Helen Hunt’s Oscar-nominated role in The Sessions left her feeling more exposed than ever

Helen Hunt. Picture: Getty
Helen Hunt. Picture: Getty
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COULD we not talk about my pubic hair,” says Helen Hunt pleasantly, as we share a teacake. “I didn’t think there was a limit on what I can talk about, but I’ve been asked about this twice this morning, so I guess there is.”

Helen Hunt has accomplished just about all there is for a screen actress to achieve. She has just been nominated for her second Oscar (her first was for playing opposite Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets). She has four Emmys and three Golden Globes. She has a divorce from The Simpsons’ Hank Azaria, a nice long-term boyfriend and a daughter named Makena Lei, which is Hawaiian for ‘many flowers of heaven’. Today, however, she has to talk about 
being naked.

When it comes to nudity, actors are like anyone else: insecure, interested in what can be seen, and keen to get through it. The difference is that when they remove their clothes, they have to do it in front of people they work with, knowing they don’t get much control of any images, and that in a few months millions of strangers will be able to view them, blown up on to 30 foot screens. Their families and friends will probably go and see them, and thanks to the internet, the images will linger on, possibly forever, and certainly long after they have second or third thoughts about the whole business.

“Sex in movies is weird,” agrees Hunt. “That includes the ones I’ve been part of. I haven’t done a lot of them but there was a time in my twenties when I didn’t like it, and I didn’t have much power to do anything about it then. But I wondered what would it be like if the shame, the lighting and the clichés were stripped out, just for one film? I wanted to do that.”

In The Sessions, the film that has earned her that coveted Oscar nomination, Cheryl Greene is a ‘sex surrogate’ hired by the poet and journalist Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) in 1988. Paralysed by polio from the neck down, he typed essays and poems with a pencil held in his mouth. A commission to write about sex and disabled people forced him to confront his own feelings and he embarked on a late-thirties quest to lose his virginity despite his near-total residency in an iron lung.

As O’Brien’s physical therapist, Hunt spends much of the movie naked during their sessions, and from the first, perky “shall we get undressed?”, Greene is completely at ease with the exposure. In reality, Hunt wasn’t quite so nonchalant. Before filming, she made the director and cameraman go through every scene so she would know exactly how much would be on show. The ultra-nudity made her feel “excruciatingly vulnerable”, although she looks like a phenomenally toned 50-year-old. Even so, by the end of each day, “I was craving thick sweatpants and a hamburger. It was a lot of naked all day.” The real Cheryl Greene is now a grandmother but still working as a specialised therapist. “I’ve played real people before,” says Hunt. “Usually meeting them is only a tiny bit helpful. And I’d never heard of a sex surrogate, so I didn’t know what to expect.”

Cheryl Cohen-Greene turned out to be an inspiring encounter, a candid, voluble Bostonian with a honking accent that Hunt immediately appropriated, and an appealing tendency to talk about penises and vaginas the way plumbers discuss U-bends and piping. “She was extroverted and enthusiastic,” understates Hunt. “The first day we met she jumped into the shower because she was working that day on a therapy session with a 70-year-old man.”

The two women liked each other immediately. “She told me that although she had worked with disabled people, they had never been this disabled. The first time she saw him, she thought two things: the first was that she wasn’t sure she could help him; the second that it was very important he couldn’t see that on her face.”

Hunt’s unadorned nudity may be appropriate to the emotional nakedness of the film, but I couldn’t help but notice that the writer-director Ben Lewin lets the camera linger on Hunt’s body a whole lot more thoroughly than Hawkes’. I try to crab up to the issue by asking if she thinks the film is frank about O’Brien’s physical disability, but Hunt immediately knows what I’m getting at. “Oh, I think you can see the extent of his disability. You mean that you don’t see his penis,” she says. “That’s a fair question, but I think the only point when it made sense to show his full body was the point where she holds a mirror up so he can view himself. But that’s right at the end of the movie, and showing a naked disabled man at that point might get the wrong response. It could be a moment where, because of our culture, we would go, ‘Ewww’. And that would take you out of the movie just where you were supposed to be completely engaged by it.”

A year on, Hunt is still wrestling with audience and press responses to camera bareness, and after being asked everything from fitness tips to the topiary details of her pubic hair this morning, maybe this is the last time she’ll be this open to discussing our big social hang-up. That would be a pity: The Sessions is supposed to open up conversations about skin, sexuality, disability and frankness. The trouble is, sometimes the chat has been pretty digressive. Including mine. Hunt’s main concern is that the message remains clear for her eight-year-old daughter, when she is old enough to see and appreciate The Sessions. “Whatever shape she becomes, I just want her to love her body.” She laughs. “Already, she’s sick of me saying that.”

Makena Lei is one reason Hunt has become far more selective about her films in the last ten years. After her brief 1999 marriage to longtime sweetheart and Simpsons voice artist Hank Azaria, she met and fell for TV producer Matthew Carnahan. A longed-for child put them through a lengthy fertility dance until Hunt finally conceived through IVF. “As an older mother, I’m more tired than I would have been in my 20s,” she admits. “However, I’m also glad my daughter isn’t subjected to me at 20.”

Motherhood may well have forced her to give up some career choices. “You’re definitely not supposed to take a break or else they’ll drum you out of the business,” she says dryly. “I have certainly turned down parts because I wanted to be at home with her.”

Does she feel a little torn by this? Hunt says not. “A lot were mid-level parts I’d already done ten years ago. There’s been nothing where I felt, ‘Oh God, I had to give that up to be here at bed time’. Jumping on a plane to shoot a movie for four months where I’d be playing someone else’s mother didn’t feel like something I wanted to do.”

The luxury of choice comes from a top-rated American sitcom, which ran for seven years. In the early 1990s Hunt met comedy writer and performer Paul Reiser at a party, and he was so taken by her self-deprecating tales of personal disasters that he sent her the pilot script he’d been working on called Mad About You. Desperate Housewives’ Teri Hatcher was also in the running, but Hunt was always the first choice. So, faced with a funny, smart script, written with her in mind, Hunt’s first instinct was to turn it down.

“I’d just finished a couple of movies and I thought, ‘Do I want to play the wife in a sitcom?’” she recalls. Fortunately she changed her mind, because by the end of the run she and Reiser were on $1m per episode, making them the highest paid stars on TV, until the Friends crowd flexed their collective muscle. While working on Mad About You, Hunt was also active on the big screen, starring in films such as the 1996 blockbuster Twister, sparring with Mel Gibson in What Women Want and providing the reason for Tom Hanks to get back to civilisation in Cast Away. But her big movie moment was As Good as It Gets, as a no-nonsense single mother who crosses swords with Jack Nicholson’s neurotic novelist. Her Oscar sits in her study, just above her work desk. “In an earthquake,” she notes, “I might actually be killed by my own Academy Award.”

The 1990s may have been Hunt’s breakout decade but she’s been around for much longer than that. Her mother was a photographer. Her father, Gordon Hunt, was a TV and theatre director who used to take his daughter to work with him. Perhaps inevitably she showed a talent in drama classes and attracted an agent’s interest.

Her first gig, at the age of nine, was in a TV film called Pioneer Woman, and she soon snagged others including guest roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bionic Woman. Would she encourage Makena to follow in her footsteps. “She hasn’t shown any interest,” says Hunt, flatly. “She’s being a kid, which is lovely. She draws, she paints, she has piano lessons. I couldn’t choose, but if it had been up to me, that’s what I would’ve wanted.”

Did Hunt ever feel she got into professional acting work too young? “I used to say that I didn’t miss my childhood because I was still treated like a child, and often I was working with other kids. But perhaps I was a little serious. Now I just want my daughter to be happy.”

Later, she admits that one reason Makena shows so little interest in acting is that she has never seen her mother on screen. “She’s never seen a television show, so it would be very weird to say, ‘I don’t let you watch anything. Except me’,” says Hunt, with a Mommie Dearest flourish.

In any case, it’s not quite as draconian a rule as it sounds. There is a TV, but Makena isn’t interested. “We’ve brainwashed her,” says Hunt, cheerfully.

Lately, the rule has been softened, and she likes some old films. “She’s sort of obsessed with musicals. She could tell you the name of the fifth billed character actress in Good News with Peter Lawford, but she doesn’t watch regular television. She goes to a school that really encourages no media at all when they’re young, although it loosens up when they get older. It’s partly the content, but there’ a whole theory that the flashing of the screen stops things happening in the brain that is supposed to be happening at a very young age. I don’t know if it’s true, but I know I was lucky enough to have worked and be financially positioned so I could do whatever I wanted in terms of raising her, and this sounded right to me.”

The appealing thing about Hunt is that she knows in some quarters a TV-free childhood sounds a little rarefied, even eccentric. “If I was a single working mother, she’d be watching a video and I would be fine with that, but I’m able to be at home most of the time and have help when I need it. And it never felt right to say, ‘Stop finger-painting and come watch this show with adverts for skinny dolls’. So I pray anyone who reads that doesn’t judge their own mothering. It’s just the road we found ourselves on.

“On the other hand, my stepson was raised in a totally different way, and he’s a maths genius. He just got a letter from Barack Obama for getting a perfect report card, and he’s on track to go to a brilliant university, you know? And he was raised with plenty of television.”

Hunt will next be seen in Decoding Annie Parker, as the doctor who discovers the BRCA1 breast cancer gene, but she’s also trying to finance her next film as a writer-director, a follow-up to her small but well-received 2008 dramedy Then She Found Me. That first experience behind the camera was a whirl of activity, holding together the fleeting finance, goosing up her actors with enthusiasm and keeping the story in front of the camera on track. It was, she says with some feeling, “like making a movie with your hair on fire”. And yet she is back for more.

“The problem nowadays is what we call ‘the flickering green light’. There are directors I’ve spoken to with ten times my experience, directors you’d be shocked if I told you their names, who struggle to raise the finance or get the actor who will launch their film. There are pressures to have certain sure-fire touchstones, and I don’t have any of that. My movie is starring a 45-year-old woman, and while there’s a great part for a 30-year-old guy, it’s the third lead in the movie, so when I offer it to big actors they say, ‘I loved your first movie, but I don’t want to work on a tiny independent movie for no money to play the third lead’.”

There’s no doubt Hunt will get there in the end. In the language of one of her daughter’s favourite vintage films, she’s a gutsy broad. “When I was making my first film, I talked to someone who has done a lot of these small, hard-to-get-made-movies, just to find out their secret. And he told me that the only thing you can do is not give up. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s something I can do, because I am a person who does not give up’.” n

The Sessions is released on Friday

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot