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Sundance red carpet: 'The Surrogate' scores two standing ovations

Quadriplegic Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes, right) confides in Father Brendan (William H. Macy) in a scene from "The Sessions."
Actor William H. Macy, left, and Jennifer Koumiyama pose at the premiere of "The Surrogate" during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Helen Hunt attends the screening of the movie "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate") at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Jan. 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Sessions" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Director Ben Lewin attends the screening of his movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Director Ben Lewin attends the screening of his movie "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate") at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Jan. 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Sessions" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Producers Judi Levine and Stephen Nemeth attend the screening of the movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
William H. Macy and Jennifer Kumiyama attend the screening of the movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
William H. Macy and Jennifer Kumiyama attend the screening of the movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Helen Hunt attends the screening of the movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
 John Hawkes attends the screening of the movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Helen Hunt attends the screening of the movie "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate") at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Sessions" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Helen Hunt attends the screening of the movie "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate") at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Jan. 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Sessions" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
William H. Macy, left, and John Hawkes attend the screening of the movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
William H. Macy attends the screening of the movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Helen Hunt attends the screening of the movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Helen Hunt attends the screening of the movie "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate") at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Jan. 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Sessions" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
 John Hawkes attends the screening of the movie "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate") at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Sessions" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
 John Hawkes attends the screening of the movie "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate") at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Jan. 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Sessions" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
Helen Hunt attends the screening of the movie "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate") at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Jan. 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Sessions" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
 John Hawkes attends the screening of the movie "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate") at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on  Jan. 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Sessions" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
William H. Macy attends the screening of the movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
William H. Macy attends the screening of the movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
(Francisco Kjolseth  |  The Salt Lake Tribune)  
William H. Macy attends the screening of the movie "The Surrogate" at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, January 23, 2012, at the Eccles Theatre. "The Surrogate" is about the life of poet and journalist, Mark O'Brien.
Actress Annika Marks poses at the premiere of "The Surrogate" during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Actor William H. Macy poses at the premiere of "The Surrogate" during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Director Ben Lewin poses at the premiere of "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate") during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Actress Robin Weigert poses at the premiere of "The Surrogate" during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Actress Helen Hunt poses at the premiere of "The Surrogate" during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Actor John Hawkes poses at the premiere of "The Surrogate" during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Actress Helen Hunt is interviewed along with co-stars William H. Macy, left, and John Hawkes at the premiere of "The Sessions" (originally titled "The Surrogate") during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)

Standing ovations are fairly rare at the Sundance Film Festival. Two after the same screening is a miracle.

That’s what happened at Monday’s debut screening of “The Surrogate,” screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Eccles Theatre.

The audience rose to its feet for a sustained ovation for writer-director Ben Lewin, and again when he introduced the film’s leading actor, John Hawkes.

In the film, Hawkes plays the journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, who contracted polio as a child and spent most of his life in an iron lung. The movie employs a blend of light comedy and touching drama to depict how O’Brien, in the course of researching an article about the sex lives of the disabled, worked with a sex surrogate (played by Helen Hunt) to lose his virginity.

Hawkes researched the role by watching Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning documentary short about O’Brien, “Breathing Lessons,” and by practicing with the mouth stick – which was how O’Brien typed, dialed the phone and turned pages in books.

“I actually got pretty good,” Hawkes told the audience. In bed during filming, he laid on a soccer-sized foam ball, dubbed the “torture ball,” to approximate the curvature of O’Brien’s spine.

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“I think John took it really personally, and he really wanted to do it for Mark,” said the Australian Lewin, who at 65 may be the oldest director to make a Sundance competition film.

Hunt’s research included meeting the woman she was playing, sexologist Cheryl Cohen Greene – and having Greene rub Hunt’s boyfriend’s feet. (Both Greene and Susan Fernbach, O’Brien’s widow, were consultants on the film and in attendance at the Eccles Monday.)

Hunt showed some nervousness when the audience’s questions turned to the subject of her body – which is seen in full-frontal glory in the film. “I just want to make sure I’m still dressed,” said Hunt, in sweater and leggings, from the Eccles stage.

The Oscar winner admitted to trepidation about baring all for the camera.

“With a movie this size, if they waited for me to get comfortable taking my clothes off, there wouldn’t be a movie,” she said. “I decided to cling onto my desire not to wreck the movie.”

movies@sltrib.com/facebook.com/nowsaltlake

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At a glance

‘The Surrogate’ screenings

Tuesday, Jan. 24, 9:30 a.m. » Prospector Square Theatre, Park City

Thursday, Jan. 26, 5:15 p.m. » The MARC, Park City

Friday, Jan. 27, 6 p.m. » Tower Theatre, Salt Lake City

Saturday, Jan. 28, 2:30 p.m. » Library Center Theatre, Park City

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