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John Hawkes Transcends the Physical in The Surrogate

John Hawkes at the premiere of The Surrogate. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images.

Claiborne Smith

John Hawkes is the man who sets a movie a little on edge, who upends your expectations of what you thought you were going to see. Because he becomes his characters so thoroughly, and because he doesn’t seek publicity, you could be forgiven for not knowing that paying attention to Hawkes’ characters should be on your agenda. Take Winter’s Bone. Hawkes plays the malevolently coiled Teardrop, the role that nabbed him an Oscar nomination last year (he also won an Independent Spirit Award for that performance). A lot of media attention rightfully went to Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout, starring role; but in a movie full of memorable performances, Teardrop is the character who’s lodged in your brain. Or recall Me and You Everyone We Know, from the 2005 Festival, in which he played Richard Swersey, the only character in that film able to absorb and match Miranda July’s surreal, rangy energy.

While those performances are technically considered supporting roles; Hawkes is undeniably the center of The Surrogate, screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Festival this year. Director Ben Lewin’s script is about the real-life poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who contracted polio as a child, which paralyzed him from the neck down. O’Brien spent all his time except for a few hours per week in an iron lung and died at his home in Berkeley in 1999 (The Surrogate is actually O’Brien’s second encounter with the Festival – in 1996, Jessica Yu’s documentary about O’Brien, Breathing Lessons, played at the Festival and received an Oscar in 1997). But The Surrogate isn’t exactly about what life was like for O’Brien in an iron lung – it’s about O’Brien’s attempt, at age 38, to find out what sex is like.

“I had some luck last year,” Hawkes says in a self-effacing way, “and got sent a lot of scripts around award season.” The Surrogate was the role “I was most excited about,” he says. “I just really was fascinated by the story and the character of Mark O’Brien, a very compelling guy and someone who I knew would be a real challenge to play.” So he met with Lewin at a deli for a few hours to talk it over “and from there it was trying to figure out who would be great in the rest of the cast.”

It’s clear that Hawkes relished the challenge. From asking the prop department to build him a piece of foam the size of a soccer ball he could place under his back as he lay in the iron lung (to mimic the curvature of O’Brien’s spine) to learning how to project the emotions of a character who has control of just one muscle in his right foot, one in his neck, and one in his jaw, Hawkes transforms himself into a nuanced, feisty, vulnerable, and thoughtful embodiment of O’Brien.

The heart of the movie occurs when O’Brien gets the nerve to hire a sex surrogate, someone who, unlike a sex therapist, actually has sex with a client – often someone who may be physically challenged or needs help overcoming issues with intimacy. In The Surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, the actual sex surrogate portrayed by Helen Hunt, allows O’Brien to have up to six sessions with her so that the relationship is limited to a therapeutic purpose.

The love scenes between the two characters (it becomes clear that these two people feel something for one another beyond sex) are unusually frank. “Ben was interested in an approach that was almost documentary and didn’t involve a lot of hiding and cutting,” Hawkes says. “Helen is there in a much more risky way than I am but Helen was very much dealing with a kind of vulnerability on screen. Those were hard scenes but we maintained a sense of humor and did the work to tell the story.”

That search for honest emotion and an authentic story keeps Hawkes anchored to indie film despite having achieved the kind of success that would allow him access to studio work. “Independent art tells the story the filmmaker wants to tell and that kind of art is the kind of art that changes the world, in my opinion,” Hawkes says. “When you paint the painting, you want to paint as opposed to guessing what others might want; it’s a powerful approach.”

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