A story about a man paying someone to take his virginity sounds like your typical high school sex romp, but The Sessions is the furthest thing from that.
On the surface, the film is about Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a man who hires a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), to help him lose his virginity. He does so not because he’s just unlucky with women, but because he contracted polio when he was six and has to rely on an iron lung to survive. The film, which was based on a true story, isn’t a biopic. The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin, focuses on sexual awareness and relationships. In the film, Mark embarks on a journey not just to have sex for the first time, but also to learn how to be with a woman, both physically and emotionally. It’s about achieving real intimacy, which is where Cheryl comes in. The former title of the film—The Surrogate—speaks to the importance of Hunt’s character both in the movie and in Mark’s life.
Hunt didn’t waver about taking such a frank and exposed (or as she put it, “naked”) role. “I honestly decided not to dwell on that until later,” she says. “I just read the story. I knew John was doing it. I met with the director and I didn’t feel anything creepy about him, that was key, and I just said yes.” She explains, “I knew there were all sorts of things to tackle, like who she was and how I was going to take my clothes off on screen. But I really took that on later because the story was so beautiful.”
In the film, even though Mark knows that his relationship with Cheryl is strictly professional, and that she’s married, he begins to fall for her. “All [of the] characters were pretty extraordinary to be able to see through the petty and get to the heart of the matter,” says Hunt. “[It] doesn’t need to be the case in every movie, but I think it’s pretty cool in this movie that, except for maybe for one cranky caretaker, they’re all very decent people. Everybody is trying to win.” As for the nudity itself—full-frontal for several scenes—Hunt says that she was eased into shooting with a transition scene. “But on day two, I was naked. After a while, you want your clothes on a lot,” she says. “By the end of the day, I was like, ‘Get me my sweatshirt, and my pants, and a hamburger. Over it.”
She met with the real Cheryl Cohen Greene, who still works as a sex surrogate in Berkeley, California, something that Hunt normally doesn’t do when she’s portraying a real person. “It’s only a tiny bit helpful to talk to them because you’re doing your own version of them, and theirs is almost confusing,” she explains. But she was searching for a direction in playing Cheryl’s character. “I was looking for what it would feel like when she entered the room. I knew I didn’t want to do hooker, and I knew I didn’t want to make a virginal fantasy. So I had to invent something new.” Meeting the real-life Cheryl actually informed Hunt’s performance. “I spoke to this woman who talks louder than me, has a thick Boston accent, and is very frank about everything she says. I thought, ‘That would be cool.’”
In order to capture the progression of the characters’ relationship, Hawkes, who was nominated for an Oscar for Winter’s Bone, and Hunt, who won an Oscar for As Good as It Gets, didn’t prepare for their roles together. “She and I kept a distance,” Hawkes says. “I think Helen and I both innately knew that we wanted a distance and an unfamiliarity. Something that film does so wonderfully and uniquely is to capture first moments between human beings forever on camera.”
Their interactions within the film were shot chronologically, to mirror the true story. “We would know each other a little more as the characters did and gained a kind of comfort that I think the characters did too,” says Hawkes. “It’s unwieldy, awkward, and unfamiliar as any sex scene is when you shoot it in a movie,” he continued, “but we weren’t going for anything beyond that. The discomfort in the whole process was kind of key.”
Ultimately, to Hunt, the film is about that sexual awareness, and the way Mark’s disability is the driving force for his sexual awakening. “I hope people take their 16 or 17 year olds to see it, as well as older people. Mark’s disability deconstructs sex and makes it the way it is in real life. It isn’t some perfectly orchestrated ballet [in which] everybody knows exactly what the other wants, and it all works out perfectly. It’s clumsy and silly and scary and wonderful.” Hunt says she hopes “that younger people will be able to ignore the idea that they should already know what they’re doing, and this is how sex should be,” she says. “My god, if [this movie] could help people just ease up on that pressure a little bit, it would be an awfully great thing to come out of it.”
What struck Hunt about Mark’s life the most was that he accomplished what he set out to do, despite being insecure and frightened, which, to her, applies to everyone. “The fact that he goes on to actually have a real relationship, and he gets to say, ‘I’m not a virgin,’ I think that that’s a big deal. If I’m climbing inside the character for a minute, I think that [his surrogate] gave him something. She changed his life.”
The Sessions is in theaters today, October 19th.
By Nadia Chaudhury