She has seen the rave reviews. She has caught wind of the early Oscar buzz. She has heard her performance described as ''daring'' and ''brave.'' But two days before the premiere of her new film, The Sessions, as she sits in a Los Angeles restaurant eating poached eggs and toast, Helen Hunt is wondering aloud about what kind of feedback she'll receive from other actresses when they see her work in the film. ''That will be interesting,'' she says, cupping her mug of green tea in her fingers and smiling. '''What are you nuts? You know what they mean by brave? Crazy!'''
Crazy is in the eye of the beholder, but there's no question Hunt's turn in the R-rated indie dramedy (which opened in select theaters Oct. 19) falls far outside most actors' usual comfort zones including her own. The Sessions recounts the real-life story of poet and severely disabled polio victim Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), who, with the blessing of his priest (William H. Macy), hires Cheryl Cohen Greene (Hunt), a sex surrogate a brand of sex therapist whose approach is, shall we say, very hands-on (see sidebar) to help him lose his virginity. Hunt spends a large portion of the movie, in her words, ''as naked as the day I was born,'' as Greene assists O'Brien in exploring his sexuality in a way that is both deeply intimate and strikingly matter-of-fact. For Hunt, who comes across in person as plainspoken and direct, if slightly reserved (''If I don't know you, I try not to gush too much,'' she says), the film's unvarnished frankness about sex was a huge part of its appeal. ''With audiences who've seen the film, I feel there's this breath of relief that we can have this subject not be filled with shame and strangeness for a minute,'' Hunt says. ''This movie is a little break from how weird we are about sex.''
Ironically, Hunt's revealing performance in The Sessions follows a period in which the 49-year-old actress seemed to have almost disappeared from the screen. In recent years, her acting career which exploded in the '90s with her work on the hit sitcom Mad About You and in films like the 1997 romantic comedy As Good as It Gets, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar had quieted down, as she focused on raising her now-8-year-old daughter, Makena, with her boyfriend, TV producer Matthew Carnahan. (Hunt was married to actor Hank Azaria from 1999 to 2000.) ''I had to work very hard to have my kid, going through a rigorous fertility dance,'' Hunt says. ''The idea of saying [to my daughter], 'You're here good! Now I'm going to go pretend to be someone's mother in Prague while you're with a sitter' that didn't make any sense.''
During that period, Hunt turned her attention to writing, directed her first feature film (2008's Then She Found Me), and allowed her acting career to slip into a lower gear. ''There's a certain ebbing and flowing,'' she says. ''Was I supposed to get every great part on every great TV show and in every movie every year and no one else gets to play?'' She pauses. ''Having said that, there were some moments of, like, 'Remember when I was acting in huge movies all the time? Did I blow that?'''
The fact is, acting in huge movies had never been her plan in the first place. Raised in Los Angeles her father was a theater director and her mother a photographer Hunt began acting at an early age, but for years nothing had clicked in a big way. Then, in 1992, she shot a pilot with comic Paul Reiser for an NBC sitcom about a young married couple in New York. ''I thought, 'This will probably disappear,''' she remembers. ''I was like, 'How do you explain the concept? It's about two people who are married and what, they live on the moon?' It's like there was something missing from the pitch.'' When Mad About You became a massive hit, Hunt had difficulty adjusting to her newfound fame. ''There was a moment where I got really nervous,'' she says. ''I thought, 'Have I done something I can never take back?' I didn't get that it would change. And it has. I'm not as famous as I was then. I go places and some people look but a lot don't.''