HILARY Swank talks about playing Betty Anne Waters, the real-life lawyer who trained herself in order to overturn her brother’s wrongful conviction for murder, in the movie Conviction.
She also reveals why it was invaluable to have her real-life counterpart on set some of the time and why she thinks the American judicial system is deeply flawed.
Q. What made Conviction stand out for you?
Hilary Swank: For me, it was such a beautiful love story between a brother and a sister, one that was so compelling. I don’t actually remember seeing a love story this beautiful in I can’t even remember when. So, for me the idea that someone can be so selfless like Betty Anne, she’s my real life hero for being so selfless and having such a big heart for another human being.
It was an honour and I feel really grateful for the opportunity to be a part of her collaborating in telling the story. Hopefully, this film will shine a bright light on the flawed [US judicial] system. Since DNA is coming into effect and with the help of the Innocence Project, 259 that were wrongfully accused have been exonerated from prison.
Q. I gather [the real-life] Betty Anne Waters came on set? What was the main reason for that decision? And what was it like having the real Betty there watching you?
Hilary Swank: The idea of playing a real life person has a lot of responsibility that comes with that. I would hate to have been a part of telling a story that when Betty Anne and her family saw it, looked at it and said: “What were you thinking?” I wouldn’t be able to live with that. That’s something that would be a disaster. So, having Betty Anne, I mean, she’s not intimidating in anyway. She’s just selfless like I said and she wears her heart on her sleeve, so she was actually very helpful. She was never there to point a finger or anything.
An example that Sam and I were using the other day was if we had any questions, she would fill in the blanks. One of the things that Betty Anne did in a lot of those prison scenes, which were a lot of the challenging part of the movie, was the idea of Kenny not playing the victim… so what do you play in those scenes? And Betty Anne said: “I was doing this for my brother, and Kenny was there for me. We were there for each other.” That was a great objective. What a gift to be able to have been told that during these really emotional and trying scenes.
Q. How did you prepare yourself to this role? Was it different to other projects?
Hilary Swank: I had the blessing of being able to meet Betty Anne, but I didn’t want to meet her right away because something as actors that we do while we’re hanging out is that we do imitations of people in general, anyone… it’s part of what we do. We observe and I didn’t want to be mimicking someone. I wanted to get the physicality of this person. I wanted to understand the heart of this person. What about Betty Anne made her have this drive and determination and great tenacity to go against such odds?
So, for eight weeks I had audio tapes of Betty Anne speaking to Pamela Grey, our writer, and Tony Goldwyn from when they went to talk to her, and I just listened to these audio tapes every day, and listened for the emotion between the lines of what she was saying, what moved her and what angered her. That was wonderful to be able to have that amount of time. And then Sam [Rockwell] came on board. He has a crash course of getting into character because he came on board four weeks before we started filming. So he said: “I wanna meet Betty Anne and the family right away!” And I said: “I’m coming with you!” Because this is a great opportunity for us to bond in this experience, so we went to Bristol Rhode Island where Betty Anne lives now, and spent the weekend with Betty Anne and Betty’s family. Then obviously the accent…
Q. How difficult was that to master?
Hilary Swank: I’m not very good at getting an accent right away. It takes me a long time and especially this Massachusetts accent, which was very specific.
Q. Did making this film alter your views of the death penalty in the US?
Hilary Swank: I know that we have a very flawed judicial system in the United States. Knowing what Betty Anne has recently shared, that an innocent man was executed, I don’t believe in the death penalty. I believe that there are other people as we speak right now in prison, wrongfully accused, who could have served such a fate and that is injustice at its greatest.
Q. What would you like people to take away after watching Conviction?
Hilary Swank: It’s a great reminder of what is important in life, which is to be there for your family and your loved ones. In this day and age right now, when people are losing their jobs, they’re losing their homes, you realise that the only thing you have to rely on is your family, it’s the only thing you really have. People would say to Betty Anne you’ve given your life up for this. And she would say I didn’t see it as giving up my life, it became a part of my life. She would say I did what anyone would do. And that also speaks volumes about her, because she believes everyone would do this. And you look at her and go, `no, not everyone would do this’. I’ll carry Betty Anne and her brother Kenny forever in my heart and I’m really grateful for that.
Q. With the art direction, costuming and make-up, did that help you develop the characters?
Hilary Swank: It’s a great question because in less than two hours, we span 18/19 years of time. As an actor, it’s a great challenge because I go from 18 to 39… so, how does your character change emotionally from year to year? We’re not filming in sequential order either. Tony Goldwyn, who as you know is an actor himself, was wonderful to collaborate with because he was a great barometer of where we are and reminding us of such things. And of course the wardrobe, all of that, goes into making something believable. And that’s what’s fun about making a movie; that collaboration.