If truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction, sometimes it’s also more compelling. In their new film, “The Sessions,” costars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt found plenty of inspiration in their characters’ real-life counterparts: the late Mark O’Brien, an author confined to an iron lung after contracting polio as a boy, and Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex surrogate he enlisted to help him lose his virginity at age 38.
At a recent installment of The Envelope Screening Series hosted by Times film reporter John Horn, Hawkes said he based much of his performance on the real O’Brien, having read his autobiography, “How I Became a Human Being,” and watched Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning short documentary about O’Brien, “Breathing Lessons.”
“There was Mark’s body, and there was his voice,” Hawkes said, referring to Yu’s film. “And so I didn’t invent a lot. I just tried to really take as much of the Mark that I saw and tried to make it my own, to embody him.”
Hunt, for her part, said she has played real people in previous films but always relied on her own thoughts and ideas about the character to guide her. This time, however, she “had no plan” and didn’t expect to experience a “burning-bush moment” upon meeting Greene.
Fortunately, Hunt was struck by Greene’s enthusiasm and openness, and found her inspiration there. “I took everything,” Hunt said. She added, “Grabbing at my version of her aliveness was the best idea I had, so I did it.”
For more of Hawkes and Hunt, plus insight from director Ben Lewin, watch the full clip above.