The critically acclaimed new film “The Sessions” tells the real-life story of journalist and poet Mark O’Brien. Stricken with polio as a child, Mark was left with paralysis in both his arms and legs, and largely dependent on an iron lung to keep himself alive.
At the age of 38, he decided to lose his virginity with the help of a sexual surrogate. Director and screenwriter Ben Lewin based his script on an article O’Brien wrote for a literary journal, as well as recollections of those who knew him.
Lewin brings unique insight into the story. As he told Here & Now’s Emiko Tamagawa, he also had polio as a child, at approximately the same time as O’Brien. He was initially nervous about the story being too personal to him, but ultimately he felt grateful to O’Brien “for providing me a vehicle to vent as well.”
Lewin relates to O’Brien’s story “more spiritually than physically,” since Lewin was not as disabled by polio as O’Brien was.
“I felt that we had developed a similar sense of humor, maybe for the same reasons, and a similar sense of the absurdity of life,” Lewin said.
Lewin seriously considered casting a disabled actor in the O’Brien role.
“I thought, initially, how marvelous would it be if I could get someone who innately understood his experience,” Lewin said. “But it just wasn’t practical. Anyone as severely disabled as him would have been really too fragile to go through the ordeal of a film production.”
Lewin chose actor John Hawkes for the role, who he knew for his Academy Award-nominated performance as Teardrop, the meth-addicted uncle in “Winter’s Bone.”
“The reality is that he is much closer in personality to Mark O’Brien than a lot of the creepy parts that he has played,” Lewin said. “He is very wry and witty, a very sweet warm guy. And I think that his own personality was the resource that he could draw on.”
Emiko also spoke with Hawkes, who said the role was a tremendous physical challenge. He had to recreate both O’Brien’s severe spine curvature, as well as his immobility.
“The most difficult thing was to maintain that shape with no movement at all. I didn’t want to ruin good work, either by myself or the other wonderful actors I was working with, by suddenly, you know, swatting the fly away from my nose or trying to move myself into a more comfortable position,” Hawkes said.
Hawkes studied for the part by watching Jessica Yu’s Academy Award-winning short documentary “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.”
The role also gave him insight into how often the disabled are invisible to able-bodied people.
“If we were on the gurney, I would choose to just stay there between takes and lie quietly. And eventually people would sort of forget that there was a human body there, and they would be lying costumes or drinks or sandwiches or equipment either on top of me or next to me,” he said. “So maybe I got to experience a tiny bit of the invisibility that Mark used to talk about as a disabled person.”
Hawkes said that’s what he takes with him from the role, along with O’Brien’s sense of humor and poetry.
“Hopefully this movie helps me to see everyone more, to value everyone more,” said Hawkes. “As Mark [O'Brien] said, ‘We gotta be more than our than our bodies, ’cause if a mind and a soul isn’t enough – if I’m just my body – then I’m screwed, ain’t I?’ And it’s true.”