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When she was a young actress, Helen Hunt worked as much as she could, taking jobs for the experience as often as she did for the material. Now, with an Oscar and four Emmys under her belt, along with a lifetime of syndication rights from the sitcom Mad About You, the 49-year-old star can be a bit more selective.
“When you’ve worked as much as I have, and then when you’re parenting someone that is rewarding to parent — I have a child that is particularly rewarding to parent — it has to be a good reason [to say yes to a role],” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “A lot of movie would be a good reason, and then Column B is a great story, which is so rare.”
To be sure, The Sessions falls under Column B.
Hunt stars in the ’80s-set indie comedy as a sex surrogate, which is a specially licensed therapist that helps patients get over sexual fears by the most direct method possible: having sex with them. It’s a hush-hush industry that was born of the liberal culture of the Bay Area in the latter decades of the 20th century. In the film, she plays a real-life surrogate named Cheryl Cohen Greene, who helped polio-stricken journalist Mark O’Brien (played by John Hawkes) in his late-30s quest to lose his virginity despite his near-total residency in an iron lung.
Hunt, who co-wrote and directed the final Mad About You episode and the 2007 feature Then She Found Me, was so enamored with the script that she leapt at the chance to be part of writer-director Ben Lewin‘s film, despite a tiny budget and the director’s lack of notoriety. But she didn’t give much thought to her actual role until she met Greene, the real surrogate; and it was one phrase in particular that crystalized the entire enterprise.
“She used the term ‘sex positive,’ ” Hunt explained. “And I went: ‘Wow, I want to be sex positive. I want to be part of a movie that is that; I’ve never seen that.’ So it was more her vibe about her positive, enthusiastic, nonjudgmental way of talking about this topic that is usually laden with weirdness.”
Lewin, for his part, also had a crucial moment of realization while talking to Greene.
“I asked her a question and said, ‘I need to look at my notes, do you mind?’ And I thought, ‘Notes?’ And then she came back with clinical notes, and I thought, hookers don’t do these sort of notes,” the director told THR with a laugh.
The scenes in bed with Hawkes, as she introduces him to sexual intimacy for the first time, are in turns awkward, tender, excruciating and hilarious; he can feel his body but cannot move any muscle below the neck, making positioning and stamina major issues.
“Sex is never perfectly elegant: The light isn’t just right, and the underwear doesn’t fall on the floor perfectly, and the hands don’t clutch, and you don’t come at the same time — it’s all bullshit, basically,” she said with a laugh. “And the disability of this character renders all of that impossible, so you’re left with something much more like your own experience as a nondisabled person, which is that you’re human and that it’s good and it’s bad and it’s weird that it’s silly, and it’s embarrassing that it’s scary, so I think that the disability is just a way to get to what it’s actually like.”
While Oscar buzz builds for The Sessions, which will receive a push from distributor Fox Searchlight, Hunt next will be seen in the dramas Decoding Annie Parker and Serpent Girl. And she presses on, working to find financing for her next effort as a writer-director, a task she describes with a mix of enthusiasm for the project and exhaustion from chasing down fleeting resources.
“It’s a kind of unhinged empty-nest story, about a mother and a son who live here, but it ends up being a kind of warped homage to Los Angeles,” she offered of the film’s plot. “It’s about a Los Angeles-hating woman who comes to find her state of grace in a very unlikely place in L.A.”
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin
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