John Hawkes: Hopeful, but Ready for Backlash and (Maybe) Permanent Back Pain

The Sessions Film Still - H 2012
Fox Searchlight

The Sessions Film Still - H 2012

The Oscar nominee transforms entirely, taking on the role of a disabled man looking to lose his virginity.

John Hawkes is not paralyzed, and it has him a little bit worried.

For his latest out-of-left-field role, the Oscar nominee stars in The Sessions, an indie dramedy in which he plays a polio survivor named Mark O'Brien who decides that he, at 38, wants to lose his virginity -- even if he is largely confined to life in an iron lung. Paralyzed from the neck down, he is an odds-defying optimist who earned his Ph.D. from Berkeley by tapping typewriter keys with a wooden stick gripped between his teeth; a deeply faithful Catholic with a devilish glint in his eye; and, most remarkably, a real person, who died in 1999.

The film, a Sundance favorite picked up at the festival by Fox Searchlight, is directed by Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor who uses crutches to walk. Before he turned to Hawkes, the little-known Aussie helmer did his best to find a disabled actor for the part, and it took some assurances to that end, Hawkes said, for him to agree to the role.

STORY: Ben Lewin and 'The Sessions' Go On an Unlikely Journey

"Of course, that was my first question: Why not a disabled actor?" the Oscar-nominee told The Hollywood Reporter at a dinner for the film in Manhattan. "[They are] a uniquely qualified group of people for this role, who are undervalued and underused. I’ve had a lot of disabled actors come to me after screenings, and they told me to get over it," he continued, referring to any criticism that he might get for taking the part.

"It is the 800-pound gorilla in the room in a way," he said, "but it’s something that, Ben being a polio survivor himself, and the fact that he put time in [to looking for disabled actors], he felt like, would it be politically correct to hire a slightly disabled actor to play a severely disabled actor? He ultimately just hadn’t found his guy. We met, and he felt like I could do it."

In an unfortunate irony, all those hours spent still on a gurney ended up severely injuring a disc in his back; Hawkes still isn't sure if the damage is permanent. It's a small sacrifice, though, and he understands that not everyone will be happy with his casting.

"I’m honored to play the role. I’m hopeful that it can somehow open up people’s minds and open up discussion," he explained. "A lot of these actors have also told me that there are those who are going to be militant, who are going to raise a fuss; that’s certainly their right. I did my best, and I hope I touch people, not only the disabled community but other people as well. It’s all human beings, after all, and that’s the point of the film."

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One thing that can mitigate criticism: Hawkes has earned early Oscar buzz for the part, thanks to a nuanced performance that channels vulnerability, embarrassment, triumph and sheer willpower. His interplay with his sex surrogate (a therapist licensed to perform intercourse, played by Helen Hunt) is a score in unlikely chemistry. It is to his great credit that the disability, while not totally fading away -- that is the crux of the film -- becomes a background player; Hawkes' face, gaunt and smiling, tells the true story.

"In Mark’s writings, and in the short film [1996's Breathing Lessons], you definitely see his sense of humor in the forefront," Hawkes explained. "After the first question -- why not a disabled actor? -- I made several comments to Ben, and we were very much in agreement on several things. I said, 'If I play the character, I want to fight self-pity at every turn.' The character may have every right to wallow in his grief, but it’s more interesting to watch a person, ill-equipped they may be, solve their problem, and that was important for me to do. Ben said to me, 'Mark should be neither victim nor saint,' and that resonated."

That Hawkes had such say, even over an indie film, would have seemed unlikely a few years ago.

A working actor with one-off roles in various TV shows since the late '80s, by the beginning of this decade the lanky Minnesota native had come to feature in HBO series such as Deadwood and Eastbound & Down, and indie flicks like Me and You and Everyone We Know. Yet he was still largely an unknown commodity to those outside Hollywood, a recognizable face and one of those "Oh, I know that guy!" actors, until his terrifying turn in 2010 as Jennifer Lawrence's anti-hero meth addict of an uncle in Ozarks drama Winter's Bone. The surprise hit earned him his first Oscar nomination, and a whole lot more clout.

The Sessions: Sundance Review

Although, as Hawkes insisted, "I wasn’t viewed by studios as the romantic lead or action hero of $100 million movies by any means," the scripts started to pile on his desk (quite literally -- he doesn't have an e-mail address). And a quarter-century into his career and at the precipice of movie stardom, he pulled the obvious move: He jumped into an iron lung for a director that had not made a movie in 18 years.

"I look for a really great story, and a script that’s well written, a role that I connect with somehow or I’m at least intrigued by," he explained, shrugging as he mentioned that Lewin's film was the lowest-budgeted project in his pile.

He solidified his reputation last year as the go-to guy for quiet menaces by playing a cult leader opposite Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, which makes the smiley O'Brien of The Sessions an even more significant about-face. Although he has a role in Stephen Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln, for the most part, you can expect him to continue to make these types of indie character-piece choices.

"I’m satisfied with my life," Hawkes said. "I was 10 years ago -- not to say I don’t have ambition or I don’t want to grow as an actor, but I’m not necessarily looking to grab the top rung on the ladder and beat my chest and say I’m the king of the world. I respect people who want that and achieve that, but it comes with a great deal of complication or baggage that I’m not necessarily comfortable being a part of."

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