There’s not much that Helen Hunt hasn’t done in Hollywood. An actress since age 9, she has appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows, had a hit sitcom and she’s written, directed and produced plenty more. But Hunt heads into the great unknown with “The Sessions,” in which she portrays real life sexual surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene who works Mark O’Brien, a man whose childhood struggle with polio left him paralyzed from the neck down. While the full-frontal nudity required of the role left Hunt craving “sweatpants and a hamburger” at the end of the day, the beautiful story was well worth the sacrifice, she tells us.
One of the most fascinating things about this movie is your character’s job as a sexual surrogate for those who have physical handicaps. What was the most interesting aspect of what she does?
To me the most interesting part was just her spirit, her vibe, her unabashed, slightly loud, no-bulls–t Boston accent, her excited way of talking about sex. That was a cocktail I had never seen before.
Did you come to understand why she went into that profession?
Basically she was born a very sexual person, which I hadn’t heard anybody say in a movie. … She found out that there was such a thing as surrogacy and there was an entire association devoted to training people and making sure they watch out for their own weirdness affecting the other people, which is like any therapist. … I think it seemed to be that over time it grew into a real vocation.
At different points in a person’s career there are things you’re willing to do and there are things you’re not willing to do. What made you feel ready to do the nudity now?
The first thing is reading a good story. It’s so rare that you read a story you haven’t heard a hundred times and a characcter that I [haven’t] seen in life or in a movie — just an utterly new person to create. And then [it’s] a feeling of like, it’s getting late, what am I gonna wait for or worry about? Just jump in.
It’s been said that you and John Hawkes not knowing each other before filming enhanced this awkward encounter that you were performing. Could you talk about what that was like?
We weren’t playing people who’d been married for 20 years — that would have been harder. It wasn’t until we started doing press for the movie that I was like, I don’t know this person at all really and we went through this incredible experience at the end of it. We saw each other and went, “What did we just do? What happened in there? Holy s–t.” I saw him at the wrap party looking all handsome with that product in his hair and his boots and I went, “Woah, woah, woah, this is not what I was playing at all!” But at the time, we were blessed with the coincidence of talking about it two or three times and jumping in, which was kind of one less thing you had to invent.
Thrill of the Hunt
It’s not easy for any actress to do full-frontal nudity, but when people interview them about it, the first thing they often say is that wasn’t even the hardest part of the job. Would you agree with that?
This was different, but I would say the vulnerability, mine as an actress but also his as a character, the combination of the real vulnerability in the room and the vulnerability you’re trying to bring to life meant for a very vulnerable work day. By the end of the day, I wanted my sweat pants on and a hamburger and to be in bed. It was a lot of naked all day. But I guess in the way that I would agree with what you’re saying is it wasn’t just about naked with no clothes on, it was also just about being so open and being with someone who is playing someone who actually had the courage to do this on their own behalf. It’s pretty incredible.