Hilary Swank made a quick appearance in the Washington area Thursday to attend a screening of her latest movie, “Conviction,” at the Lansdowne, Va., headquarters for the Prison Fellowship, a Christian organization that provides support for prisoners, former prisoners and their families.
In the film, currently in limited release and opening more widely today, Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts single mother who pursues multiple degrees — including one in law — while attempting to free her brother Kenny from prison after he is wrongly convicted of murder. Both Waters and the friend who assisted in her nearly two-decade crusade, Abra Rice (portrayed in the movie by Minnie Driver), also participated in the Q&A and received a warm reception from the crowd of roughly 500 Fellowship volunteers, former prisoners and faith-based organizers.
Before participating in that Q&A, Swank — who also executive produced “Conviction” — took a few moments to chat about why she felt compelled to attend the Prison Fellowship screening, her relationship with Waters, the persistent lack of strong female roles in Hollywood and why it’s best to take Oscar buzz with a grain of salt. A transcript of that conversation follows.
Also after the jump: a short video in which Swank talks about two female movie characters she particularly admires.
Jen Chaney: You’ve been doing outreach screenings around the country with the Prison Fellowship organization. But I heard you particularly wanted to attend this one, at the group’s headquarters in Virginia. Why did you feel that way, and what do you feel the screenings are accomplishing?
Hilary Swank: First of all, to me, when I read this script, I thought this is such a story of faith. Faith in this other person, the faith that Kenny had in his sister that made her feel loved, to continue on. It was this beautiful circle that they gave each other, this unshakable love. And you know, that faith can be compared in myriad ways: to having faith in a higher power, faith in trusting your future, having hope.
Also, I think Betty Anne is this person who — I thought I would meet her and she’d be really kind of scarred and bitter and have a chip on her shoulder for what happened to her and her family. And she was nothing but grace and selflessness and courageous and brave, and I just thought, these are qualities that remind me of what’s important in my life and that I want to carry in my heart.
I thought because of the power really of faith and also what’s happening in our judicial system to these innocent people, and the cause and effect — what happens to their families. This is a great way to continue to spread the word.
JC: Have you communicated with the families of other prisoners who may have been in situations similar to the one experienced by Betty Anne?
HS: Yeah, I have a friend who is an exoneree. I became close with him and his family. I’ve met 12 other exonerees since the movie has come out. And all of them talk about having found faith in prison, that it was what got them through their ordeal and the circumstances.
Being an actor is like, it’s the greatest opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes and see life through someone else’s eyes. And it just blows my world open and gives me an opportunity to be more open-minded and to see the world in a bigger scope. So I just feel really grateful and blessed.
JC: I read that you were initially reticent about meeting Betty Anne because you didn’t want to be–
HS: –Mimicking her, or…
HS: It was more that I didn’t want to be mimicking her. I always knew I wanted to meet her, but I wanted to understand her heart first. I wanted to understand this drive and this passion and this selfless love that I was just talking about. I wanted to understand where all that was coming from. So I listened to tapes of her.
Pamela Gray, our screenwriter, and [director] Tony Goldwyn went and sat with her and had hours and hours of these tapes. I was listening to the emotion between what she was saying, between her words. Hearing what made her angry and what saddened her and this love that she had for this other person. So I listened to those tapes for about eight weeks — they were audio tapes — before meeting her.
Like I said, I just don’t like to take on the physicality and the voice of the person. Although that was something I did want to do after I got to the inside.
JC: I met Betty Anne a month ago, when she and Tony Goldwyn and Sam Rockwell were in town for another “Conviction” screening. It sounded like, once you did meet her, that you had a good relationship.
HS: Incredible. And I am honored to call her a friend. She’s my real-life hero, and I just — did I already tell you that I thought I’d meet her and I thought she’d be — I said that, right?
HS: Okay. I’ve done so many interviews, I couldn’t remember whether I’d said that to you or the woman before. Sorry.
JC: No, that’s fine. I’m sure you probably feel like you’re repeating yourself constantly because we’re all so creative with our questions.
HS: [Laughs] Someone said to me, you think I’m going to ask a question you’ve never heard? And I said: no.
JC: One of the things Betty Anne told me was that there was a day on the set — I can’t remember which scene you were shooting — when you got very upset because you were thinking about the fact that Kenny [the brother Betty Anne frees from prison] died soon after being released from jail.
HS: I know exactly what scene it was.
JC: And she had to calm you down. What put those emotions over the top for you?
HS: A couple of things. One, when you’re making a movie that’s fiction, you can remove yourself from the difficult moments by saying, it’s just a movie, much like you would with a kid if they were seeing a story that was upsetting them. It’s just a movie, it’s not real, it didn’t really happen, it’s just make-believe. When it’s a true story, you can’t do that. It hits you even harder and it weighs your heart down.
We got to the point where Kenny was released, the scene where we were playing Kenny’s release. And I just was overwhelmed with the idea that someone had spent 18 years of their life in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. All that time that was taken away from them, and that six months later, he died. And I thought, are you [Betty Anne] upset at all that it took that long to get out of prison and that if he’d just been in six months longer — which, really, in all that time is not a lot — do you think he wouldn’t have died? Like, if he would have gotten out six months later.
And she said, no, I think that whenever it’s your time, it’s your time. No matter where you are, it’s your time. And I think he would have died in prison. Because I said to her, I always try to find the silver lining and I can’t find the silver lining within this. And she said the silver lining, Hilary, is that he died a free man and we got to prove his innocence. And I just got the chills. It was wonderful having her on-set, to be able to talk these moments out with her. You’d think that you’d be be worried about being judged, or her running in going, “It didn’t happen like that!” or whatever. But she was just remarkable. It was like she’d been on the set every day of her life.
JC: Everyone always points this out in articles about you, but it seems you are always attracted to playing really strong, resilient women who have to overcome significant odds.
HS: Yeah, I find that we all in our own lives sort of do that. Everyone does. That is our human connection. And to me, I just find that ordinary person who just finds themself in these extraordinary circumstances what connects us. That’s what connects us. That silent strength that ebbs and flows is so human to me.
JC: Do you ever have the desire to do something completely out of left field and different from what you usually do?
HS: I think I did with “P.S. I Love You” even though that was kind of anchored in a reality. But you know, it’s really hard to find those scripts.
JC: Because they’re not offered to you or–?
HS: Well, you tell me. What I mean is, how many scripts do you see for women that are different from — other than Angelina Jolie and some action flicks, there’s not really…
JC: Or they’re sort of secondary characters.
HS: Yeah, characters that are like the arm candy. Which, I just can’t find the humanity in that.
JC: Do you think things are getting better as far as female roles go?
JC: Your production company is focused on trying to dig out those projects, though.
HS: Yeah, absolutely. No, I don’t [think it’s getting better]. I think the reason why is that we tell the stories we know best. And I think 95 percent, or something like that, of directors and filmmakers and writers are male. So they’re telling the stories that they know.
JC: When is that balance ever going to tip?
HS: I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s a lack of desire for women to be writers and directors, or if they’re not getting the opportunities. I don’t know that answer because I’m not in that place of hiring or not hiring them.
I am now, with my production company. “Something Borrowed,” which is coming out in June, is written by a woman. Another book that I optioned, “You’re Not You,” is written by a woman. So we’re seeking them out.
JC: Your name is again being circulated as a potential Oscar nominee. Obviously you’ve already got two and you’ve been through this before. Do you even pay any mind to the buzz anymore?
HS: You know, you do because it’s another opportunity to raise awareness about a movie you’re proud to be a part of. But you know, people were talking about it with “Amelia” and nothing happened with that movie. You do kind of have to take it with a grain of salt. But it’s also an honor, you know? It’s the ultimate for a film. It’s humbling and a real honor.
JS: And Sam Rockwell’s name is being circulated as well.
HS: I think this is Sam’s moment. Anyone you ask loves his work. There’s no one I’ve ever talked to that says, “who?” or “what?” or has anything to say but, “He is amazing. He’s such a talented actor.”
And I think in this movie, he’s at his best.
JC: I don’t know what sort of preparation you did together, but the audience can feel the bond onscreen between the two of you.
HS: Thanks. We had an instant chemistry. For me, it was just this respect that I had for him. We very much come from the same school of leaving no stone unturned and finding the heart of our characters. We like to get in there and play. It was really [she looks at a nearby screen where a scene from “Conviction” is being shown] — I’m seeing him right now and I really have such an enormous respect for him. It was one of the highlights of my career working with Sam.