Mark O’Brien

One of the highlights of any film festival is the panels and discussions that take viewers beyond simply watching the films into understanding the process behind getting them to the screen. In theaters now, The Sessions is a fictional story based on the real-life Mark O’Brien, who became paralyzed from the neck down after contracting polio and decided that, despite his physical limitations, he wanted to lose his virginity. John Hawkes brings Mark’s plight and writer-director Ben Lewin’s words to life through an unforgettable and transformative performance. The two sat down with The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway this afternoon at the Roosevelt Hotel to discuss the film, the challenges they faced in making it, and the impact the film had on each of them.

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John Hawkes in The Surrogate

When you first hear that John Hawkes’ latest movie sees him playing a character whose spine has been left so curved due to a battle with polio that he’s completely immobile and even physically deformed, it sounds like it’s going to be a depressing affair. Is The Sessions one of those hand-wringing dramas that hammers home just how difficult and painful disability is, for two hours straight, and then ends on some sort of bittersweet but life-affirming moment? Not at all. Actually, from the looks of the first trailer, it seems like it’s a lot of fun:

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John Hawkes in The Surrogate

John Hawkes has quickly became one of my favorite actors by giving my favorite supporting performances of the last two years. First he was the oddly intimidating Uncle Tear Drop in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, and last year he was the strangely charismatic cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Both of those films made their initial splashes at Sundance, and seeing as this year Hawkes returned to the festival, this time in a leading role, with the movie The Surrogate, I think there’s a good chance he could give my favorite performance of the year overall in 2012. That is, if reports of the film getting lengthy standing ovations and the glowing review of our own very helpful Allison Loring can be believed. The thing that strikes me about Hawkes is the absolute authority he’s able to command his characters with. He’s a slight man, but he made me fear him completely as Tear Drop. He’s not a pretty man, but he sold me completely on the spell he had those girls under in Martha Marcy May Marlene. In The Surrogate he plays Mark O’Brien, a poet who suffers from Polio, which has left him with a severely curved spine. Hawkes gave a pretty lengthy interview about the movie to Vulture, and the most interesting bits of it, to me, were the parts where he talks about how taxing it was physically to bring this character to life. It sounds like we’re getting another Hawkes performance where he goes all in.

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