SAN FRANCISCO -- John Hawkes knew playing Mark O'Brien in "The Sessions" would strip him of 90% of his acting tools. The film's based on the autobiographical writings of the journalist and poet who lived the majority of his life in an iron lung because of a battle with polio. Other than his head, his body was lifeless.
"It was daunting at the outset but the character -- to use a cliché -- leapt off the page," Hawkes says. "I was lucky enough to be sent a pile of scripts after the success I had with 'Winter's Bone' and this being the lowest budget script on the pile was the best one to my subjective opinion.
"I just loved it."
The script by writer/director Ben Lewin is about O'Brien's decision -- at age 38 -- to lose his virginity. He turns to a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) to accomplish what would seem to be a physically impossible task.
Hawkes won an Independent Spirit Award and was nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar for the 2010 "Winter's Bone." The attention came 25 years after he started working as a professional actor, building a lengthy résumé of TV and film roles. Most notable of all that work was his portrayal of Sol Star on "Deadwood."
Along with "The Sessions," Hawkes is on the cable series "Eastbound & Down" and portrays Robert Latham in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."
Before the Minnesota native agreed to take on "The Sessions" role -- where all of his acting would be done with his voice and face -- Hawkes wanted to know why Lewin -- a polio survivor himself -- had not cast a disabled actor to play the role. Lewin assured Hawkes that he had looked at both able and disabled actors but had not found the right person to play the role.
The challenge was to find an actor who could bring a sense of humor to the performance. The one thing Lewin didn't want was for O'Brien to be depicted as either a saint or victim.
"The character had to be played as a real human being, which is the thesis of the film on some level," Hawkes says.
Hawkes understood the emotional aspects of the role and, because of his thin frame, was able to pull off the physical demands. The film shot on such a tight budget, there was no money for special effects so the twisted look of O'Brien's torso had to be depicted through a contorted Hawkes and the aid of a soccer ball-size piece of foam to create the look of a curved spine.
Playing a character who's lifeless from the neck down created a unique problem in scenes where the characters prepare for their session.
"When a woman as attractive as Helen Hunt is undressing you, it takes every ounce of will in your body not to help," Hawkes says. "You feel for someone who's trying to lift you and unbutton your shirt and you can't help them at all."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.