projected an unexpected regal confidence during our short interview for her work in “The Sessions” last week. Obviously, playing a real life character is always daunting.  Playing a real life person who was a sexual surrogate to a disabled poet hoping to have his first sexual experience in his late 30’s is something else.

As Cheryl Cohen-Greene, Hunt arguably has her best role since her Oscar-winning turn in James L. Brooks “As Good As It Gets.” Cheryl takes her work with Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) seriously, but she can’t stop him from developing a romantic crush on her as her sympathy for his polio stricken condition clouds her judgement.  While Ben Lewin’s surprisingly entertaining screenplay, um, turned her on to the project, she found her performance by meeting the real Cheryl.

“She talks a little louder than me.  She’s a little more focused than me. She’s a little more adventurous and enthusiastic about everything from your orgasm to her granddaughter’s day at school to the movie to the sandwich,” Hunt says.  “I mean, I thought ‘If I’m gonna play a sex worker, I’ve never seen that sex worker. I’ve never seen a true sense of adventure brought to sexuality on film.’ That as an actress got me excited.”

I asked Hunt how Cheryl became a surrogate and her detailed response make it clear the details of Cheryl’s  life really informed her performance.

“She says she was born a very sexual person. That she didn’t get any support for that. Her parents were Catholic and her parents shamed her for having sex so she wasn’t in the right place. So, where do you go in the 80’s?  You go to Berkley,” Hunt says. “And suddenly she found a community of people. There is a thing called the San Francisco Sex Institute [Editor’s note: It’s actually called Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality] which still exists. You can call them and say, ‘I have to talk to my daughter about birth control, any ideas?’  Or, ‘I’m afraid I had a partner who was ill. How do I find out..?’ Or, ‘I’ve never had an orgasm. What do I do?’ So, this place – and you put Masters and Johnson before them, created an atmosphere where sex could be celebrated and talked about. You weren’t as especially so many young people feel, you’re supposed to be psychic and know how to do it and it’s supposed to go a certain way and you are supposed to look a certain way and I got to play this woman who throws all that aside and says, ‘What’s left if were are just two human beings who say what we want and say what we don’t want and have a sense of adventure about exploring sex.’ I mean, I’d never heard of that and I really wanted to play it.”

Hawkes has gotten most of the awards season attention for his transformative work in “The Sessions,” but Hunt’s charismatic and relaxed turn (easily the least mannered of her career) should not be ignored.  It’s sort of unclear why Hunt hasn’t worked that often since her 2000 hit comedy with Mel Gibson, “What Women Want,” but waiting for a project to come a long like “The Sessions” made it worth the wait.

Hunt reveals, “I’ve made a lot of movies I’m proud of, but if I wanted to leave one behind this might be it. Especially for young people to get a glimpse of sex that isn’t all filled with shame, hurtful jokes and the wrong ideas and actually promotes this thing that I get to say which is ‘I want you to tell me what you want. I don’t want you to tolerate anything.’  I just can’t believe someone made a movie with those lines in it.”

“The Sessions” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.