Hearing Betty Anne Waters’ life story almost inspires disbelief, it just sounds too impossible and idealistic to be true. But it is, and Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank says it changed her life.
The upcoming legal drama “Conviction,” which had its world premiere Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival, is the real-life story of Waters, who sacrificed everything to help free her wrongly convicted brother from prison.
Waters was a struggling single mom, unemployed and a high school dropout, when her brother Kenny was found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit. Appeals were fruitless but Waters promised she’d get her brother justice somehow.
So she obtained her high school degree, earned bachelor and masters degrees and went to law school, convinced she could find a way to clear her brother. It took 18 years in all, but she was eventually able to uncover previously untested DNA evidence that set her brother free.
Swank said she worked hard in preparing to play Waters so she could do justice to her incredible story on screen. And she found the experience “life enriching” and life changing.
“I wanted to understand her heart, and understand where her passion and drive and unconditional love came from for her brother,” Swank said.
“It’s challenging, especially when the person you’re playing is still alive, especially when it’s a story as magnificent as Betty Anne’s is and Kenny’s. Betty is my real life hero.”
The film also stars Sam Rockwell as Kenny, Minnie Driver as Waters’ best friend, and Juliette Lewis as a woman who was coerced into lying on the stand at the murder trial.
Although Lewis had a relatively small role in the film, she delivers a powerful, unnerving performance.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a person that shakes up your space and it’s nice to have that person leave your space — I wanted to play (that) person,” Lewis explained.
“I want you to feel me, and I want when the scene is done for you to take a deep breath. That she’s disturbing.”
Ultimately, many moviegoers will know “Conviction” has a happy ending before they see it, but that wasn’t a deterrent to director Tony Goldwyn when he envisioned how he’d film it.
“An audience may have an idea of where it’s probably going plotwise but we’ve built in things to make them (wonder),” he said.
“And more importantly, there’s an emotional thing that’s happening in this story that supersedes the plot.”
Goldwyn hopes the audience will think about the sacrifices Waters made, the commitment she had to her brother, and reflect on what they would do.
“Think about what am I willing to do for the people I care about most in my life … what would I do for this person? I think that’s an important question for us all to answer,” he said.
Swank has thought long and hard about that question, particularly because she has a friend who spent 19 years on death row before being exonerated.
“I’ve asked myself many times,” she said, imagining what she’d do if her brother was jailed unjustly.
“I can’t help but think if the same thing were to happen to him that of course I’d want to do everything in my power … (but you) don’t know, I don’t really know unless you’re in that exact position.
“I don’t know if it’s something I could do.”
“Conviction” is scheduled for release in Canada on Oct. 22.