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Hilary is a woman of ‘Conviction’

Things have changed for Hilary Swank since the rocky start of her acting career.

Does anyone even remember that she starred in “The Next Karate Kid,” a film that played in theaters for about a week? Or that she had a regular role as Carly late in the series run of “Beverly Hills 90210?” Nope, we know Swank and her wide-screen smile because she won acting Oscars for grueling, fascinating work in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby.” We know her because she’s completely dedicated to her craft, researching like crazy to get her characters just right, disappearing into them when the cameras roll.

Swank’s great when she takes on a fictional part, but something special happens – usually to her – when she plays a real person. In “Conviction,” which opens Friday, she plays Betty Anne Waters, a real person, who studied to become a lawyer after her brother Kenny (played by Sam Rockwell) was given a life sentence in prison for a murder she believed he didn’t commit. In 1982 Kenny was arrested and charged in the brutal slaying and robbery of his neighbor, Katharina Brow, in Ayer, Mass. Kenny was later found guilty and spent 18 years in prison.

“It’s challenging, especially when the person you’re playing is still alive,” said Swank. “You want to do justice to their story. At first I didn’t know if I wanted to meet Betty Anne right away. I knew eventually I wanted to, but there’s the (Massachusetts) accent and I didn’t want it to be just parodying somebody. I wanted to understand her heart and where her passion and drive and unconditional love for her brother came from.”

Instead, Swank, 36, who also was executive producer of the film, initially listened to stories Betty had shared with the film’s writer and director, Pamela Gray and Tony Goldwyn.

When they finally did meet, a couple of months later, Swank saw her as a real-life hero, as someone who pretty much sacrificed everything, including family and friends, in order to help her brother.

“This opportunity for me was so life-enriching, and was a reminder to me of what’s important, which is family,” said Swank. “It was the best of both worlds. You get this opportunity as an actor and as a human being to have this experience.”

Swank describes herself as a determined and strong-willed person. But she can’t really identify with what Betty Anne went through.

“It’s really hard to compare my life to hers,” she said softly. “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, I’m just an actor. 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 really, but myself.”

She laughed at that last comment but pointed out that Betty Anne’s long journey, from classroom to courthouse, was a hard road.

“There are no doubts that there are faults in our legal system, to say the least,” she said. “The stories of Betty Anne and Kenny are sad and enlightening reminders of that. It’s astonishing to me that (things like 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. There are people living that life, right now, as we sit here, free, talking about it. But hopefully talking about it can help the situation. Even if it’s a minor step, it’s a step.”

That’s certainly not to say, though, that Swank and company didn’t have a good time making the film. Tony Goldwyn knew exactly what he wanted to capture as a director, but he gave everyone free rein to improvise.

“In the jail sequences, Tony thankfully had two cameras rolling, on Sam and me,” said Swank. “And Sam is such a great improvver. He came up with some of the funniest stuff, and he had me in tears. And I imagine that that’s what Kenny and Betty Anne were like. It’s so much fun when you’re improvving to be able to just riff back and forth with two cameras rolling and be able to capture things like that.

“Side by side with ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and this film, they were the best experiences I’ve ever had in my career,” she added. “This movie was so much fun, even with the story we were telling.”