At Sundance this January, Academy Award-winner Helen Hunt courted the most attention she’s received in over a decade for her brave and baring turn as a sex surrogate in “The Sessions” (then titled “The Surrogate”).
The film, inspired by a true story, centers on Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a Berkeley author confined to an iron lung due to childhood polio. At 38, O’Brien, who can’t move any of his limbs but is not impotent, decides he wants to finally lose his virginity. Enter Hunt as Cheryl Cohen Green, a sex surrogate, who O’Brien calls on to aid him in the process.
[This interview originally ran during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Fox Searchlight opens “The Sessions” this Friday.]
Written and directed by Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, “The Sessions” is remarkbaly hearfelt drama that affords Hunt her best on screen role in ages; one that’s been courting a lot of awards buzz since first debuting in Park City. Indiewire caught up with Hunt in Toronto, where “The Sessions” is screening (it opens October 26 via Fox Searchlight), to find out whether she had any reservations about the nudity required on her part for the film, what she makes of the Oscar hype, and if she sees this as comeback.
Now I’m well aware that you’ve remained creatively active since your last big hit “What Women Want,” by acting on stage, writing and directing your first feautre film, “Then She Found Me,” and appearing in a handful of features. But for some reason I still want to say welcome back. Is that wrong?
No. It’s not my favorite thing to hear, but it’s okay. I know what I’ve been doing. I’ve written two movies and directed one. I’ve acted in two plays and four movies. I made an entire human being. So I know I’ve had a very full life [laughs].
Some combination of not being handed the right part, and wanting to really turn all my attention to things that are quiet and maternal in my home — really not wanting to let that part of my life pass me by. It’s sort of what happens. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t have moments where I was like, oh God I blew it, I let it all go.
But the truth is I wanted to have my daughter for so long. It’s not the kind of thing you can visit, motherhood. Especially in the early years. Now she’s eight, and I’m still not going to go anywhere. It’s a big deal that I’m going to be gone to promote this movie. There’s three days here and then there’s one stretch that’s eight days, which I haven’t done. It’s very healing to me to be a very present mother. I hope that it’s also good for her [laughs]. But it’s definitely good for me.
Did you see this film as a comeback vehicle, back when you signed on?
No, I just loved it and I hadn’t read anything like it. That’s rare. And I hadn’t ever read a part like this. I was very happy to be chosen.
A girlfriend of mine was the one to tell me about the movie. My agent had me meet the director. That was probably the only thing that would have stopped me from saying yes — if I had any feeling from the director that was anything other than purely interested in what he wrote about. As an actress who’s sometimes asked to be in sexual situations, you can feel really quickly if there’s anything subtlety creepy going on. I just found a nice guy who was wanting to tell a unique story. With that and John attached, I was pretty excited.
Watching the film, the nudity and sex scenes seem like a non-issue. Yet despite that, the film generated a lot of press at Sundance because of those very factors.
Initially when I signed on I got tunnel vision — like, I want this part. If you stop to think, “I’m scared about the nudity, I’m scared to play this part” — there are a lot of reasons to say no. But I know a good story when I read it.
Any hesitation I had about the nudity, I think what I thought was it’s getting late. You know what I mean? It’s getting too late in my life to care about the small things. It’s getting too late to not be brave, to not live my life fully, to not try to be an artist. Trivial things like how nice your hotel room is, or if you have to be naked for a while, they fade away.On another note, I was relieved, as you no doubt must have been, to learn the film got an R-rating. At Sundance, some critics pegged it as sure bet for an NC-17 slap.
I think teenagers should see this movie! I think they should see a movie about sex that’s not weird, or titillating, or shame ridden, or cool, or slick. Sex is just not any of those things. I feel like all of us are John’s character. We’re all hoping to not be humiliated, to be treated with kindness, to be accepted, to have a voice in what we do want, what we don’t want sexually. So I think the film’s a wonderful introduction to what it’s like to have sex with another person.
Did you ever meet the person who inspired your character?
I did, yeah. I talked to her on the phone for hours before I met her, so I already felt I knew her. As you can imagine, she was happy for me to ask her anything. She used this term “sex positive” a lot. I knew that I had to embody that in the movie.
You almost play her like an activist.
In a way. Rather than just saying the kind of attitude you want to promote, this character just is. She is accepting, she is frank, she does talk about parts of the body. She is interested in a non-judgement positive sexual experience for this man. What a gift for him.
Again that’s us, when I think about young people seeing the movie. Could a young person be brave enough to say I don’t like this, I like this? All the way down to their sexual preference. To promote an attitude towards sex that says yes, there is no rule, there is no norm. We all don’t know what to do, so say what you want. I hope that makes a difference.
What do you make of the reception the film received at Sundance? It went over gangbusters, winning two awards.
The bigger screening, what was exciting about it was that people were laughing so much at the beginning, and they were so with John that by the time I came on, rather than be like, oh we get to see this actress with her clothes off, they were terrified of me taking my clothes off, because he was. By the time both of us were naked and intimate, everyone felt naked. That was pretty great when you can take an audience through all that.
Were you uncomfortable?
I was just enjoying it, then it suddenly occurred to me, oh wow, pretty soon I’m going to be naked. I did feel a good amount of sweat on my palms. But then by the end I felt like we’re all in it together.
I did have the desire to wear a head to toe ski suit afterwards [laughs]. We all went up on stage and that was the only moment I felt about the nudity — can I have a sweater?
Watch “Breaking Lessons,” the documentary about “The Sessions” subject Mark O’Brien, below: