Erin Gruwell is the writer whose story inspired this very moving film. Make sure to read her book: The Freedom Writer’s Diary, and check out her foundation.
Emmanuel Itier: How does one translate their own emotional life experience into a movie, and what was your involvement?
Erin Gruwell: Lots of times, screenplays that are the adaptation of a book lose the essence of the book. And being a teacher, books are, for me, so important. So I realized that for us to tell our story and to adapt our book, I would have to find the perfect writer–and we were lucky to meet Richard LaGravenese. We were talking about how movies can transform you and when you leave the theater, you still want to continue the dialogue. Not only did he write the film, but he directed it, and this kept the whole project so close to him and very dear to his heart. This also solidified our friendship. And then, when he asked me who I wanted to play me, I immediately said Hilary Swank. It’s amazing throughout that process that you have this incredible bond, where continuously he would go back to the source, which was myself, my students, their books, their words, their city…all of these gave the story the integrity that it deserved.
EI: What advice did you give Hilary to play you…to be you?
EG: I think there are a lot of similarities between the two of us. She is a fighter and a very passionate person. She had to fight for this role. The studio was looking at several other actresses, but she went after it. She was very determined to bring this story to light. Anyone that would fight to play this part would get my full approval and support. Hilary is very humble and so gracious. I also wanted someone who is real and not caught up in this Hollywood “façade” because the story is so real and universal, and it’s about the triumph of the human spirit. I wanted someone that can capture that universality of the story and not make it about her, but make it about all of those teachers across the globe who need somebody to give them hope and to validate the struggles they’re facing every day. She did so beautifully…
EI: Teachers are indeed always put down around the world–they are under paid and under-recognized, for the most part. What do you think needs to be done for a serious change in the system…in society, to recognize the value of teachers?
EG: This is a great question. I think globally, I wish that what will happen is that people will start to understand that education is the greatest equalizer across the globe. We need a dialogue about the relevancy of an educator in a child’s life. For me, I realize than an educator doesn’t need to have chalk in their hand and be at a blackboard. An educator can be a holocaust survivor coming to my class that can tell about the atrocities that touched 12,000,000 people. And for that moment, he or she becomes an educator. It’s the same thing for someone who wrote an incredible book. For me, we need to bring the nobility back to the profession and we need to compensate them financially for the job they do. When I look at the amount of money some athletes are paid, or politicians, or actors–and no disrespect to these professions–but I think the hardest job is being a classroom teacher every single day. I think that the toughest of these teaching jobs is for teachers working in schools that have low economics and racial tensions, and these teachers put their life on the line every day. I would hope that this film really strikes a cord universally in the same way that “Schindler’s List” struck a cord for me as an educator. It brought the subject matter of intolerance to the foreground. For me, it’s moving the dialogue not just to tolerance, but to the idea of acceptance when we educators can teach kids to see past color, past religion, past economics and come together in harmony. I think that’s the greatest gift an educator can do for society.