Helen Hunt is a real woman, and she brings real women to cinema.
In The Sessions, that real woman is professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene, who is hired by Mark O’Brien, a writer crippled by polio. After researching an article on sex and the disabled, he decides he wants help to lose his virginity.
Hunt, 49, won the Best Actress Oscar in 1998 for playing an over-worked single mother who forms a unlikely relationship with an oddball loner with OCD, played by Jack Nicolson, in As Good As It Gets.
Now her latest portrayal of an unlikely and touching relationship, in The Sessions, has garnered Hunt her second Oscar nomination.
Within minutes of appearing on screen, Cheryl whips off her clothes and is asking Mark, played by Winter’s Bone star John Hawkes, if he wants to feel her breasts. But as they frankly discuss sex, life and love in their sessions, the pair’s bond grows beyond physicality.
It’s groundbreaking, deeply moving, and it’s no wonder the film’s attracted awards buzz after wowing at all the festivals – but Hunt modestly insists she is just pleased it’s already being so positively received.
“It’s exciting. A movie like this, if this movie got that kind of attention it would be a good day for film-makers and moviegoers and actors and women, I think it would be great.”
She admits exposing so much of herself on screen wasn’t easy, but adds: “My excitement about the part was bigger than my nerves, so I did it.
“It was both scary and liberating. I don’t think you get liberated unless you overcome something that’s scary. But I felt so excited about giving myself the gift of spending a few weeks in the body of somebody who is positive and enthusiastic about all aspects of life, including sex.”
The film, which follows the development of Mark and Cheryl’s friendship, from a working relationship to forming a special bond, is directed by Ben Lewin, who himself is a polio survivor.
To research for the role, Hunt spoke to the real-life Cohen-Greene. “I talked to her on the phone and was not expecting to get much help, because often you don’t get as much help as one might think, meeting a real person that you’re playing.
“But in this case it was hugely helpful. She’s a fantastic spirit of a woman and I just stole as much as I could from her.”
In the film, Hunt and Hawkes get extremely intimate, but to keep the awkwardness as real as possible, they made a pact to keep their distance off camera.
“We did zero bonding really. Before, during, or after the movie,” reveals Hunt. “It’s funny, it’s rare that I’ve worked with someone that I know so little, and it was a perfect dynamic for the movie.
“We got to capitalise on the fact that we didn’t know each other. We were vulnerable, and strangers, exactly like in the movie.”
The daughter of respected acting coach Gordon Hunt, Hunt began acting when she was just eight and has since moved into directing and co-owns her own production company Hunt/Tavel Productions. She’s living proof that there is work in Hollywood for 40-something women who aren’t afraid to break boundaries.