John Hawkes on the challenges of ‘The Sessions’

Alexandria native John Hawkes likes a challenge. But the actor who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an Appalachian meth addict in “Winter’s Bone” initially felt the role in his new film “The Sessions” might be beyond him. Hawkes told MPR’s Euan Kerr that he had misgivings about taking on the role of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, a man ravaged by polio who decided he didn’t want to die a virgin.


He told Lewin he should cast an actor with disabilities in the part. Lewin told Hawkes he had searched extensively for such a person, but no one was right.

“When he told me that he had done his due diligence, that took some of the hesitation away on my end,” said Hawkes.

Hawkes faced other challenges, like the responsibility that comes with portraying a real person. O’Brien died in 1999, but Hawkes met several of the people involved in the story, including the surrogate Cohen Greene.

In addition to reading O’Brien’s articles, Hawkes watched an Oscar-winning short documentary about O’Brien called “Breathing Lessons.” For an actor who loves to research his roles it was a huge gift.

“There was his body. There was his attitude. There was his voice and his dialect. All those I was able to study and emulate and put to use,” Hawkes said.

Still, Hawkes had to learn how to play a character who had almost no ability to move. He also had to perform a series of intimate scenes for the story. He said there was no spoken agreement, but he and Hunt somehow realized they should have little contact before filming.

“We didn’t know each other,” he said “And we didn’t rehearse. And so all of that awkwardness, the unfamiliarity, the nervousness, the, even, humor at times, well, it was all there.”

And it worked. “The Sessions” took the coveted Audience Award and the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. And Hawkes’ name keeps being mentioned as a likely best actor Oscar nominee.

You can find out more about the movie, and John Hawkes preparation for the part, here.

  • Martin

    Why was Helen Hunt’s body fully shown but not John Hawkes?