John Hawkes believes in suffering for his art. To play a polio survivor in the comedy-drama "The Sessions," the Oscar-nominated actor spent 22 days lying immobile on what he calls "the torture ball," a 9-inch foam device that curved his spine to mimic scoliosis. Hawkes' chiropractor cautioned that the pressure was displacing his organs, and advised him to finish the movie fast.
Still, Hawkes called his horizontal performance "every lazy actor's dream. If you enjoy lying around as much as I do, this is an ideal part."
Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a real-life San Francisco journalist whose wry accounts of living with polio inspired the film. At age 38, O'Brien decided to lose his virginity with a sex surrogate. William H. Macy plays the sympathetic priest who guides O'Brien through this spiritual thicket, and Helen Hunt is the brisk, professional surrogate, whose relationship with O'Brien becomes a kind of love story.
It's the first major leading role for Hawkes, better known to many in Alexandria, Minn., as John Perkins, 1977 graduate of Jefferson High School. He grew up with a passion for wrestling, not acting.
His focus shifted on a sophomore class trip to see Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" at the Guthrie Theater. "I wondered if I could make people feel things and think about things the way those actors did," he recalled. He was in every play the rest of his high school years, memorizing every line of dialogue and song lyric even if his role was a two-line walk-on.
At 19, he moved to Austin, Texas, performing as a theater actor and musician before moving to Hollywood in 1990. Terming himself "a proud former Minnesotan," he follows the sports teams "loyally" and returned to play summer stock in Alexandria, even after his movie career began to take off.
He earned an Oscar nomination as the menacing Ozarks meth runner in 2010's "Winter's Bone" and critical acclaim as the cult leader of last year's "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Many now consider him his hometown's hottest claim to fame since the Kensington Runestone and the statue of Big Ole.
Hawkes said he approached playing O'Brien with "trepidation. ... You have a responsibility to that person's memory and to the people who loved him. You want to do a great job." He studied O'Brien's personality and mannerisms in the Oscar-winning documentary on O'Brien's life, "Breathing Lessons." "I remember thinking, five minutes into the movie, 'Poor guy.' Then 30 minutes later when the credits rolled, I thought, 'Amazing guy.'"
Writer/director Ben Lewin, who walks with canes because of polio, "wasn't interested in a St. Mark O'Brien," Hawkes said. He wanted an actor who could make him "a guy who was capable of being a pain in the butt, and contrarian, fun to be with and not perfect. I thought that was terrific and I would guess that disabled people would relate to that, as well."
When Lewin assured him that after a long search he couldn't find a disabled actor who was right for the role, Hawkes signed on. "I just thought [Lewin] was an extraordinarily interesting man, a polio survivor himself and very uniquely qualified to tell the story."
Hawkes endorsed Lewin's "warts-and-all approach," rather than the Hollywood slant of stereotyping characters "as some kind of either subhuman or angel because of your disability. People are people, as simple as that is and as trite as that sounds. The movie helps to illustrate that we're all human."
Hawkes appears next as a scalawag political operative in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," with five more films lined up next year. Not bad for a lazy actor.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186