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Polio Victim Searches for Love in 'The Sessions'

  • Alan Silverman

Helen Hunt as “Cheryl Cohen Greene” and John Hawkes as “Mark O’Brien.” Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Helen Hunt as “Cheryl Cohen Greene” and John Hawkes as “Mark O’Brien.” Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

John Hawkes and Helen Hunt co-star in The Sessions, the true story of a man paralyzed by polio but determined to have a full life.


In the movie and in real life, Mark O'Brien contracted polio when he was six years old. Although he was paralyzed from the neck down, he went on to graduate from university and have a career as a writer. The Sessions is adapted from a chapter in his life when he set out to experience intimacy with the help of a trained therapist - a sex surrogate - named Cheryl.



Actor John Hawkes, who plays Mark O'Brien, earned an Oscar nomination for the 2010 drama Winter's Bone. He is likely to be an awards contender again for this portrayal.

"It was a great story, really well-drawn on the page, and the character was so singular and unusual and fascinating to me that I wasn't sure how I would do it, but I knew that I did want to do it," Hawkes says.

Academy Award-winner Helen Hunt co-stars as the therapist Cheryl, whom she met while preparing for the film.

Helen Hunt as “Cheryl Cohen Greene.” Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Helen Hunt as “Cheryl Cohen Greene.” Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

"Talking to her was the thing that got me excited about playing the part: her energy and extroversion and lack of dark, strange, giggly shame-filled weirdness around sex that, I guess, I've become accustomed to watching in movies …and it's just not there," explains Hunt. "I got very excited about bringing that to the screen because I hadn't seen it before. I hadn't seen it in person and I hadn't seen it in a movie."

William H. Macy plays Father Brendan, the priest who struggles with and then gives his blessing to Mark's unusual request.

"We always want to see our heroes triumph, and you can do it climbing a mountain or shooting down the other airplane or in an iron lung," notes Macy. "This guy who has a soul and heart as big as all outdoors and who wanted life, he was ferocious about life and he wanted to experience everything there is about life."

Writer/Director Ben Lewin (L) and actor William H. Macy (R) on the set of THE SESSIONS. Photo By Sarah M. Golonka

Writer/Director Ben Lewin (L) and actor William H. Macy (R) on the set of THE SESSIONS. Photo By Sarah M. Golonka

Mark O'Brien died in 1999. The Sessions is written and directed by Ben Lewin, who also contracted polio as a child but went on to live his dream of becoming a filmmaker.
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