Oscar-worthy: Actor John Hawkes Searches for Love in The Sessions

After his first Oscar nomination in 2011, Hawkes skipped the fortune and used his new fame to make a low budget movie about a polio survivor who hires a sex surrogate to deflower him. TIME talks to the actor about his method, working with Daniel Day-Lewis and why another Oscar nomination won't faze him

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Sarah M. Golonka/Fox Searchlight Pictures

John Hawkes in 'The Sessions'

John Hawkes’ mobile device is the farthest thing from smart. “It could take pictures if I wanted it to,” he gently protests in its defense when he is teased about his non-movie star communication device. “I don’t need my phone to do the dishes or anything.” Forget surfing the Internet to see how the odds are looking for him to land a best actor Oscar nomination for his new movie, The Sessions. If that were his thing—and it’s not, the 53-year-old Hawkes doesn’t even have an email account—he’d find the odds are solid and holding steady, even with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln fixing a steely, serious eye on theaters in November.

The Sessions is total Oscar bait. Hawkes plays a severely disabled man who hires a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to deflower him. It’s a laugh and cry true story; the real Mark O’Brien was ravaged by polio at age six, left physically helpless and yet grew up to be a Berkeley-based journalist and poet with a wicked sense of humor and a desire to make love with a woman, at least once. There was considerable physical challenge involved in the portrayal; Hawkes spends the whole movie on his back and a portion of it in encased in an iron lung. O’Brien’s spine was bent, so Hawkes used a foam device he dubbed the Torture Ball under his back to create a sense of distortion. His chiropractor did not approve. He learned to type with a mouth stick. It’s all very worthy. But here’s the thing about The Sessions. It is so unusual and touching that it destroys cynical remove.

Ten minutes in Hawkes company and the business of him having the same phone your grandmother has for emergencies but never turns on makes perfect sense. He will star in many movies, but he’s never going to be a movie star; he’s too vested in vanishing. And for two decades as a working actor, that’s what he did. He knew enough casting directors to always count on, at minimum, a “they went thataway” gig to pay the rent. (And it was always rent. Still is, 20 years into living in Los Angeles. Hawkes did buy his mother a house though, back in Minnesota.) Few connected the dots—put the guy who was the doomed crew member on the Andrea Gail in The Perfect Storm together with the hapless shoe salesman Miranda July stalked in Me and You and Everyone We Know or with savvy Sol Star in HBO’s Deadwood. “I feel like if I have been effective as an actor, it’s because people have no idea who I am,” he says.

(READ: John Hawkes’s Strange and Dangerous Sex Appeal in Martha Marcy May Marlene)

Then two years ago, Hawkes was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting work in Winter’s Bone, playing Teardrop, Jennifer Lawrence’s terrifying meth-dealing/doing uncle. Not a nice man, although in the back hills of the Ozarks, a good guy to have your back. (Topping that role in terms of scary, last year he played the cult leader Patrick in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a coolly charismatic man who made Teardrop look almost cuddly.) The nomination opened some doors, including one to Steven Spielberg (more on that later) and a fresh stack of scripts landed on his doorstep.

“There was for me this rare thing of having a choice of what to do next,” Hawkes says. He’s sitting in a Ritz Carlton in Boston wearing a corduroy jacket he might have snatched off a Minnesotan college professor. “Big budget, medium budget and the one that I loved was the lowest budget of all.” That was The Sessions, which was then called The Surrogate, and would later, on set, acquire the more evocative nickname “[Expletive] Me, I Can’t Move.”

When Hawkes sat down with writer/director Ben Lewin, who hadn’t made a feature film since 1994, both men were hesitant. Teardrop had rightly chilled Lewin to the bone. Was Hawkes a creep too? Instead Lewin found a man far closer to O’Brien in terms of sense of humor and warmth. Hawkes wanted to be assured that there wasn’t a disabled actor out there who could play the part (Lewin had tried). While he was comforted by Lewin’s relationship to the material—the Australian director is a polio survivor who walks with the aid of canes—he was worried about Lewin’s “relative dormancy as a director.” He watched Lewin’s last feature, Paperback Romance, and as he puts it “I wasn’t blown away by it by any means.” He took a week to mull it over. “I would just read the script every day and say, this guy knows how to tell a story.”

(MORE: Secret Lincoln Screening Generates Big Buzz)

Lewin and his wife, producer Judi Levine, raised the money themselves in increments of $5,000 and $10,000. Hawkes enlisted his old friends, Deadwood’s Robin Weigert and The Perfect Storm’s Rusty Schwimmer for supporting roles. William H. Macy signed on to play the charming comic role of Mark O’Brien’s priest, who hears his confessions about every aspect of the series of sessions he has with the surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Green. Meanwhile the script had made its way to Helen Hunt, who was interested in the role of Cheryl. She’d played the lover of a paralyzed man in 1992’s The Waterdance, which initially made Hawkes nervous she’d be retreading old ground. Instead Hunt is a likely Oscar nominee as well, in the supporting actress category. “The word ‘brave’ is thrown around acting performances a little too frequently, but this is a very brave, courageous performance by Helen,” Hawkes says. (Hunt spends a good amount of her screen time naked.) “And not just physically. She goes there in a really great way.”

In the two months he had to prepare, Hawkes watched Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning short documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. He stayed away from watching earlier films about disabled characters like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Sea Inside. “I like to maintain a purity,” he says. “I don’t like to reference other actors or performances while I’m acting.” He says he’s not technically a Method actor, because he’s had no formal training, but his methods tend to the Method. The Torture Ball was crucial in helping him experience the chronic discomfort O’Brien lived with. He stopped exercising to reduce his muscles but couldn’t possibly physically transform himself to the size of the 60 lb, 4′ 7″ O’Brien. “I didn’t pull a De Niro or a Christian Bale. I mean, I really admire those actors, but I didn’t have a year in advance to prepare.” He practiced stillness. A musician himself (he’s on the Winter’s Bone soundtrack), Hawkes listened to the kinds of music the very Catholic O’Brien loved—sacred, Gothic, old fashioned, like Hildegard von Bingen. The research done, he tried to forget it all once the camera started rolling and just be Mark O’Brien, “neither victim nor saint.”

One of the movies he avoided watching was My Left Foot—the film that won Daniel Day-Lewis his first Oscar and the one to which The Sessions has drawn apt comparisons. But a few months after wrapping The Sessions, he did have a chance to watch Day-Lewis in action. Those doors that opened because of Winter’s Bone landed Hawkes an introduction to Spielberg at a party and then a part in the director’s epic Lincoln. The part is small, as was the pay scale, but the Civil War buff in Hawkes thrilled at the experience. So was the actor who got to see the legendary Day-Lewis at work in their one scene together. “I have never met Daniel Day-Lewis, I can honestly say,” Hawkes says. “But I certainly hung out with Abraham Lincoln for 10 hours.”

There’s a good chance the camera will be trained on them both again at the 2013 Academy Awards. Though Hawkes clearly isn’t wasting any time pondering what that a win might be like. “There is no brass ring or top rung I am trying to get,” he says. “I love my life. I don’t want it to change. I want to be invisible in the crowd. I can observe human behavior in that way, which is my job.”

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