Helen Hunt is an actor whose work has been recognized multiple times. For her role as Paul Reiser’s television wife, Jamie Buchman, on the hit television series “Mad About You,” Hunt received four Emmy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. She also received the coveted Oscar for her role in “As Good As It Gets” which co-starred Jack Nicholson. In her latest film, “The Sessions,” Hunt plays a sex surrogate helping a Polio-stricken young man, brilliantly portrayed by John Hawkes, achieve his dream of experiencing sex. Written and directed by Ben Lewin, the film also co-stars William H. Macy whose interview will be published in an upcoming edition of the Santa Monica Mirror.
Hunt recently sat down with a select group of journalists to discuss her experience in making this film, as well as her insights into being a mother and juggling her career with parental responsibilities.
The following has been edited for content and continuity for print purposes.
You look fantastic. Did you do any special physical preparation for the film?
Helen: This is already my favorite interview ever (laughter). I got the part a couple of weeks before we shot, so there was nothing I could do at that point. So, I just decided, since there was no other alternative, to try to be in the mindset of the movie, deciding this is the body God crafted for me, which is a line at the end of the movie.
When you first read the script and saw the amount of nudity, what was your first reaction?
Helen: I put it out of my mind at first because I thought the story was so beautiful and as you guys probably know, even more than me, there are so few good scripts, that I just said “yes.” I put away all the concerns as far as how much nudity there was and then I had to figure out how to play the part where they talk about you for a half hour before you walk in the door. I knew most people would be wondering, as I did, what is a sex surrogate? My only frame of reference is prostitutes or the virginal male fantasy of this kind of woman. Then I met the real woman whom I played (Cheryl Cohen Greene). I had never met anyone like her – someone where enthusiasm and extraversion and a sense of adventure was mixed with sex, so I thought that’s the person I want to be when I walk through the door.
What were some of the questions you asked Cheryl?
Helen: I asked her how she became a sex surrogate. She said she was born a very sexual person but born into a family and a religion that was really not interested in her enjoyment of sex. She went to Berkeley and talked about The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco where you could call right now and ask questions like I’m afraid my daughter is pregnant, what should I do? Or, I have to talk to my kid about sex, what do I say? I’m worried that I’ve gotten a disease, what should I do? Or, I’ve never had an orgasm. They will talk to you on the phone or email and help you. Then she talked about Masters & Johnson as the godparents of understanding sexuality (the team pioneered research into the subject) and felt like she had come home. She learned about being a surrogate and worked with a 70-year-old man who had never made love and worked with a woman who had completely frozen sexually because she thought she was deformed but was actually perfectly asymmetrically formed like other women, so that’s real quality help she’s offering.
Was there one scene in the film that presented a particular challenge for you?
Helen: It was all challenging, but in a good way. Sometimes scenes are challenging but not in a fun way, but I just felt excited to play a brand new person I hadn’t seen on screen before and to be part of creating an atmosphere where people could think about sex without shame and without kind of a choreographed fake version where everybody knows exactly what the other person is going to do. The blouse is going to come off at the right time and the lighting is going to be perfect.
What did you think about the religious component?
Helen: I liked the fact that she (her character) is converting to Judaism because that was part of the reason I said yes. I felt like it was a bit of a cleansing after having her heart pricked by an arrow that she didn’t count on.
What do you think is the most unique aspect of the story?
Helen: What’s unique about the movie is that both of them (John Hawkes character of Brian) have the same goal – which is that she leaves him with the ability to experience the part of life which he has been left out of forever. These people are imperfectly trying to accomplish this one small step for mankind.
You’ve been absent from the screen for a while. What made you return and how are you going to bridge the role of mother with the demands of your career?
Helen: As I mentioned, good scripts are rare and it’s hard to write a good part for a man or a woman. I have something very precious to do at home, so leaving home becomes a bigger decision. My daughter is eight now, so I feel that’s different. I’m working quite a bit and that didn’t feel right when she was six. Now it feels more right.
How do you manage to be “hands on” with your daughter when you’re working?
Helen: Most days I pick her up and drop her off or her father does and then I hear things driving home from school. Most days, if I pick her up, by the time her father gets home I say, ‘Oh my God, I just learned there’s this whole thing going on at school’ or that she’s feeling nervous about this, so that seemingly mundane time, because I’m obscenely lucky and can afford to be there, isn’t mundane.
What was your reaction when you saw the film?
Helen: I thought oh, this is what it would look like if we weren’t all so weird about sex and if there wasn’t so much shame and giggling and hiding. Until this movie, I can’t think of one that showed sex in quite this unadorned way.
What do you like about directing versus acting?
Helen: I love directing. It’s probably closer to my personality. You’re sitting here like this solving problems. You’re not naked in front of a bunch of strangers pouring your heart out. You know what I mean? So even though I enjoy acting, it’s kind of nice to go to work and keep your clothes on (laughter).
What are the advantages of a director who has also been an actor?
Helen: Somebody who understands acting and is interested in other people’s suggestions, while still having a clear plan. So many actors on TV, if you ask them, basically the director walks over and they go ‘I hope they’re not going to hear something that’s totally confusing.’ The idea that they would get a piece of direction that would be fun to do is rare and I know that personally.
What would be a confusing piece of direction?
Helen: Well if you talk about the end result that you want emotionally. That’s not so helpful and that’s not going to move me, but if you know anything about acting, you know every character is trying to get something from the other character so rather than saying you should seem more scary, you could say find a way to surprise her in the scene or be more violent with her. It has to be something doable.
Do you think the level of movies has gotten lower?
Helen: Well you know. I don’t have to explain how it’s all changed. The movies about people are smaller while the movies about spiders and bats are bigger and I’m more likely to be cast in a movie about people I guess. Also, I don’t have a lot of control over what parts that are offered to me which is why I’m writing and trying to create something myself. I think more and more I’m interested in stories about relationships that have plenty of shadows and complications and darkness because life has at least as much of that as the other.
When you started acting, did you have a “back-up” plan in case it didn’t pan out?
Helen: No. I mean I was 10, so my back-up plan was to go to camp (laughter). I was not planning to act, certainly not in movies. My father was a director and took me to the theatre all the time. I know I liked being in a theatre but if someone had asked me, I would have guessed I would have done what he did.
Do you still love theatre?
Helen: I just did “Our Town” at The Broad Stage and did “Much Ado About Nothing” the year before that, so yes. Then there are all these Shakespeare parts I would like to play but then I think about these actors who do four a year in repertory in England and I go well… I love Shakespeare but I’m well aware that I haven’t spent my whole life working on that language. I worked on it a lot, but not as much as Judi Dench.
When you do a play, do you feel like you’re home?
Helen: Not more than movies because I’ve been acting in movies my whole life, but I love going to plays, and I love being in plays. There is something that happens in that room that is out of control and unpredictable, especially when I did “Our Town” and was addressing 300 people just like I’m talking to you guys, for page after page. So, if some kid is bored and yawns, and that happened, or someone is sobbing, which happened a lot with that play, or if I trip on my shoelace, that happened and there’s a certain excitement about that.
Would you be okay if your daughter wants to be an actor or would you prefer that she go on to college?
Helen: I don’t think I get control of college. Maybe I’ll get close to high school. She has not shown up with that thing that some kids have like I’m going to take ballet four days a week and I understand why mothers bow to that because it’s bigger than them. I feel lucky that so far she’s really being a kid. She’s painting. She’s learning the piano. She’s playing, she’s sewing, she’s reading. If I had to choose, I would choose what’s happening, so I’m grateful so far that that’s what happening.
What do you let her watch?
Helen: She doesn’t watch TV or movies. She watches old movies with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly musicals, but so far, we have taken a pass on her seeing other stuff. I certainly wouldn’t have her watch me being married to Paul Reiser.
What’s the name of your project?
Helen: It’s called “Ride.” I wrote it and am planning to direct it. It’s a mother/son story that’s gone unhinged.
Is it based on your own family?
Helen: No (laughs). I just have the daughter who’s only eight so my nest is not anywhere empty at the moment, thank God.