Recently, John Hawkes has been independent cinema’s go-to creep, following up his Oscar-nominated performance as a menacing Ozarks meth addict in 2010’s Winter’s Bone with a part as a cult leader in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. This fall, though, the 52-year-old gets to be a romantic lead for the first time, in the comedy The Sessions. The improbable crowd-pleaser is based on journalist Mark O’Brien’s real-life quest to lose his virginity at age 38 while living in an iron lung, and fetched $6 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, more than any other movie. Hawkes spoke to Jada Yuan.
How’s your back? Your character is immobile from the neck down, and at Sundance you said your internal organs had migrated because you laid on a piece of foam to get the curve in your spine right.
Oh, it’s fine. I wish I’d never opened my yap about it, but it was painful and I was concerned, and there was a health-professional friend of mine that was a little concerned. There are no lawsuits pending or anything like that. [Laughs.]
The premise makes this sound like the most depressing movie in the world. Do you tell people it’s “feel-good”?
Not at all. My goal from the moment I signed on was just to fight self-pity. It’s much more interesting to watch someone who is ill-equipped to solve their problem fight to solve their problem than wallow in the knowledge that they’re ill-equipped to solve their problems.
Why does Helen Hunt, who plays Mark’s hired sex surrogate, get so much more naked than you?
I think that it might have been harder to obtain an R-rating. That’s the double standard: Breasts okay, penis bad.
In some ways, this deals with the same issues as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, just add an iron lung.
I’ve only seen clips of that film, but I would emphasize that this isn’t about just him losing his virginity. He wanted to be in a real relationship, and in case he met someone who loved him, he wondered what the physical possibilities would be. This was part of being a human being that he hadn’t experienced.
You’re also in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. What was Daniel Day-Lewis like on set?
He definitely works in an unusual way. I didn’t feel like I ever even met Daniel, to be honest, but I got to spend ten hours with Abraham Lincoln.
Directed by Ben Lewin.
Fox Searchlight. Oct. 26.