America Gangster and The Perfect Storm actor John Hawkes scored rave reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival after viewers witnessed his portrayal of Mark O’ Brien, a man in an iron lung who hopes to lose his virginity, in the Ben Lewin directed movie The Surrogate.
Talking with SpeakEasy at the festival about his difficult role in the film that is based on a true story, Hawkes shared how he prepared for his role as the thirty-eight year old O’Brien, who enlists a sex surrogate with the help of his therapist and priest, on his unique mission to experience human connection.
“At the first meeting with Ben, an essential question I had when we sat down—before it was decided I’d be in the movie—was, “Why not a disabled actor?” And Ben assured me that he’d been looking and that he found some wonderful actors but nobody who quite fit into how he saw Mark. He’d auditioned [disabled] actors. Ben being a polio survivor himself made me a little less nervous about taking work away from a group of people that’s under employed as it is. Once I was cast there was a lot of preparation. Physically I have worked out, for 25 years, every day. So, I stopped doing that [to lose muscle tone].”
Hawkes explained his need to forgo a body double, and how he went about transforming himself into a believable O’Brien for the role. “There was talk of a body double and I was not interested in that. I thought if I can’t make this work without gimmick then I didn’t want to do it. I felt it was important that there be no prosthetics or CGI or anything. I wore no makeup and used a device that I’d insisted on and helped design, a soccer ball piece of foam. I would lay it under the left side of my body to approximate Mark’s curved spine. The story speaks of that. As an actor you have to honor that and make it plausible. I call it the torture ball. So that was one piece of physical preparation.”
Hawkes also trained himself to use a mouth stick for the filming of The Surrogate. “I didn’t do many hours at a time with the mouth stick. I just made a mouth stick. Jessica Yu’s film Breathing Lessons [an Academy Award winning short documentary released in 1996] was the best tool an actor could ask for. So, I made a mouth stick like Mark’s. I’d practice an hour or two at a time tops…and because it’s a film and not a play, I knew if I had moments with the mouth stick that weren’t convincing they could cut around them. I got pretty good at turning pages and typing.”
The fifty-two year performer shared that he spent a great deal of time listening to Mark O’Brien to tackle his voice, building on his very believable performance in the film. “The only recordings of him speaking were in Breathing Lessons, which was enough. The film is basically 20 minutes basically of his voice. In my own low tech way, I was able to suck the audio out of the film onto a CD and listen to it in the car constantly to try to get his voice right. If that film hadn’t existed I would have taken a different approach but I always like specificity as an actor. And Mark’s timbre of his voice and dialect were quite specific, and I tried to emulate that as best I could. I read every article he had written, every poem he wrote, and a book called How I Became a Human Being that he co-wrote about his life, and that was also invaluable.”
Since its premiere at Sundance, The Surrogate has already been acquired by Fox Searchlight for $6 million, making John Hawkes, and the Ben Lewin creation one of the most highly anticipated films this year to come out of the annual event.