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Published: Saturday, October 20, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Noncomformist actor John Hawkes getting Oscar buzz

  • John Hawkes portrays a paralyzed man determined to lose his virginity with the help of a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, in "The Sessions."

    Fox Searchlight Pictures

    John Hawkes portrays a paralyzed man determined to lose his virginity with the help of a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, in "The Sessions."

John Hawkes is a Hollywood actor who has decided not to live a Hollywood lifestyle.
He has never bought a new car. He has never owned a home, aside from one he purchased for his mother a few years ago. (At 53, he's a lifelong renter.) And he definitely doesn't care about digital technology.
"You may be amazed," Hawkes warns wryly as he reaches into his red canvas messenger bag and pulls out a black Motorola phone with which the adjective "smart" will never be associated. "This is my communications device," he announces. Hawkes -- not surprisingly, given his device -- confirms that he does not use e-mail.
"I've just chosen not to and have made a life happen without it," he said. "I'm not interested in Twitter and Facebook and things. I'd rather meet people and talk to them."
Living life on his terms -- streamlined, modest and devoid of texting, even though his career is thriving -- may make Hawkes an anomaly in L.A., or anywhere else in America for that matter. But it seems to be working out well for the Minnesota native.
Two years after earning his first Academy Award nomination for playing a feral meth head in "Winter's Bone," Hawkes is starring in two of this year's presumptive trophy contenders. Next month, he will appear as a Civil War colonel in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." And beginning Friday he can be seen in "The Sessions," a tender dramedy in which he plays a paralyzed man determined to lose his virginity with the assistance of a sex surrogate. (Although it's playing in a few cities, no release date has been set for the Seattle area, according to the movie's website.)
That second film has sparked Oscar conversation around Hawkes' performance, with readers of awards-season tea leaves saying he could be in the best-actor mix for his portrayal of Mark O'Brien, a writer who contracted polio as a child, spent most of his days in an iron lung and died in 1999 at age 49.
To become O'Brien, Hawkes had to mold his mind, body and voice to match those of a man with a severely curved spine, semi-slurred speech and the inability to move a single muscle below his neck.
Over a two-week period he trained himself to use a mouth stick -- a rod O'Brien placed between his lips and used to dial a telephone, type and turn pages in books. He watched the O'Brien-based short documentary "Breathing Lessons" 40 or 50 times, by his estimate.
And for much of the film's shoot, he laid stone-still with a soccer-ball-sized piece of rubber foam wrapped in duct tape -- an object dubbed the "torture ball" -- tucked under the left-middle portion of his back, a1llowing him to replicate the permanent arch in O'Brien's prostrate posture.
Says "Sessions" director Ben Lewin, also a survivor of childhood polio: "I think he had a very high degree of tolerance to the discomfort." (Lewin gets around easily on crutches, but very briefly lived in an iron lung when he was young.)
Story tags » MoviesCelebrities

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