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John Hawkes faced challenges playing man in iron lung in ‘The Sessions’

John Hawkes plays polio patient who enlists sex surrogate lose his virginity “The Sessions” opening Friday.

John Hawkes plays a polio patient who enlists a sex surrogate to lose his virginity in “The Sessions,” opening Friday.

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:20AM

When you play a man who can only move his face 90 degrees, it requires nothing more than using your head.

“He is a human being. That’s where it starts,” says John Hawkes, who stars in “The Sessions” (opening Friday).

In the film based on the life of author Mark O’Brien, he plays a man in an iron lung whose biggest wish is to lose his virginity. He calls a professional sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him reach his goal.

“The first question I asked when I was cast was: Why isn’t there a disabled actor playing this part?” Hawkes says.

“Director Ben Lewin is a polio survivor. He had gone to great lengths over the last few years to see every able-bodied and disabled-bodied actor he could see. He still hadn’t found his man.”

Then Lewin found Hawkes, who has no formal acting training but was nominated for an Oscar for “Winter’s Bone,” and gave him the acting challenge of his lifetime.

“I am proud to say that for this role, there was no body double or mold ever used,” Hawkes says. “It wasn’t prosthetics. It was just me, and there were a lot of problems to solve.”

For starters, Mark’s spine was horribly curved.

“I approximated that on camera,” Hawkes says. “I designed and put together a firm piece of foam the size of a soccer ball that I wedged into my back. It was a crude device, but very effective.”

He also watched the Oscar-winning documentary short “Breathing Lessons” about Mark’s life, which ended in 1999. “That movie became an essential tool in figuring out how to portray him physically,” Hawkes says. “I didn’t see his ravaged body but heard his voice. Without that movie, I would have brought a much less interesting character to the screen.”

He had to understand Mark’s need to have sexual relations.

“Mark was a poet,” he says. “He had a poet’s soul. He wanted to love and be loved. The sex in the film is a means to an end. Mark really hoped he would find someone who he could love and wanted to love him.

“The sex in the film was his way of exploring possibilities. He wanted to be sure that if he ever met someone he would be able to give them pleasure.”

Hawkes can’t ignore the Oscar buzz for his performance. He’s not one of those actors who will ignore the issue.

“You can’t hear the Oscar talk enough,” he says. “I think it’s a great thing, although crazy at the same time. I don’t presume anything.”

Big Picture News Inc.

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