Sessions: Starring Helen Hunt in Oscar-Caliber Performance

Fox Searchlight will release The Sessions in October 2012.

For John Hawkes there was another aspect to the challenge: allowing Mark to get as emotionally naked as he gets physically naked with Cheryl in their sessions.  It is in those scenes – love scenes that break the mold in every way – that Mark’s spirit emerges.  Key to this was the organic rapport Hawkes developed with Helen Hunt.   He says of working with her:  “She was very daring to accept the role in the first place and then she just stepped up and embodied it, physically and emotionally.”


Says Hunt of working with Hawkes:  “In these few weeks of shooting we got to kind of hold hands and go into this totally un-chartered territory.  I felt so lucky to be working with somebody whose talent is shining so radiantly at you.”


Lewin observes that since Hawkes and Hunt never met, that unfamiliarity only enhanced the precarious intimacy of their scenes together.  “There was a nervousness the actors had on a personal level that worked very positively in the story because the whole point of the beginning of Mark and Cheryl’s relationship is how anxious they were, how openly fearful he was and how secretly fearful she was.  When John and Helen got into bed for the first time, it was a blank page.  Whatever they did, it was going to be totally fresh and new.”


For Mark O’Brien’s life partner, Susan Fernbach, Hawkes’ transformation was a haunting reminder of Mark’s spirit.  “When he smiled exactly like Mark; it was as if he was channeling him,” she says.  “It gave me goose bumps.”


While many unconventional professions have become film subjects, sex surrogacy has not been among them.  It’s an unusual, easily misunderstood job – part psychologist, part coach, part hired sex partner.  Mark’s ice-breaking sessions with Cheryl Cohen Greene, the married Berkeley surrogate who agreed to take him on as a client despite his considerable disability, paved the way for him to experience true intimacy with a woman.


To give Cheryl the open-minded, uninhibited mix of toughness and tenderness she needed to go on this journey with Mark, the filmmakers turned to Helen Hunt (AS GOOD AS IT GETS, “Mad About You”), the Academy Award® winning actress known both for her dramatic versatility and deft comic touch.


“What Helen brings to the role is a real sense of Cheryl’s journey, how she not only changes Mark but how little by little, her own vulnerability emerges to the point that you stop seeing her as a surrogate and start to see her as a woman,” says Ben Lewin.  “One of the things that Helen brought to the character is a kind of edge – an attitude of ‘I’m not a charity worker.  We’re here to do a job, so let’s get down to business.’  But you see her vulnerability when she is undressing Mark in their first session.  When she says to him for the second time, ‘nice shirt,’ you start to see that this woman is not quite as tough as she came on at the beginning.”


It was the unique way in which the layers of the script unfolded that grabbed Hunt.  She was intrigued by the challenge of giving Cheryl her due as a professional like any other – and one who passionately believes in the importance of sexuality to human identity.  “Probably the rarest thing in my profession is a good story and I thought this one was beautiful,” Hunt says.  “It was bold and not like anything I’d read before.  Cheryl is someone people might think they know, but she very quickly defies your expectations.  She fired me up with her positive extroversion, her Boston accent and the way she saw the world and sex in particular.”


Hunt also found that, like Cheryl, she related to Mark under the skin.  She explains:  “I found his story to be not about what it’s like to have polio but what it is like to have a body, whatever shape it’s in. This is a really positive look at sexuality.”

Hunt admits that she knew next to nothing about sex surrogacy before she took on the part and met Cheryl.  But she quickly found that it’s a serious profession — even if it gets into some awkward territory — one that helps people heal.


“I can only speak about the one sex surrogate I came to know, Cheryl, but I think having your life’s work be helping people have pleasure in their lives and not feel weird or hung up about things, that’s a beautiful thing,” Hunt comments. “Cheryl was very enthusiastic about the movie, very open and very generous of spirit . . . I asked her everything.  And I found that she was someone who came to this profession as a kind of calling.”


“It was a calling,” says Cohen Greene, who was excited to share her memories and experiences with Hunt.  “I found it the ideal work because I was on a quest of my own to feel more comfortable in my skin and with my own sexuality. Helen was interested in every detail of how I talked to Mark in our sessions.  She paid a lot of attention to how I would have touched him.  I was so happy to see she used her hands the way I would have in the film.”


Like the real Cheryl, Hunt determined she would be forthright, fearless and completely unconstrained in her interactions with Hawkes’ character.  Working with Hawkes, she could see how a surrogate walks a razor’s edge.  “When you open your heart to someone, you really open your heart,” she muses.  “I think with Mark, Cheryl tries to open her heart just enough to close it again, but she’s not perfect at it.”


Their scenes were starkly, sometimes unexpectedly, emotional but Hunt also came to appreciate the comedy inherent in a 38 year-old having his first intimate encounter. “Being really scared about something and wanting it really badly at the same time can be quite poignant and funny,” she observes.


Ultimately, Hunt says she hoped to capture all the shadings of Cheryl’s time with Mark by being as natural as possible while, at the same time, keeping things upbeat and sexy, just as Cheryl did in their sessions.  She concludes:  “Like any work that means anything, this one asked for courage and vulnerability.  It’s just this film asked for a little more than usual.”