Sometimes, it takes a familiar face to put a face on a problem… even one that is international in scope.
Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank is no stranger to championing social causes, and she takes up another as she and two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn play the title roles in the HBO drama movie “Mary and Martha” Saturday at 8 p.m.
Written by Richard Curtis (“Love Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and filmed largely in South Africa, the BBC and NBC Universal co-production tells the story of two very different women who unite to crusade against malaria after both lose sons to the illness.
Mary (Swank) is an American who takes her child (Lux Haney-Jardine, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) away from bullying classmates for an “adventure” abroad, and Martha (Blethyn) is an Englishwoman whose son (Sam Claflin, “Snow White and the Huntsman”) volunteers at an African orphanage. After both young men contract and die of malaria, their mothers meet and bond, then decide to take their message about the disease to the masses — and ultimately to a Washington, D.C., hearing.
James Woods also appears as Mary’s politically connected father in the film, directed by Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger”).
“Obviously, what’s on the page is the most important thing in the beginning,” Swank says, “but you follow it up with talent like that, in every corner, and it’s a no-brainer. It’s something you just jump at to be a part of.”
Swank has played mothers before (“Conviction,” “The Reaping”), and that aspect of “Mary and Martha” largely drove her performance.
“I don’t think there’s anything worse in the world than losing a child,” Swank says. “I don’t have children of my own, but I have a lot of them in my life… nieces and nephews, children of boyfriends. Still, it was all on the page here.”
After writing for stars from Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts to Colin Firth and Emma Thompson, Curtis says he is pleased that Swank and Blethyn embody his Mary and Martha.
“They make for a very exciting clash of cultures,” he says. “There is something about Brenda that is so profoundly British and so humane, and, likewise, there’s an extraordinary Americanness and determination and kind of wisdom about Hilary. They were on the far ends of the characters I’d written, and I was delighted about that.”