When it comes to those time-honored tropes that impress Oscar voters — accents, disabilities, nudity — no film seems more stacked than The Sessions, which tells the real-life tale of handicapped writer Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), who hires a Boston-accented sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to relieve him of his long-held virginity. But this comedy-drama is even more than the sum of its award-worthy parts, thanks to nimble tonal work from writer-director Ben Lewin and, in particular, brave and warm performances from both Hawkes and Hunt. Last week, Vulture sat down with Hunt for a frank discussion of how she navigated all those nude scenes and the detail that was most important in nailing her character.
Tell me your reaction when you first saw the film yourself. Was it at Sundance?
Well, I’d seen four rough cuts, and I wasn’t busy saying “It’s good” or “It’s not good”; I was just trying to help. Ben was interested in my thoughts and I gave them to him — some that he took, some that he didn’t, and they were all good decisions, I think. But at Sundance, where I’d never been, the movie ended, and I leaned over to John and went, “This is a really good movie!” Like I was stunned, which doesn’t mean that I had anything less than faith in every element, but there’s an extra thing that has to happen for a movie to be good that you can’t count on. And it seemed to have happened here.
Tonally, the film could go so many ways. With the plot it has, things could be maudlin, it could feel like the worst American Pie sequel ever …
They’ll do that version on SNL.
And yet it walks this tightrope and manages to find real laughs in this very dramatic story line. How did you find the right way to play it?
What happens is that the film tells you. It sounds like a cliché, but I’ve seen it happen twice. When I was in As Good As It Gets, Jack [Nicholson] and I did one scene together where we walk into that restaurant — not even the big scene, just the little bit of banter before we sit down — and after [director] Jim Brooks saw the dailies, he called me and said, “It’s a romantic comedy.” And none of us thought we were making a romantic comedy! But the movie told him it was a romantic comedy, so we all had to get onboard. Similarly, the first scene shot for this movie was between John and [William H. Macy], and Ben called me after and said, “It’s a comedy.” So I said, “Okay.” That wasn’t going to affect everything I did, but it helped to know that was the movie I was walking into.
It’s rare to see a movie where you have a sexual female character who isn’t a femme fatale or treated as a joke. Your character has a husband, a child, a nice house, she’s over 40 …
That was the revelation of the part, which I didn’t even see right away. I had no idea how to play this woman. I’d never heard of a sex surrogate, and I didn’t even think about it, frankly — I just thought, I never read a good movie, and this is a good movie. Then, when I had to figure out how to play her and I spoke to the real woman, I thought of exactly what you just said. She had this enthusiasm and this sense of adventure about sex, and I’d never seen anything like it. She used that term “sex positive,” and that got me fired up and excited to play her.
What did you make of the fact that she’s married but still engages in sex surrogacy with other men?
It seemed that her devotion to her husband and her care about her work were not in conflict. I’ve met her husband, who sits by her side — I don’t know if you’re going to be at the premiere tomorrow, but he will be there rooting for her — and it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful to imagine that you could be bigger than the petty things that might threaten you. Or, at least if they come up for them — which I don’t know if they do — they can include them in the relationship.
You’re frequently nude in this film, which seems to be an eventuality for most actresses. When you first started your career, were you ever in a situation where a nude scene or sex scene was demanded of you in a way that didn’t feel right?
Yeah. One time in my twenties, I remember thinking, I don’t like this. And I didn’t have much power at that time to do something about it. It’s terrible. And, of course, when I met Ben, the only thing that was going to deter me from doing the movie was if I got any sort of creepy vibe from this person. And I got the opposite of that: His wife drove him, his adorable daughter wanted to talk to me about surfing, and he was so well spoken. I could tell he had an interesting take on the whole thing. I felt scared to do the part, but I didn’t feel scared of that.
So, what you would say to a young actress in her twenties who finds herself in the same situation you were in, where you felt uncomfortable and exploited?
You gotta pay your rent. You gotta pay your rent, and you have to feel good about your choices, you know what I mean? So wherever you can find the balance between those two things, that’s the line you have to draw.
Tell me about your Boston accent in this movie.
There’s a very frank, no-bullshit quality to that accent. The accent, and the volume … as an actor, you want to find something that you can use, whether it’s an accent, a pair of shoes, a picture, a song. So I had to come to John and Ben and say, “I know John is going to have an accent, but I need to have one too.” And I don’t think either of them liked it in the beginning! But I did make the argument that in real life, these were two people who lived in Berkeley who were both from Boston, and might we just say that it’s the first thing that connected them? So we added that into the movie. I kind of needed them to say yes, because I didn’t know how to play the part without it.
Also, when you’re as nude as you often are in this movie, you can’t rely on clothes to help you play the role. The accent may be the only thing you have left.
Maybe! I just needed to find the woman, and that was my way in. I work sometimes with an acting coach, and I met with him once for this film, and I said, “I want to do it like this, and I think they’re freaked out by it.” And he said, “Do it that way or quit. I believe in what you’re doing.” I never had to threaten to quit, but I knew I had to hold on to those things, that I was not going to be good in the movie if I didn’t.
Obviously, there’s a big difference between being an actor and being a sex surrogate. Still, in both jobs, you’re required to show up, perform in these intimate, emotional situations with someone who may be a total stranger, and then go back to your real life.
So, how did you feel at the end of the day after you’d shot these very intimate scenes with John?
I didn’t feel any blurry romantic line with John Hawkes — I was in awe of his acting, and I adored him — but I did feel like I wanted to put my clothes on. [Laughs.] I’m not kidding! It was partly modesty, but then, that was blown ten minutes into the workday. It was more that I had to be vulnerable for so long. Twelve hours of that vulnerability! I loved it and felt liberated by it, but by the twelfth hour, I just wanted to be in my sweatpants, in my zip-up hoodie, socks on my feet, eating an In-N-Out burger in my bed.