Sundance: Helen Hunt as a sexual surrogate

When “The Surrogate” has its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23, audiences will view Helen Hunt in her remarkable turn as Cheryl Cohen Greene, based on the real-life sexual surrogate who helped quadriplegic Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) lose his virginity back in 1990.  The veteran actress appears in full frontal nude scenes (they are never gratuitous, mind you) in her role as the professional surrogate (a person who, with the help of a sex therapist, helps clients who are inexperienced or suffering from dysfunction through sensual touch and often intercourse, with verbal feedback).

The lyrical film is the story of how O’Brien, who spent his life in an iron lung since contracting polio at age 6, decided to hire a surrogate in order to lose his virginity at age 38.  The surrogate partner he finds is Cohen Greene, portrayed by Hunt in an understated but heartfelt performance.  (Mark O’Brien died in 1999 of complications from bronchitis.)

During their first session together, Hunt’s character nonchalantly removes her clothes; O’Brien is beyond nervous.  Her manner is direct and down-to-earth.  When O’Brien screams that she is hurting him as she removes his shirt, she kindly but firmly tells him not to yell at her, and adds that that behavior is not sexy.  As she teaches him about sensuality and intimacy, his self-esteem improves; we also glimpse Cohen Greene’s journey as she develops deep feelings for O’Brien and as she discusses converting to Judaism with her Jewish husband (played by Adam Arkin).

Hunt’s character learns as much from her relationship with the remarkable O’Brien, a poet and journalist, as he does from her; she is drawn to his keen intellect and dry wit, as well as to his moving poetry (in a voice-over he describes a rush of air into his “paper-bag lungs” as akin to “respiratory porn”).

“The Surrogate’s” director, Ben Lewin, first met with Hunt to discuss the film at the M Street Kitchen in Santa Monica:  “Helen was very intelligent, and really had a grip on the story,” said Lewin, himself a 65-year-old a polio survivor who uses crutches.  “I must say that to some extent I changed the story as a result of listening to her.”  Apparently the script had a subplot about Cohen Greene telling her adolescent son what she did for a living, and Hunt’s “take on it was that this was really a story about Mark, and that she was a part of his story as opposed to a separate story in her own right. And so I thought yes, let’s keep it simple – this is about a guy who meets a surrogate and their journey together.  Her back story, I decided, should be just enough to give you sense of what her life was like.”

To prepare to play Cohen Greene – who was “really like a middle-class soccer mom,” Lewin said—Hunt turned to the real-life surrogate.  “Cheryl came down to [Los Angeles] and they hung out,” Lewin recalled.  “Cheryl showed her what positions she would get in with Mark and so on.”

“Helen wanted to know as many details about Mark as I could remember,” Cohen Greene, now vice president of the International Professional Surrogates Association, said from her Berkeley home. “She asked how Mark and I met, and what was unique and why I liked him.  I said I was touched immediately when his attendant called me and then handed him the phone; he was able to tell me he wanted to learn about his sexuality.  He said he felt like he was outside this wonderful restaurant, looking inside where everyone was enjoying a fabulous feast he was unable to taste.  And I said to him, ‘You have every right in the world to explore your sexuality. It’s like breathing or eating.’”

Cohen Green added of her consulting with Hunt:  “A lot of it had to do with the physical parts of [my work with Mark], the touching.  We spent time with her and her partner, Matthew; with our clothes on, I showed her the kind of touch I used when I explained things to Mark.  She was focusing all the time on my movements.  And she loved my accent:  I’m from Salem, MA. I’d read the script to her with my accent and she taped it.”

Of why Mark screamed during their first session, Cohen Green said, “I think he was scared.  He’d had experiences in a facility where, he said, the attendants were rough when they touched and maneuvered him.”

Hunt, not surprisingly, had concerns about how the surrogate sessions would be shot. “In our first conversations, Helen asked, ‘How do you propose to do the sex scenes, and I said, ‘Well, just like the rest of the movie.’  In other words, no special, fancy lighting, music or colors; the scenes would be done in a fairly banal, direct way.  So then really it was the process of getting Helen to feel comfortable about revealing all.  It was a lot of conversations of ‘how are you going to do this, how are you going to do that,’ any insecurities on her part and working with the cameraman.  I could imagine her thinking, ‘I don’t know Ben Lewin, I don’t know the cameraman, how do I know they’re not going to show me looking like a total yenta and make this very unflattering.’  Helen was really throwing herself into the hands of strangers.”

Lewin kept the sex scenes realistic rather than tintillating:  “Whenever Helen undressed it wasn’t ‘ba-dump-bump—vavoom, now I’m naked,’” Lewin said.  He kept the crew to a minimum while filming those sequences.  The ordinary quality of the nudity calls to mind the full-frontal nudity by Michael Fassbender in “Shame” (though Hunt’s character is nothing like Fassbender’s sex addicted antihero).

“I’ll tell you this funny little anecdote,” Lewin said. “I don’t know how many other directors don’t like nude scenes and sex scenes, but they can be very awkward; what tends to happen is the crew becomes very solemn; they’re all ‘We mustn’t make a sound, or have any facial expressions;’ it’s like everyone goes into this kind of quasi-religious mode.  And on the first day that Helen had to take off her clothes, we were filming in the mikvah [the character was immersing as part of her conversion to Judaism], and that was the first nude scene, and of course all the crew was on their best behavior when Helen took off her robe.  All the guys on the crew, I guess, gasped inwardly without making a sound, but Rhea Perelman [the comic actress who plays the mikvah attendant] came right out and said, ‘Wow, what a body!’  Now if one of the guys had said this, that would have been it, the film would have been over.  But Rhea Perelman saying it was totally kosher, as it were.  It added a levity, absolutely, and I think it made a difference to the rest of the shoot.”

The mikvah scene parallels the sequence in which Cohen Greene holds up a mirror for O’Brien to see his naked body.  “In the mikvah, she’s learning that this is the body [God] gave her, and Mark is learning that this is his body and he can feel comfortable about it,” Lewin said. 

The Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 29.