Sessions: Interview with Star John Hawkes

In the last couple of years, actor John Hawkes has played some of the most complex characters and grittiest roles in cinema and television – including his Oscar-nominated turn as the backwoods meth dealer who tries to help his niece in WINTER’S BONE, the Wild West merchant Sol on “Deadwood,” and an alluring cult leader in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE.

In playing Mark O’Brien in The Sessions, Oscar-nominee (Winter’s Bone) John Hawkes takes on another memorable role capturing O’Brien’s untiring spirit, self-effacing wit and the significant physical challenges that take him into a very different daily reality.


When he received the script, Hawkes had a tower of high-profile screenplays to choose from.  But THE SESSIONS stood out from the pack. “Bottom line, it was the script that got me,” says Hawkes. “It was just such a beautifully drawn story.  It reviews just a small piece of Mark O’Brien’s whole life – but in doing so, it tells us something powerful.”


Lewin was thrilled to have Hawkes take on the role.  “Here was an unbelievable actor who was ready to go to extraordinary and painful lengths to portray O’Brien’s true physicality so as to give a more genuine performance.  Once you have that person, you know you have a great starting place,” the director says.


The two met early on for lunch in Los Angeles.  “I was as charmed by Ben as I was by his wonderful script,” Hawkes recalls. “We had a very interesting talk.  My first concern and question to Ben was ‘Have you considered an actor with a disability for the part?’ He told me he spent a great deal of time auditioning many actors, some with disabilities and some of whom ended up in the movie in other roles. But there were qualities that he was looking for that he wasn’t seeing in others so he considered me.   And I’m glad he did.”


“After I first read Mark’s article, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to use a performer with a disability to play Mark.  I wanted the telling of the story to feel as authentic as possible and this seemed to be the perfect starting point,” said Lewin.  “I reached out and sent the script to three disability-access organizations in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but without result.   In the end, we hired two excellent disabled actors, Jennifer Kumiyama and Tobias Forrest to play the other characters with disabilities in the film. They had substantial speaking roles, they came with strong acting experience and had excellent comic timing.  I would work with them again in a heartbeat.”


Once Hawkes signed on, he began intensive preparation, which started with reading Mark’s poetry, articles and his autobiography, How I Became A Human Being, including the essay on which the film is based, getting to know O’Brien from the inside out.  “I came to think of him as both a writer and a fighter,” he explains.  “He was a guy who was interested in justice, not just for people with disabilities, but human justice.  He was someone who wanted to fight the good fight. He was also not a person who felt sorry for himself very often.  So, from an acting standpoint, it was important to fight reflecting self-pity at all times.”


Hawkes was already familiar with the 1996 Oscar®-nominated short documentary about O’Brien, Jessica Yu’s BREATHING LESSONS – a 35-minute film in which the camera focuses on O’Brien talking openly about life, death, sex, work and poetry from inside his iron lung. The intonation of O’Brien’s distinct voice and the imagery of his mannerisms became an invaluable resource.  “I think I would have portrayed Mark differently if that documentary didn’t exist,” he reflects. “It presented a chance to capture his voice, witness his determination and experiences, as well as understand the way the iron lung affected his breathing.”


In addition, Hawkes consulted those who knew O’Brien well, especially his life partner Susan Fernbach, who emphasized Mark’s indefatigable sense of humor. “Susan told me that when she and Mark were together they often laughed because ‘how much worse could it be?’  They had a sense of humor about everything; they called themselves ‘a horizontal lover and a vertical lover.’”  Hawkes wove that humor through his performance.  He explains:  “Humor that comes out of low points is always the most interesting to me.”

Mark’s spirited attitude was paramount, but Hawkes also wanted to realistically address O’Brien’s body, which had long been an obstacle to the love he sought.  While many people believe those with polio have no feeling in their limbs, that is far from the case.  They have the same amount of feeling as anyone else, but lack the motor neurons to move their muscles.  Hawkes wanted to portray O’Brien’s resulting altered physique without any kind of body double.


“I knew I would have to contort my body,” he says. “Mark only had about 90 degrees of motion with his head and his spine was significantly curved so I began with that reality.  You can’t just fake that so, along with the props department, we designed something with a soccer-sized foam ball that I put under the left side of my spine to curve it without any special effects make-up or CGI.”


Hawkes admits that his own chiropractor warned him about damaging his own body with this body-altering device – dubbed “The Torture Ball” — but he says what he went through to play the role was nothing compared to O’Brien’s lived experience minute by minute, day by day.


Diving deeper, Hawkes would spend weeks learning to work a mouth-stick with enough dexterity to dial the phone and type out articles.  He also explored spending time in the narrow realm of an iron lung.  “It was quite spooky when John entered the iron lung for the first time,” admits Lewin.  “It felt very real.”


Yet once production began, Hawkes let go of all the rigid physical training he endured.  “I tried to kind of forget all of it when the camera rolled,” he explains.  “I tried to have it all inside me enough to look the other person in the scene in the eye, tell the truth and have a conversation.”