December 05, 2016

Helen Hunt talks “The Sessions,” nudity, and being an effective listener – OSCARS


By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: Whomever floated the theory that there are no good roles for actresses older than a certain age forgot to tell Helen Hunt.

Sometimes she needs to hand the juicy roles to herself, as when she starred in her own directorial debut “Then She Found Me.” Other times, choice roles are offered to her, as when Ben Lewin pursued the 49-year-old beauty to play a no-nonsense sex therapist in the Sundance Film Festival prize winner “The Sessions.”

Hunt’s patient, in the film, isn’t exactly ordinary. Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) is a polio survivor who’s largely paralyzed from the neck down and confined to an iron lung. But his research into sexual intercourse has this freelance journalist interested in finally losing his own virginity, and Hunt’s character has accepted the challenge to make that wish come true.

Lewin’s “The Sessions” opens in limited release on Oct. 19, launching what Fox Searchlight hopes is a fruitful awards campaign for the film, it’s tender screenplay, and the emotionally captivating performances of the entire cast. It was a pleasure to sit down with Hunt at the Toronto International Film Festival and discuss this unique film, and the special tests that came with the role.

There’s a line in the screenplay that struck a chord with me. Mark says, “A door had opened in me that I could not close.” And I’m wondering if you’ve ever had a metaphorical door open for you at any point that you just weren’t able to close.

Well, I discovered after reading this script and speaking to the real woman whom I played this term she used, which was “Sex Positive.” And that was my job in the movie, to come in and be the embodiment of a positive way of being with sexuality … a sense that there is no need for shame, that what you feel is accepted. That you can say what you like and what you don’t like. All of those very kind-of “uncool” things when you are looking at movies.

I want that for my kids when they grow up, you know? I want there to be an atmosphere that they will need to make themselves that says, “I’m going to have a safe, positive sexual life.” It is your right to want that.

I want that, too! But we’re Catholic.

Right. [Laughs] Bummer!

These characters, too, are such excellent listeners.

That’s such a good point.

Did that come from tapping into the therapist side of the role?

Yes, I think that’s a really good point. Part of Bill [Macy’s] job, obviously, is to listen. But I think my character, too … and again, that’s just a metaphor for any time two people are naked in a bedroom. You better listen to the other. There’s something that I read in Mark’s book. He wanted to do something, and she said, “No, we’re not going to do that because I hate that, but somebody else might really like it!” [Laughs] And that’s just true. That’s what happens. Suddenly, there are two human beings together in a room, and he’s supposed to be like, “This.” And she’s supposed to be, “This!” None of that is real. And so I got to play the embodiment of the spirit, and you get to be the human being that you are.

Ben Lewin said you had no real rehearsals for this.

No. The cameramen and Ben and I mapped out the nudity parts so that I knew going in what we were doing. There were times when my agenda was, “I don’t really want to show this part at that time.” But other times, likes when she first comes in their room, that we all agreed she should be completely naked right away so that we weren’t being coy with the audience. We’re being whatever the opposite of coy is. That’s what the movie is.

He actually said the scene that made him most nervous was the dinner date scene …

Oh, that’s interesting!

Yes, because he said it was the first scene you shot, and you both were going to be fully clothed.

He did seem nervous! I think he thought I was doing it all wrong, if I remember. [Laughs]

In a hypothetical situation, if you were able to redo “The Sessions” but take one of the other two roles, which one would you like?

Maybe Bill’s, because John’s just seems so uncomfortable. [Laughs]

“The Sessions” opens in limited release on Friday, Oct. 19, and will expend everywhere in coming weeks.

Read more of our exclusive Awards coverage:
Our “Silver Linings Playbook” review
Ben Affleck tells us about “Argo” and the possibility of more Dennis Lehane stories
Bryan Cranston calls “Argo” his “proudest moment in motion pictures.”
Amy Adams lends strength to “The Master”
Producer Harvey Weinstein

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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