Helen Hunt ‘just had to’ portray sex surrogateBy Ruben V. Nepales
Philippine Daily Inquirer
LOS ANGELES—We didn’t know there was such a job as a sex surrogate until we saw Helen Hunt play one in writer-director Ben Lewin’s “The Sessions.” Physically baring all in one of this year’s best performances, Helen plays a real-life sex surrogate. She assists a California-based journalist and poet confined to an iron lung lose his virginity at age 38.
“Welcome to sex therapy,” we teased Helen at the start of our interview in Toronto. “Get naked,” she joked back without losing a beat.
“The Sessions” is based on “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” a magazine article written by Mark O’Brien, who survived a bout of childhood polio but had to spend most of his time in an iron lung. Mark (an equally compelling John Hawkes) set out to lose his virginity with the help of a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Greene, and the guidance of his priest, Father Brendan (played with sly humor by William H. Macy).
To prepare for the role, Helen had extensive talks with Cheryl, now a grandmother, a cancer survivor and still works as a sex surrogate. While William’s Father Brendan is a fictional character created by Ben, Mark, a practicing Catholic, consulted several priests in real life (one recommended that he has sex). Toward the end of Mark’s life (he died at age 49 in 1999), he found an unexpected joy, Susan Fernbach, who became his lover and literary collaborator.
Grace and humor
“The Sessions” tackles what potentially could be an embarrassing or sentimental subject. But the film is surprisingly done with grace, candor and humor. The film also benefits from its two leads. Helen is superbly convincing, with a mixture of toughness and vulnerability.
On her full frontal nudity scenes, Helen said, “I was in denial about the no-clothes part for a while. It’s rare to read a good script—you know how few there are. I thought it was a beautiful story. I had never seen this woman on film before. You couldn’t really compare it to other things; it’s not like Juno meets Spider-Man. All of that made me want to grab it. Then came the business of looking totally comfortable while wearing nothing; how Cheryl will speak, walk, start one way and end up another. I just said yes before I had time to think about it.”
The Oscar and Golden Globe best actress winner for “As Good As It Gets” shared our ignorance about the existence of sex surrogates. Laughing, she admitted, “I had heard of sex therapists but I had not heard of a surrogate who actually has sex with you.”
Helen confirmed that there is a professional association of sex surrogates in America. “They work through therapists. You don’t go directly to a sex surrogate. You must have a therapist who oversees what you do.” Asked if there are male sex surrogates, Helen laughed and replied, “I have no idea. Wow. Maybe that’s for the sequel?”
(The website of the International Professional Surrogates Association, based in LA, states that they do have male and female members.)
“There is training where you learn all versions of therapy,” Helen said of the certification required to be a surrogate. “A lot of it is learning about yourself— what are your hangups? Are you bringing those to the encounter?”
The actress with the soothing voice stressed that surrogates don’t work exclusively with disabled people like Mark. “Cheryl mentioned prostate cancer survivors and men who feel stuck in their marriage,” Helen cited samples of the surrogates’ clients. “Men damaged as children and who are now in marriages with beautiful women but have lost their confidence or physical ability to have sex. Or they have a fantasy they’re too scared to share.”
There’s a brilliantly acted scene in which Helen’s Cheryl sees the deformed physique of John’s Mark for the first time. Helen related, “When she sees how extreme his disability is, she is overwhelmed and thinks, ‘Oh my God, how is this going to work?’ But she can’t let him see that on her face. If he sees just a flicker of fear on her face [that will be the end of it].”
Helen continued: “It wasn’t Cheryl’s job to analyze Mark. Her job was to [provide] an environment in which he could feel safe to have this little wish he had come true. One thing I heard that is the difference between a prostitute and a sex surrogate is that a prostitute wants your return business. A sex surrogate does not—her goal is to have this time with you and send you on your way to have love in your life. I thought that was pretty cool.”
On the bed scenes, in which an immobile John could only convey emotions through his eyes and face, Helen commented, “I didn’t know John.” With a chuckle, she continued, “I still don’t really know him. I think that helped. It’s the truth. But I knew he was a spectacular actor. So when you have a beautiful story, 75 percent of your troubles are done. Then you have a wonderful actor who takes care of another chunk so by the time it was time to decide, I was pretty desperate to be in it.”
“John and I spoke very little,” Helen continued. “I rehearsed less on this movie than most movies I’ve done. We talked just enough so we were basically on the same page. I don’t even remember if we [discussed] the moment that Cheryl and Mark feel something deeper for each other. I had that mapped out for myself. John couldn’t help in terms of the blocking because his character doesn’t move.”
As for the nude scenes, Helen wanted to know how the nudity would be shot: “I’ve worked enough to know you don’t just figure it out when you get there. I could not have been comfortable if I had been thinking where the camera was going to be. So the cameraman, the director and I went to my guest house. I said, ‘If John is lying down here and I’m there, where will the camera be?’ By the time I got to the set, I knew.”
She continued: “[With] John and I, the chemistry really was the vulnerability—‘I don’t know you; you don’t know me.’ We … wish to bring this story together. ‘I don’t want you to feel humiliated; you don’t want me to feel humiliated.’ It was very much like the story.”
Helen gave credit to her director for the film’s success. “Ben seemed to be really interested in telling an unadorned story,” she said. “I find sex in movies, including those that I’ve been a part of, just adorned with weirdness. Sometimes weirdness is fun, I suppose, but what would it be like if all the shame, bells, whistles, lightning and clenched hands—just for one movie—stepped aside and two human beings were together? I wanted to do that.”
Cheryl sounds like a remarkable woman, based on what Helen told us about her. The actress explained, “The moment I thought I actually understood this woman was when she used the term ‘sex positive.’ Cheryl said, ‘Oh I loved her. She was very sex positive.’ I thought I wanted to do that … to be in a movie where I get to embody the spirit of that. More than anything, she said she was enthusiastic about sex, her grandchildren and paintings. She’s interested in what you’re doing. I thought it was pretty wonderful to get to embody that for the weeks that I was making the movie.”
On the interaction between Cheryl and Mark in real life, Helen said, “She adored him. I don’t think the romantic moment in the film happened exactly that way. But I know that she adored him and she was rooting for him. She was so happy when he met Susan, the woman at the end of his life. You can tell from the movie that his sense of humor is great. That’s aphrodisiac for most women. He had that, and the poetry … his poetry was spectacular.”
Ultimately, Helen deserves huge credit for such a natural performance. Looking fit in the film and in person, Helen talked about how she stays in shape: “I do yoga. I retired from dieting and monitoring my weight in my 20s. I was in there with every other actress in some stupid exercise class in the ’80s. One of the things I love about the movie is when the mikvah lady says, ‘This is the body God has crafted for you.’ I want my daughter to get that message. Whatever shape she becomes—and she’s sick of me saying this—I just say, ‘Love your body.’”
Asked for an update on her other career as a writer-director, Helen cracked, “I have one in my bag. You want to pay for it?”
Then she said, “I have a movie that I wrote that I hope I’m moments away from having financed. The first one I did, ‘Then She Found Me,’ was partly based on a novel. This is just from my own strange head. It’s a mother-son story, a sort of empty nest-goes-insane story. I’m very hopeful that I get to shoot it soon.”
Email the columnist at rvnepales_5585@yahoo. com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/ nepalesruben.
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