It feels fitting to talk to John Hawkes and Helen Hunt separately at the Toronto Film Festival. After all, the stars of the powerful new film The Sessions were strangers before they signed on to the project, and that lack of familiarity probably worked for them.
Hawkes plays the real-life poet and journalist Mark O'Brien who, because of childhood polio, lost the use of all his limbs. Hunt is Cheryl, a sex surrogate who, over a series of sessions clearly outlined in advance, helps the 30-something man lose his virginity and become comfortable with his body and sex.
"There was very little bonding between us before we shot, and I think that served us well, because our love scenes were supposed to be awkward," says Hawkes, who's compact and lean and emits the same intensity he does in his best-known roles in Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Hunt, whose open and relaxed presence contrasts with Hawkes's tautness, says they didn't intentionally keep their distance - there just wasn't a lot of time to chat.
"I have a kid and a life, and he has music that he plays," she says in a separate interview. Then she stops herself. "I guess. I really don't know anything about him. Maybe over the next few months I'm going to actually hear him play the guitar.
"But in retrospect the separation worked. ‘Hi, nice to meet you. Let's get naked!'"
Hunt, expert at getting a laugh after seven seasons on the sitcom Mad About You, says she found it refreshing to play a character who was so comfortable with her body - and bodies, period. But even she had her limits.
"By the end of the day, I remember feeling I was really ready to have some clothes on," she laughs. "I mean, even porn stars aren't naked for 12 freakin' hours in a row."
Hawkes had a different kind of physical challenge: to act without using his limbs.
"I didn't want to be mugging or do a lot of face acting," he says. "I trusted that Mark was an interesting enough person, and thought registers on camera. You don't have to do a great deal, and the camera can come in very close and bring an audience near you."
When director Ben Lewin - who's a polio survivor - offered Hawkes the role, the actor's first thought was that he wasn't disabled himself.
"I was nervous about taking work away from a very under-represented group," he says. "But Ben assured me he'd done his due diligence; he'd found some terrific actors but hadn't quite found the qualities he was looking for in his Mark and thought I could do it."
After the film debuted at Sundance, there was Oscar buzz about both performances, which only intensified at TIFF.
"It's wonderful to be validated as an actor, but I'm not in it to be nominated or win awards," says Hawkes. "If it happens, great. It'd bring more visibility to a film that's not easy to sell."
Hunt, who already has an Oscar for As Good As It Gets, says it's hard to know what to say about awards buzz.
She mumbles a few modest words and then suddenly her phone rings. With perfect timing she says, "Hold on, maybe that's my second Oscar calling."