Actors are taught that their bodies are instruments, with language spoken by gestures and postures as much as mouths.
John Hawkes discarded that lesson to play a severely debilitated polio victim in The Sessions, opening locally Friday and likely to be remembered through awards season.
Hawkes, 53, plays real-life poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, spending the entire movie lying in bed or in an iron lung, his movement restricted to 90-degree head turns, with a voice choked to gasps by the disease. The Sessions is based on O'Brien's experiences with a sex surrogate, seeking to finally lose his virginity at age 38.
Daniel Day-Lewis won a best actor Oscar in 1990 with little more than his left foot. Hawkes is a major contender now, using even less of his instrument.
"It's daunting," Hawkes, an Oscar nominee for Winter's Bone, said in a telephone interview from Boston. "But thought registers on camera, and that's what I was going for.
"I had to not concern myself with what my face was doing, even though that was kind of my only tool. . . . You have to trust. Just be available to the other actor, and play the game of catch that any scene is."
Hawkes' battery mate in The Sessions is Academy Award winner Helen Hunt, playing Cheryl Cohen Greene, a homemaker, mother and — she makes very clear — not a prostitute. Her compassion and O'Brien's condition make Greene something of a frontally nude Florence Nightingale, achingly patient and sensually acute.
Hawkes joked that their erotic scenes together made immobility tough to sustain.
"The difficult thing with having no body movement is when someone as physically beautiful as Helen Hunt is undressing you, the temptation. It was difficult to resist helping her," Hawkes said.
The Sessions is bracingly frank about sexuality among physically challenged people, with frustration and bliss grounded by intimately spontaneous humor. There is a clinical feel to Mark and Cheryl's sessions, an awkward trust like a doctor meeting a new patient. Except the doctor is naked, giving sexually explicit advice and demonstrations to a patient captive in more ways than one.
"A lot of what you see is happening for the very first time," Hawkes said of his scenes with Hunt. "That awkwardness, that unfamiliarity, the embarrassment and humor; all those things are happening before your eyes."
Hawkes explained that he only met Hunt twice before filming began, never socialized and scarcely rehearsed. Writer-director Ben Lewin — a polio survivor himself — shot their scenes in chronological order, from tentative, sexually charged introduction to the separation Cheryl's code of ethics demands.
"As we became more knowing and trusting of each other," Hawkes said, "the characters were doing the same."
The Sessions is a high-water mark for Hawkes' career, after 27 years of being "that guy" whose name escaped most viewers. Some learned it through 2005's You and Me and Everyone We Know, a love story trading on Hawkes' unconventional face, once described as a blend of Sean Penn and a Muppet. Around the same time Hawkes impressed in HBO's Deadwood, playing Jewish shopkeeper Sol Star.
Then came Winter's Bone and Hawkes' chilling "Uncle Teardrop," an Appalachian meth addict protecting his niece, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Hawkes followed with a variation on Teardrop in Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, as a Manson-like cult leader. The Sessions is a 180-degree turn for the actor, demanding vulnerability and humor those roles didn't.
Mark O'Brien died in 1999, leaving Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning documentary short Breathing Lessons as Hawkes' primary research tool. The movie is available on YouTube, with O'Brien shown going through his daily, incapacitated routine and heard reciting his poetry in a voice so strangled that subtitles are necessary. Hawkes watched it countless times, recording the audio for listening between takes.
"Breathing Lessons was key for me," he said. "It gave me such specificity, which I always try to put to use as an actor. Just to hear the rhythm of Mark's voice, his speech, the timbre, the dialect. The more truthfully specific you can be, the more universal it will become."
Enabling audiences to completely know a character is one thing. Revealing the actor behind the role is something else. Hawkes still isn't comfortable with the attention he's getting after years of relative anonymity.
"It's vindicating, something you've wanted all your life, but I'm petrified by it on another level," he said. "I like my life. I don't long to have the problems that movie stars have.
"When you're an actor starting out you want an Academy Award. But along with that comes some land mines. Being an unknown is a great advantage; people don't have high expectations. It's hard to believe some movie stars because we know too much about them. It's a mixed bag, to be sure."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.