The first time Hilary Swank walked onto the set of her new sci-fi thriller she recalls that she was floored by the authenticity and attention to detail of the futuristic bunker where much of the action takes place.
Swank, a two-time Oscar winner best known for Million Dollar Baby and Boy’s Don’t Cry, clearly delves into her role of “Woman” in the futuristic and thought-provoking Netflix film, I Am Mother.
The movie, written by Michael Lloyd Green and directed by Green and Grant Sputore, is about alienation, technology and family relationships. The collaborators wondered what it would be like to be raised without parents, to actually be brought up by technology. They pondered the questions, “What would Artificial Intelligence prioritize? “And what would be important?”
In the wake of humanity’s extinction, a teenage girl “Daughter” (Clara Rugaard) is raised by a robot called “Mother” (voiced by Rose Byrne), designed to repopulate the earth.
Their unique bond is threatened when an inexplicable stranger (Swank) arrives with some alarming news that calls into question everything “Daughter” has been told about the outside world and her mother’s intentions.
“We are in a world where there is a lot of debate about morals, ethics, and values, but it doesn’t feel like healthy debate, it feels like we are at odds over such much,” Swank exclusively told Parade.com.
“So, the scary idea of someone saying,’ let’s just wipe out the human race, and make a perfect species,’ is pretty intense to think about,” she said. “After all, what’s perfect? And who defines the term perfect?”
What were you thinking about when you made I Am Mother?
HS: I was thinking about the idea also of Artificial Intelligence and how AI can absolutely kind of take over our world, without any programming from the human race, because they are exponentially smarter and getting data so much faster. The fact that they could take over one day, is not such a far-fetched idea.
What initially attracted you to the movie?
CR: A massive factor in what drew me to the script was that it had so many layers and it touches on conversations that we should be having about AI becoming so prevalent in our society. It is an amazing script in terms of the drama and the uniqueness of our characters.
Did it make you think about the fact that we are all so immersed in our technology that we rarely talk face-to-face, sit together or bond like we used to?
HS: Definitely. Clara is only 21 so her idea of the world is obviously very different than ours. I think back on when we used to go to a library for our book reports using the Dewey decimal system. At 44 years old, I was raised without any technology, no computer or any of that, and I am so grateful for the experiences of one-on-one interactions, and not interacting at a dinner table with a phone, I think it’s really got to be hard for a kid.
There are certainly benefits to having the technology.
HS: Yes, of course. Now the idea of not having my phone, with my dad going through a lung transplant and me needing to always have the ability to be in touch with him and his doctors at my fingertip, shows our lifesaving capabilities with technology that we didn’t have before. So, sure there are pros and cons to anything and everything.
How did you tap into the raw emotion?
HS: I think what’s interesting is we were both so alone but for different reasons. Clara’s character “Daughter,” thought that there was no one else in the world and my character knew that there were people but they weren’t left behind. How we were approaching the need for that human interaction was very different but the feeling underneath it’s still the same.
Do you have a charity that you care about?
HS: Yes, it’s called Hilaroo. It’s my name and my late dog Karoo’s name put together and it brings kids who have been given up on and animals who have been abandoned together to help heal each other.
What else can you tell me about Hilaroo?
HS: The plan is that together the animals and young people can heal one another through rescue, rehabilitation, and responsibility training. When the animals are ready, they will be adopted into forever homes. The young people, through their time at the foundation, will be given responsibility training so they may go out into this world to make it a better place for themselves. Hanging out with these kids is both life-changing and humbling.
How do you pick your film projects?
HS: I love a character who has that grit and determination, who perseveres through adversity and reminds us all of what our purpose is here.
Do you think that grit and determination is part of your personality?
HS: Yes, 100 percent!
And that has helped you through difficult times?
HS: One million percent! The idea of growing up in the lower socioeconomic background that I grew up in and having people say, “You’re going to Hollywood and you’re going to be an actor, good luck with that, haha! That’s never going to happen.” And then having the gift of my mom telling me as a child that I could do anything I wanted in life as long as I worked hard enough and never gave up, gave me the confidence to say, “OK, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to work hard to get there.” I also didn’t have the adult glasses on to say, “Oh, my gosh, that is a difficult dream to conquer.”
Did being “Daughter” as opposed to having a name and the robot being referred to as “Mother” change your view of these precious relationships. It’s very striking when Clara puts her head on the robot’s shoulder. Do you think of a robot as a mother figure or a nurturing figure?
CR: I think I have to. After all, “Mother” is all “Daughter” has ever known her entire life. She’s taught her everything she knows, including ethics and morals, and I have to just have to put myself in that mindset, even though it seems so alien to us. But she’s her mother and she raised her and she loves her with all her heart like any daughter loves her mother.
The underground bunker is very stark and very gray and it looks so desolate that it gave me the shivers watching it. What was it like being on the set?
HS: Sometimes you’re in those places and you can feel like you’re on a set, but this felt very real. The set designer is phenomenal, and the reality is in the details. It’s the specificity when you look at something, like everything that you looked at was real, detailed and very specific. Clara even said, ‘I feel like we are underground.’ It wasn’t, but it felt like it.
With all of your experience as an actress, and Clara starting out, did you feel maternal toward her?
HS: I felt 100 percent maternal toward her and I still do. With her fresh-faced what they call in Hollywood “a breakthrough performance,” I wanted to make sure she was protected. The business side of this can be so hard and it’s so different than what you experience on a set from the creative side, so, I’m always here for her and I want to be able to help guide her if she needs it, and navigate through the difficult waters of what it’s like.
What was fun about making this movie for you?
CR: Well, first and foremost the movie started off on a very small budget and everyone who was on board the project just loved it. We’re so passionate about telling the story and wanted to wake up and go to work and you could really feel that.
What are you doing next?
HS: My next project is also with Netflix and it is a 10-episode series called Away, directed by Ed Zwick, who just directed the movie Trial By Fire. So, I’m kind of staying in the same vicinity genre-wise of the unknown and I’m super excited about it.
CR: I’m flying off to Barcelona to shoot a film set during World War II about a group of Polish-Jewish actors in the Warsaw ghetto who put on a play, and I am very excited about that as well. It is called Love Gets a Room. As an actor, I am seeking a great story. I am really enjoying this ride right now.
What is the takeaway from this movie?
HS: This is one of those movies that is certainly entertaining, and you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time. You don’t know who to trust so as Clara’s character, “Daughter,” was trying to figure this out, I think the audience is also trying to figure it out. At the same time, the movie is a reminder that “Daughter” is learning as she goes that you have an instinct, you have to trust it, and you have to do what’s right for you, and not for anyone else.
I Am Mother debuts on Netflix on Friday, June 7.