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John Hawkes on his unusual character in ‘The Sessions’

Charles Ealy
John Hawkes, formerly of Austin, plays the paralyzed Mark O’Brien in ‘The Sessions,’ based on a true story.

Imagine having to play a role that requires you to lie on your back throughout a movie. Imagine that the only part of your body that you can move is your head. That’s what former Austinite John Hawkes faced when playing Mark O’Brien in “The Sessions,” which opens Friday.

O’Brien, a poet and journalist who attended the University of California at Berkeley while strapped to a gurney, spent most of his life in an iron lung — the result of a bout with polio as a child. He was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary short, “Breathing Lessons,” directed by Jessica Yu, and he wrote the 1990 article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” describing his decision to lose his virginity at 38.

The events in that article make up a big part of “The Sessions.” But the movie is about more. It’s about human connections; about touching and feeling; about wanting to do something very much but being afraid about actually doing it. And it’s ultimately about how Hawkes and co-star Helen Hunt, as the surrogate, manage to re-create these intimacies without a touch of mawkishness.

When “The Sessions” writer-director Ben Lewin approached Hawkes about playing O’Brien, “the first question I asked him was why not cast a disabled actor,” Hawkes says. “But Lewin said he had spent several years auditioning disabled and able-bodied actors, and it hadn’t worked out. So I took a leap of faith.”

And that required Hawkes to go through a lot of preparation. “Since I was playing a nonfictional character, I had a lot of information,” Hawkes says. “I like being specific, because that makes it more real. And I was able to look at … ‘Breathing Lessons’ and capture the physical side and his literal speaking voice. I really studied that film, because I wanted to get as close to emulating his physical being as I could.”

It was important to nail the physical side of O’Brien, Hawkes says, “so that it was completely second nature, so I wouldn’t have to think about it at all. I just had to trust that the director would put the camera where I wouldn’t have to mug.”

The role also required Hawkes to learn how to type by using a mouth stick. And it was essential that his body look like O’Brien’s.

“His spine was curved, and you can’t pretend it’s not there,” Hawkes says. “So we designed a crude soccer ball-sized piece of foam and put in under the left side of my back to create the curvature.”

Hawkes says that lying on the foam hurt, but “I don’t pretend to have pain on a level that many people have in their lives.”

Hawkes’ challenge went well beyond the physical, of course. “The situation is fraught with the potential to be mawkish, sentimental and syrupy,” he says. “Humor is the key. It’s not gag humor, but humor that comes truthfully out of the tone of the film. Laughter lays us open. And you have to realize that Mark was neither victim nor saint. It’s a fine line, a tightrope, to find moments that have emotion and make them ring true and earned.”

And how does Hawkes do that?

“A lot of these things I learned in Austin theater,” says Hawkes, a Minnesota native who moved to Austin in 1978 and was a regular on the local theater and music scene for a decade. He co-founded Big State Productions theater company and was in the group’s original play, “In the West.” He also starred in a national touring production of “Greater Tuna” before moving to California.

Since his supporting actor Oscar nomination for 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” Hawkes has been a highly sought-after actor. “I got sent some scripts to consider after ‘Winter’s Bone’,” Hawkes says, “and this was the one that grabbed me. It was a good story, well-written, with a fascinating character.” And for that, Hawkes credits writer-director Lewin, who contracted polio as a child, just like O’Brien. Lewin eventually regained much of the movement in his upper body and some in his lower body.

It was Lewin’s idea to film the most challenging scenes between Hawkes and Hunt, who plays sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene, in chronological order.

“It’s an unwieldy, awkward and unfamiliar situation to be in,” Hawkes says, referring to the initial nude encounter with Hunt. “To that end we got very lucky. Ben gave us the wise gift of shooting those sessions in chronological order. We didn’t know each other well. We went over the initial touching and talking with Ben.

“When we did our first scene/session, well, coming up in Austin and doing plays, you find moments in those rehearsals and try to create them every night. In a film, what movies do so uniquely is capture moments that happen between two people the first time. There are some long takes between us that were completely unplanned. It’s supposed to be awkward. In the subsequent scenes, the comfort and familiarity increased.”

Still, there’s a vulnerability that Hawkes has to expose as O’Brien. And it’s the kind of vulnerability that has to make him uncomfortable when he’s watching himself on the big screen, isn’t it?

Hawkes just laughs and responds with a quip: “I need professional help. I just think of the story, not of myself.”