John Hawkes on Sundance Hit The Surrogate: Challenging Role Hurt, But It Was Worth It

Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate emerged as the undisputed hit of Sundance 2012, landing the biggest sale thus far (a $6 million sale to Fox Searchlight) with the unlikeliest of subjects: A paralyzed man’s quest to lose his virginity, based on the life and writings of Bay Area poet Mark O’Brien. Thanks to Lewin’s sensitive and honest script and an impressive turn by indie favorite John Hawkes -- who shines with wit and grace in a physically demanding performance as O’Brien, who has no use of his limbs due to polio but begins to explore his sexuality with the help of a hands-on sex therapist (Helen Hunt) – The Surrogate earned consecutive standing ovations and got critics buzzing with the possibilities for next year’s Academy Awards.

Movieline sat down with Hawkes in Park City to discuss the indie labor of love, why O’Brien’s story resonates so powerfully, and how opportunities have expanded for him since breaking out two years ago at Sundance with his Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone.

You folks got two standing ovations here at Sundance, and made the biggest sale of the festival – how are you feeling right now, in this moment?
It’s surreal, it really is! I’m trying to process it. I don’t concern myself too much with that but I’m really glad Fox Searchlight bought the movie; they did a wonderful job with Martha Marcy May Marlene and they’re great people, so hopefully our little movie is in good hands.

I grew up close to Berkeley and was a little familiar with Mark O’Brien before seeing the film, but it captured that sense of place for me – especially with little touches like Pink Man to set the atmosphere.
Yes, of course! That’s good, because we shot in Los Angeles because we couldn’t afford to shoot up there. We had to make our own Pink Man and everything. [Laughs] Luckily there are a couple of Victorian streets in Los Angeles that we were able to utilize.

How familiar were you with O’Brien’s story beforehand?
I was minutely aware of Mark because I had heard of Jessica Yu’s amazing, Academy Award-winning short doc about Mark, called Breathing Lessons. I’d just vaguely kind of remembered that, and I may have seen an article about him at that time, but it was a new kind of story to me when I picked up the script and read it. I was pretty taken with the script itself, by Ben Lewin, and knowing he was going to direct the film which is often a wonderful thing – it’s the person who wrote the script, directing the movie. I just thought he was an extraordinarily interesting man, a polio survivor himself and very uniquely qualified to tell the story.

When the project came to you – a very challenging role, to say the least -- what made you decide you had to do it?
My first question to Ben, as we sat down to meet before he’d offered the role and before I’d accepted the role, was ‘Why not a disabled actor?’ And he assured me that he had taken the last couple of years, he’d put out feelers to disabled groups, and had auditioned several people – a couple of them are in the film – and just felt like he hadn’t found his Mark. So with that huge question answered, I talked to Ben a lot about how he saw the film as a whole, how he saw the character of Mark; I had my ideas, we chatted and seemed to get along really well, so it was a good fit. We went forward from there. And this is a very small project. Ben raised the money by appealing to friends, basically, and so this tiny little script suddenly attracting William H. Macy, Helen Hunt, and a bunch of other wonderful actors – it’s vindicating to read something and think, ‘This is really good!’ And then you realize other people think so too. I’m not insane, it is a great script!

How challenging was the shoot itself, physically?
It was very challenging – again, a minute amount of the challenge that a disabled person faces, moment to moment, but certainly it was physically challenging. I helped invent a device that we used to curve Mark’s spine, basically a large piece of foam that we nicknamed ‘The Torture Ball’ because it would lay under the left side of my body and curve my spine for every shot in the movie. Sometimes I’d have to lay on that for an hour at a time, and it was hard – it apparently displaced my organs. [Laughs] My chiropractor told me that my organs were migrating and to hopefully finish the movie soon. I have minor health issues that may relate to laying on that thing, but nothing compared to what many people suffer daily, and it’s a small price to pay for what’s turned out to be a really beautiful film.

To paraphrase Mark himself in the film, it may have hurt – but it was worth it?
Yes! Definitely.

It’s an interesting choice that Ben made to present Mark’s story here not as a straight biopic but with a focus on his relationship with his sex surrogate. What do you think that shifted angle brings, as opposed to a more conventional portrayal?
Interesting. I think Ben originally had seen the movie as a biopic and then began to realize that the part of Mark’s life that interested him the most was his quest to learn his sexual possibilities as a disabled man. I think it’s a really wise choice; biopics are interesting, but I’d rather see a documentary of a person’s whole life, and I’d much rather see a narrative feature focused on a small piece of their life. And if you can focus on a small piece of someone’s life and tell it well enough, I think it informs the whole of their life. And there’s a real interesting story there – there’s a relationship that develops, certainly heightened in our film, but with the blessing of the real surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Green, to heighten and complicate their relationship a bit and to make it a love story of sorts. The subject matter, as you describe it, doesn’t have wide appeal but I think it has so much humor and so much truth, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Mark’s voice really comes through – the same painfully honest, witty spirit you can see in his writings.
It was important to me to fight self-pity at every turn, and for the film as a whole to fight sentiment as much as possible.

He certainly never wanted people to feel sorry for him.
No! The idea that he was a courageous person and stuff, he thought was bullshit. Like, how do you presume to know what I feel, what I go through? I think through his articles he was very interested in the political and social aspects of his disability. One thing that’s striking about Jessica Yu’s film, and I believe I also read something Mark wrote about it, is that to the taxpayer – to those of us who help support disabled people by paying taxes – it was half or maybe one-third of the cost of him being in an institution and live on his own, to pay rent, to hire attendance, way less of a strain on the taxpayer than keeping him an institution, where he was sadly stuck for a few years of his life when his parents were too old to take care of him. Luckily, the University of California, Berkeley in the ‘70s said, we’ll take care of any student who qualifies, who can pass our admission – it doesn’t matter what their disability. There’s an amazing photograph of his iron lung, 800 lbs. of it, hanging from a crane right outside his dorm room window as they’re trying to get it inside. So I know Mark always had a really felt beholden to Berkeley and felt a wonderful debt to that college and that town. They opened up his life, he was kind of reborn in his 30s in Berkeley.

Sex and love are central to Mark’s journey in this film, and it’s such a fascinating terrain to explore – the relationship between disability and sexuality, and sexuality and manhood, and what they all might have meant to him.
I can’t exactly speak in exact detail to his innermost thought, but he was quite effusive in his writings. In Jessica Yu’s film there is a brief mention of his surrogate time. Bill Macy’s made the point that he worked with a group, and disabled people, like able-bodied people, want to be independent as much as possible and live their lives that way, and they also want to love and be loved. Those are commonalities among people everywhere, and certainly disabled people are no exception. I think that Mark mainly was interested in sex because he was more largely interested in love and in a relationship with someone, and I think that he felt that if he ever met someone he could love, that he would want to have explored his possibilities, sexually. So that’s where the surrogate comes in.

The minute that the first screening here ended, folks were buzzing about The Surrogate and next year's Oscars.
It’s a little early! [Laughs] It’s a lot early. I mean, there may be twenty more amazing films that come out in the next year. I hope so! So who knows? It’s way too early and it doesn’t exactly make me nervous, I just turn a deaf ear to it because low expectations have always been the key to happiness for me. I don’t want to expect things to happen as much as hope, and if those Oscar predictions come true, fantastic – because it will bring more people to this film.

After the success of Winter’s Bone, perhaps, how much did things change for you? Has the way that you’ve chosen projects in the last few years evolved at all?
No, though I’ve certainly been afforded the opportunity to choose what I might be a part of. It’s not like every director in every movie is seeking me out by any means, there are a lot of things I’m not suited for, a lot of things I’m not interested in, and a lot of things that directors wouldn’t be interested in me for.

What are you interested in?
I’m interested in amazing stories told by talented people, and to get to play a terrific role. The three things I try to find are story, parts, people.

Has it gotten easier to find the great characters?
You know, I think it maybe is. It’s certainly changed for me because when I first got to Los Angeles 20 years ago, I had worked a lot of my life and was still working regular jobs. Acting was more fun to me, and paid better when I could get the gigs, so in order to avoid any further carpentry and restaurant work and things I’d been doing for many years, I just took whatever came my way. I was happy to be able to pay rent and eat. Certainly I’m freer now; I don’t get to do everything I want to do, but I no longer have to do things I don’t want to do -- so that’s good.

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  • The Pope says:

    I believe you when you say John Hawkes "shines", but hasn't Helen Hunt been there before with The Waterdance?

    • Jen Yamato says:

      Yes indeed, an interesting coincidence. Her supporting performance is strong as well, as is Macy's (though he does not get naked). Bottom line though - great showcase for Hawkes.

  • Maya says:

    Great interview! Look forward to seeing this movie when it comes out.

  • As a man living with a disability and professionally committed to helping people with disabilities explore sexuality, I'm very excited about this film and how it will open the general public's eyes to the desires and longings of all disabled people.

  • Excellent film. I knew it was oscar material when i saw the rough cut 4 months ago. I was right.