Helen Hunt has just been nominated for her second Oscar for her daring portrayal of a sex surrogate in The Sessions. The actress tells Albertina Lloyd about the "scary and liberating" nude scenes and why the experience was so inspiring.
By Albertina Lloyd
Helen Hunt is a real woman, and she brings real women to cinema.
In The Sessions, that real woman is professional sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene, who is hired by Mark O'Brien, a writer crippled by polio. After researching an article on sex and the disabled, he decides he wants help to lose his virginity.
Hunt, 49, won the Best Actress Oscar in 1998 for playing an over-worked single mother who forms a unlikely relationship with an oddball loner with OCD, played by Jack Nicolson, in As Good As It Gets.
Now her latest portrayal of an unlikely and touching relationship, in The Sessions, has garnered Hunt her second Oscar nomination.
Within minutes of appearing on screen, Cheryl whips off her clothes and is asking Mark, played by Winter's Bone star John Hawkes, if he wants to feel her breasts. But as they frankly discuss sex, life and love in their sessions, the pair's bond grows beyond physicality.
It's groundbreaking, deeply moving, and it's no wonder the film's attracted awards buzz after wowing at all the festivals - but Hunt modestly insists she is just pleased it's already being so positively received.
"It's exciting. A movie like this, if this movie got that kind of attention it would be a good day for film-makers and moviegoers and actors and women, I think it would be great."
As for bagging herself that second Oscar, Hunt simply quips: "If you have it with you I'll take it. But short of that I wouldn't bet on anything."
Right now, sitting in her hotel room, she's fighting jet lag after her flight from America was delayed the night before, but that doesn't dampen her enthusiasm.
Dressed casually, with dangly earrings, her blonde hair loose, the California-born actress appears very down-to-earth, a free spirit.
"We decided I should be naked five minutes after coming on the screen so people could either get past that, or leave, or whatever," she says matter-of-factly.
She admits exposing so much of herself on screen wasn't easy, but adds: "My excitement about the part was bigger than my nerves, so I did it.
"It was both scary and liberating. I don't think you get liberated unless you overcome something that's scary. But I felt so excited about giving myself the gift of spending a few weeks in the body of somebody who is positive and enthusiastic about all aspects of life, including sex."
The film, which follows the development of Mark and Cheryl's friendship, from a working relationship to forming a special bond, is directed by Ben Lewin, who himself is a polio survivor.
To research for the role, Hunt spoke to the real-life Cohen-Greene. "I talked to her on the phone and was not expecting to get much help, because often you don't get as much help as one might think, meeting a real person that you're playing.
"But in this case it was hugely helpful. She's a fantastic spirit of a woman and I just stole as much as I could from her.
"I tried to take not only all the great information she was giving me, but also to borrow her enthusiastic, positive take on everything in her life."
In the film, Hunt and Hawkes get extremely intimate, but to keep the awkwardness as real as possible, they made a pact to keep their distance off camera.
"We did zero bonding really. Before, during, or after the movie," reveals Hunt. "It's funny, it's rare that I've worked with someone that I know so little, and it was a perfect dynamic for the movie.
"We got to capitalise on the fact that we didn't know each other. We were vulnerable, and strangers, exactly like in the movie."
As well as Hawkes's incredible portrayal of a man almost completely paralysed, and tackling the difficult issue of sex for disabled people, The Sessions presents a completely new take on sex in cinema.
The characters' vulnerability, their natural conversation and awkward humour, is a refreshing representation of something that, like so many things in Hollywood, is usually falsely glamorised for the camera.
For some audiences this frank and graphic approach may appear shocking. There's no sexy music, no airbrushing, no mood lighting, no fading out. This is the real deal - which Hunt is thrilled about.
"It's just a break from the bizarre look at sex we get all day, every day," she says, sighing. "From what's on the computer and what's on the screen, this movie feels like a breath of fresh air on a beautiful topic."
While the love scenes in The Sessions may be very different for Hollywood, Hunt insists they are more recognisable.
"I've never seen sex in a movie like this before. And I didn't even realise it until I made the movie, but especially when I saw the movie - we've been for decades and decades seeing all this strange stuff. There's perfectly timed music, lingerie perfectly chosen for the occasion, gripping of hands, and all these things that aren't in my bedroom!" she adds, laughing.
"My bedroom is more like this - things are improvised and scary and funny and liberating and sad, and a whole lot of things that I don't see in movies very much."
Hunt has been in a relationship with filmmaker Matthew Carnahan since 2001, and they have an eight-year-old daughter, Makena, together.
The couple are planning to merge the boundaries of their relationship by working together on a few upcoming projects.
"He's producing my movie, I'm producing his movie and I'm directing his TV show," reveals Hunt. "We haven't really done any of it yet, so we'll see!"
The daughter of respected acting coach Gordon Hunt, Hunt began acting when she was just eight and has since moved into directing and co-owns her own production company Hunt/Tavel Productions.
She's living proof that there is work in Hollywood for 40-something women who aren't afraid to break boundaries, and The Sessions has spurred her on. But does she think it's tougher for actresses of her age?
"Not lifting my head up from this beautiful experience," she says. "Because in this moment, I got to play as good a part as I've ever seen."
Extra time - Helen Hunt's major roles :: As Good As It Gets (1997) - Hunt won the best actress Oscar in 1998 for her portrayal of a single working mother whose life is made even more complicated by her accidental friendship with a grumpy old man with OCD played by Jack Nicholson.
:: Twister (1996) - This disaster movie starred Hunt as independent woman Jo, a meteorologist who will risk everything to further her groundbreaking research into tornadoes, after one killed her father.
:: What Women Want (2000) - Hunt plays a pioneering female advertising exec who takes on alpha male Mel Gibson in this hit romantic comedy.
:: Mad About You (1992-1999) - Hunt had her big break starring as newlywed Jamie Buchman in this award-winning US TV sitcom.
:: The Sessions is released in cinemas on Friday, 18 January