Hilary Swank, known for turning in some of the finest screen performances of her generation, discusses Conviction -- a film in which she once again portrays a sensitive, humble, yet strong and unique character. Buzzine discovers what it means for an actress to work with the real life character which she plays, and how to bring substance and balance rather than parody. We learn something of the process in capturing reality, with all its contradictions and humor, even in the face of adversity.
Izumi Hasegawa: Could you talk about playing a real person and how that might be different from how you might approach a fictional character?
Hilary Swank: It's challenging, especially when the person you're playing is still alive. You want to do justice to their story, especially when it's a story as magnificent as Betty Anne's and Kenny [Waters]'s is. Betty is my real-life hero and, in the beginning, I actually didn't know if I wanted to meet her right away. I knew eventually I wanted to, but I didn't want to meet her right away because there's the accent, and I didn't want to just be parodying somebody. I wanted to understand her heart and where her passion and drive and unconditional love came from for her brother. So I listened to tons of stories that she had shared with Tony [Goldwyn, director] and Pam [Gray, writer]. I just listened to her heart and her stories, and I listened to her childhood. Betty is so gracious in sharing anything about herself with such humility and grace, and that was extraordinary for me. And then, when Sam [Rockwell] came on board four weeks before we started filming, I'd already been on for a couple of months or for longer than that, but I started my preparation a couple of months before that. And Sam's like, "I wanna meet Betty Anne. I wanna meet the family. I wanna meet everybody!" and I was like, "Okay! Well, I'm going with you!" Because I thought that would be a great bonding experience for us, playing a brother and sister, to meet Betty Anne and Abra [Rice] and the family, so that's when we all got in a car -- Tony, Sam and I -- and drove to visit Betty Anne and her family. This opportunity for me was so life-enriching and was a reminder to me of what's important, which is family. I grew, I feel, as an actor, but Betty Anne has changed my life in who she is and how she chooses to live her life. It's the best of both worlds -- you get this opportunity as an actor and as a human being, to have this experience.
IH: Isn't it a double-crossed sword because you're meeting them after all these events took place and they have the benefit of hindsight, rather than when they were actually experiencing the events?
HS: But if you sat here right now and asked Betty Anne any question that you could think of, she would answer it in such great detail and with such a memory -- not ever afraid to show all different sides and colors of herself. I say she's my hero, yet she's so human too. I hear these stories that she shares with us, and some of the stories that you see in the movie -- she's this tough woman, she's gonna get in there and she's driven, and you have this idea in your head, if you didn't meet her, of someone who's tough and talks tough, and look at her! She's over here crying and all heart! You can talk tough, but she wears her heart on her sleeve, and the dichotomy of what you see on paper and what you really get was a great lesson for me as an actor. When you read something and you think, "Oh yeah, this veneer, but look..." It was just extraordinary to play all those different colors of Betty and for her to share all those different colors, and that Pamela captured all those different colors. It's remarkable.
IH: Have your views of the legal or criminal justice system changed as a direct result of this movie?
HS: There are no doubts there are definitely faults in our legal system, to say the least. Obviously, Betty Anne and Kenny's story is a sad and enlightening reminder of that. I have a friend who was exonerated and who lived on Death Row for 19 years. Betty can shed a little light on this as well, because she obviously knows it way more intimately than any of us, but my friend who was exonerated had come out with such light and not anger, just happy to be free and happy that justice prevailed for him, even though 19 years of his life was taken because someone needed to find and label that this is the person so people would feel safer in the world. It's astonishing to me that that can happen. It leaves me speechless. When you think of the depth of Kenny's soul in prison for a murder he did not commit – people right now, living that life right now, as we sit here, free, talking about it – it's unfathomable. Hopefully talking about it can help the situation. Even if a minor step, it's a step.
IH: In the movie, Betty Anne changes her life because of this single event. Has anything similar happened to you? Possibly the Academy Award?
HS: It's really hard to compare my life to Betty Anne's. I'm someone who plays heroes like Betty Anne in the movies. It's a blessing for me to be able to live my dream while portraying such remarkable people, but in the end, that's all I am. I'm just an actor. I would say it's really hard to give an example that compares to Betty Anne's life because I didn't give my life of service to anyone but myself. I can't really give any example that would do any sort of comparability to her.
IH: But would you agree that winning the Oscar changed your life?
HS: I'll just say that the Academy Award gave me an opportunity to play more roles like Brandon Teena, like Betty Anne Waters. There's no doubt that, as an actor, my passion lies in playing characters like Betty Anne, so the Academy Award has given me the opportunity, certainly, to continue to explore areas of the human spirit and life that inspire me.
IH: There's that great cinematic moment in the film where the boys are talking about whether or not they would sacrifice their lives for one another. Clearly it's meant to illustrate whether or not you had sacrificed your life they thought that you had. Did you ever wrestle with that notion?
HS: Betty Anne's unflappable and unconditional love for Kenny is really such a reminder of what is important in life. If we could all carry even a small piece of that within us, the world would be a much better place.
IH: If you were to step in Betty Anne's shoes, would you possess those same qualities? Do you think you could handle the determination, the strong will?
HS: While I would definitely say I am a determined and strong-willed person -- those are characteristics that I have -- I've asked myself many times. I have a brother, and my brother is eight years older than me, and we've been in and out of each other's lives just because of the age difference. He was in military school when I was growing up, so we weren't close as kids. But my brother is my family, and my brother and I are so close now. I can't help but think that if the same thing were to happen to him, that of course I'd want to do everything within my power. Betty Anne said, "Each day at a time. I don't know how long it was going to take." It took a long time. Betty Anne sacrificed so much of herself and her life. I don't really know unless you're in that exact position. I can't help but saying it's so remarkable. I don't know that it's something I could do. Feeling my brother's spirit and my love for him, I would hope I'd have strong enough people around me and that we'd all help as a team to have justice prevail.
IH: Seeing Betty Anne and Abra, it's like they should have their own talk show. Can you talk about capturing the humor that exists between Betty Anne and Abra?
HS: You're right; they should have their own show. First of all, here we have these siblings, Kenny and Betty Anne, who, to have a love like that is what most people, when you watch the movie, you would say, "God, did someone love me enough to do that? And do I love someone enough to do that?" That's a real love story. And then to have a best friend like Abra and Betty Anne, to see their friendship, I think a lot of people will say, "Do I have a best friend like that?" Even that in itself, put aside how much of Betty Anne's life she devoted to getting her brother out of prison, that she has such extraordinary relationships also speaks volumes of her being and her person. It's so fun to watch them and to hang out with them.
IH: Do you have a friendship like that?
HS: Thankfully, I do.
IH: How much rehearsal did you guys have, and was there any improvisation on set?
HS: I will say that, side by side, with Million Dollar Baby and this film, they were the best experiences I have ever had in my career. So much fun, this movie, even with the story that we were telling, which was, as actors and with Betty Anne on set, we found a lot of levity, because you have to. In the jail sequences, when we had all the stuff within the prison, Tony, extraordinary and thankfully, had two cameras rolling on Sam and I. Sam is a great improviser, and he will just come up with some of the funniest stuff that will have me in tears, and I imagined that's what Kenny and Betty Anne were like. To think Tony brilliantly was able to capture stuff like that, because when you're on one side, and let's say he's improvising away, then we have to remember, so when it comes over to my side and we're filming my side, "Oh yeah, say that stuff," and I'll try and have the same reaction to it, which is essentially what you're doing anyway, but it's so fun when you're improvising, to be able to just riff back and forth with two cameras rolling and for it to be able to capture things like that.
IH: Can you talk about any upcoming projects?
HS: I've spent the year since this film producing, so I have a movie called Something Borrowed that I'm not in but I'm producing, coming June 11, 2011!
'Conviction' is in theaters now from Fox Searchlight Pictures.