Hawkes on THE SESSIONS
An Interview with John Hawkes
Published: Friday, October 19, 2012
Updated: Saturday, October 27, 2012 20:10
Most people have probably never been really acquainted with the work of John Hawkes, or even heard of The Sessions. The film follows real life poet Mark O'Brien through one of his most personal episodes. Mark suffered from Polio at a younger age and was destined to become paralyzed from the neck down, depending on an iron lung to help him stay alive each night. The story picks up when Mark is in his thirties and trying to lose his virginity through a sex surrogate.
After leaving the film screening, I felt almost embarrassed not to have known very much of John Hawkes. It was no wonder, given the wide variety of his roles in movies like The Perfect Storm, Contagion, and hit TV shows like 'Lost' and 'Deadwood'. His versatility to entertain an audience for an hour and a half without being able to move was beyond all of my expectations. At times, he even reminded me of a young Sean Penn. Fans and critics alike will be excited to see him in the upcoming movie Lincoln, also staring Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood).
After waiting at the elevators of the Ritz-Carlton for a few moments, we press are seated around a table. Some of us start talking about where we are from; others talk about the questions we want to ask. Unannounced, Hawkes walks into the room and seats himself at the end of the table. He sits back, drops his hat on the table, and shakes all of our hands as we scramble to get organized. The man smiles and begins addressing questions with ease.
PRESS: How do you physically prepare for a role like this?
JOHN HAWKES: Physically, there were many challenges. On a script like this, you really have to figure it out: all of the story, what is the character like, and how to tell the story in the most interesting and true way. What are the intentions of the character? These are the things you begin with. Physically, this was a different role. Being with a character that can only move his head 90 degrees presented a challenge. I also wanted to do honor for Mark’s survivors. That’s the first audience that I want to please, the people who knew him. Luckily, there’s a short film by Jessica Hugh called “Breathing Lessons.” There is Mark in the flesh. He has some very distinct patterns, like his voice, and this film is something I watched over fifty times. It gave me the specificity that I love. The more specific the details, the more universal a story will become. Those details are true. For Marks body- the poet, the journalist, I read everything I could, but on the physical side, it’s mentioned in the script that his mind is horribly curved, so I honored that. I came up with an idea and took it to the props department where they made a piece of foam about the size of a soccer ball and placed it under my back to replicate the physical ability. I learned to type with a mouth stick and turn pages in a book. That just scratches the surface.
PRESS: It must have physically hurt.
HAWKES: Sure. Even my agent has back issues. It didn’t help the chiropractor told me my organs were migrating in my body. So when you get into a position that Mark was in, it is physically painful. The hardest part was holding that in long takes and making sure my hand or leg never twitched. You know, just holding the position. But a minute pain compared to what other people experience from moment to moment? I’m not some kind of martyr, but it was a difficult challenge that ultimately became just like another role, in the way that Mark is a human being. I tend to over-prepare and I think its a good approach.
PRESS: To what extent have you looked at the other characters you’ve played and put this character in relation to those other characters?
HAWKES: I don’t really think of the other characters unless I think they are too much alike. Then I try to delineate them more to the story. Someone asked me what character Mark would like to hang out the most with and I thought of Sol Star [from 'Deadwood'], another gentle poetic soul. I thought they'd get along. Maybe Mark would like some of the rougher characters too. I’m not sure.
PRESS: When viewers, like the ones last night at the Coolidge [Corner screening], tell you personal stories, like the one with the iron lung, how does that make you feel to be involved?
HAWKES: Yeah.. To see people be moved by a project that you’re part of is kind of overwhelming to me. I’m greatly moved by people who stand up and feel like they're vindicated. Its a really powerful feeling. I’m just really happy that people connect to it. And in a personal way? I think it’s even better.
PRESS: As far as that emotion, is it something where there was a peak?
HAWKES: We were all making the movie. [laughs]. Other than the fact that sometimes it hurt so much that I wanted to cry, when you are making the movie, you aren't thinking of any results, not until the Sundance [Film Festival] screening happened. That was the first time I saw the film. It's been an emotional thing ever since. I don’t know if this might mean that I need emotional help, but I tend to watch the film and I stop thinking about myself and I get wrapped up in it. Maybe it's because the character is so far from myself, horizontal, and I'm not. I see the writer and director's works and it hits me hard. Not in a devastating way, but in a weirdly joyful way where I just feel like I'm part of something worthy.