“The Sessions” is about Berkeley-based journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, who, afflicted with polio as a child, spent much of his adult life inside an iron lung before he died in 1999 at age 49.
Directed by Ben Lewin (who also contracted polio as a child and walks with crutches today), the film focuses on a fascinating episode in the 1980s when O’Brien hired a sex surrogate to help him explore and understand himself as a sexual being.
Recently in the Bay Area with the movie’s leads, John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, Lewin says he came across O’Brien’s article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” merely by accident.
“At first, it affected me personally,” he says. “I think it was maybe five or 10 minutes after I read it that I started to think about it as a filmmaker.”
Lewin initially thought it would be easy to write a screenplay: “I thought all I had to do was to convert his 10 pages into 100 pages,” he jokes.
Meeting O’Brien’s real-life sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, who still lives in Berkeley, was invaluable.
“Getting her side of the story and the degree of detail that she gave me made me see it as a relationship movie, rather than a biopic,” Lewin says.
After considering disabled actors for the starring role, Lewin chose able-bodied Hawkes, who received an Oscar nomination for his ferocious performance in “Winter’s Bone.”
In addition to watching and re-watching “Breathing Lessons,” director Jessica Yu’s 1996 Oscar-winning short documentary about O’Brien, Hawkes copied the audio track to a CD so he could listen in the car and on headphones.
“I was obsessed,” he says. “There are so many details about his attitude, his sense of humor, his physical body and his speaking voice. It was the greatest tool that an actor could ever have.”
High praise came from filmmaker Yu, who told Hawkes his peformance “was like spending an hour and a half with Mark.”
Hunt, in the equally demanding role of Greene — a part that required nudity — says she was primarily concerned with her character’s message.
“I loved the idea of getting to be in a movie that actually promotes saying what you want and saying what you don’t want,” Hunt says. “I just became more interested in telling the story than I was in being nervous about taking my clothes off.”