When Hilary Swank read the screenplay for The Homesman, she became determined to play Mary Bee Cuddy, the movie’s female lead. The character is a principled, monied, 19th century Nebraska frontierswoman who lives and farms by herself, but is searching for more: meaning, purpose, and love — she ends up going on a dangerous adventure. So Swank emailed Tommy Lee Jones, who co-wrote the script (which was adapted from a novel by Glendon Swarthout), and was going to direct the movie, produce it, and star in it. Swank told BuzzFeed News recently that after they met, Jones said, “Great, let’s do it.” She then added: “I wish it was always that easy.” The Homesman opens Nov. 14.
Swank, 40, has won two Academy Awards for Best Actress. The more recent one was in 2005 for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, in which she played a doomed boxer. The other was for Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, for her portrayal of Brandon Teena, who lived life as a boy (though Swank is less sure about Teena’s identity, as you will see below). Having begun acting as a teenager, her career has spanned genres. And now, she is very choosy.
Swank talked at length to BuzzFeed News about The Homesman and other roles of her more distant past toward the end of a press junket. She also spoke passionately about shelter dog adoption, and her upcoming dog-a-thon on Thanksgiving night: Fox’s Cause for Paws, which she is co-hosting with Jane Lynch. Not coincidentally, there was a dog, Dot, at the interview. “I wasn’t necessarily planning on her coming home with me,” Swank said. “But I think we’ve fallen in love.”
The Homesman drops the audience into a world without any explanation of what it is, and the viewer has to figure it out as it goes. What did you think of Mary Bee when you first read the script?
Hilary Swank: I fell in love with her, because to me, she has all the qualities that I personally feel are lacking in this day and age: values, morals, manners. She does the right thing just for the sake of doing the right thing. But in general, what drew me to the script was the way women are objectified and trivialized in this film — that’s what we connect to today. It’s 150 years later, and we’re still dealing with those issues.
Tommy Lee Jones is known as someone who does not suffer fools.
HS: That’s right. I have enormous respect for him. And I appreciate that he’s able to be himself, and not really care about what other people think in a world where we’re almost overly enthusiastic about what other people think about us.
Did you know that you would get along with him?
HS: We got along great. I get along with most people. Even people who I find to be egotistical, I can even find a soft place in my heart, because I know that’s usually a front and an insecurity. No, we got along smashingly. Not that he’s egotistical!
Did you have the same views on the character?
HS: Yeah. And as you film, the character is infused in you more and more, and so I think there’s more trust at that point. But I think Tommy Lee was just really specific about the words: He wanted the words the way they were written on the paper. And it wasn’t because he had an ego about being a writer, and having written the words, but there was a rhythm that was very important. He said, “There’s a rhythm to it, and when you say the words the way they’re written, you’ll find it, and it will be there.” I did see that when I watched the movie.
There aren’t a lot of movies like The Homesman. Did it feel like something came along that’s rare?
HS: People will say, “Why don’t we see more of you?” Well, because there’s a lack of scripts that are interesting to me. I’m fine doing one movie a year. There’s so much that I put into my movies, that it takes a little while to step back from it for a second and kind of gain my bearings again. They’re just few and far between — the good stories, and then the good female role within it.
She’s a feminist character, and a badass. But she has needs.
HS: Still wants to find love and receive love. She’s very human that way. That’s what I love about her, too: It’s lonely. It just goes to show, you can be as fiercely independent as you want, you can have it all under control, you may not need anybody. But you still want to share your life with somebody, you still want to have company. You get lonely. People get lonely. We’re here on this earth to procreate and to find a partner.
Let’s go back into your IMDb page. I rewatched The Next Karate Kid before interviewing you, thinking I’d just watch a little bit, but then I got totally sucked in. That movie is an insane relic of the ’90s.
First of all, your character is under the constant and explicit threat of rape.
Basically, she learns karate to not be raped.
HS: To protect herself.
It’s intense! Were you aware of that?
HS: Probably not. When you’re a teenager, you’re under the constant threat of men and boys. You go from a young girl to a teenager, and it can be daunting. Right? So maybe I was just experiencing the same thing in my life and I wasn’t looking at it like that.
Huh! It didn’t seem unrealistic, that’s the thing. She’s a girl in some military-ish school. I was like, Oh, that seems right!
HS: It’s not unlike what we were talking about with the objectification of women.
Yes. The movie is also very racist! I don’t know if you remember.
HS: Is it?
Basically, every time Mr. Miyagi is about to say something wise, there’s this Asian flute music.
HS: Maybe it’s staying true to the Karate Kid.
Oh yeah, it’s not any more racist than any of those ’80s and ’90s teen movies. Watching it now, though — really crazy. Those monks? Making rice in the kitchen? I was, like, What is happening?
HS: Do monks not make rice? [The publicist in the other room in the suite laughed.] Did you hear her laugh? You would have directed it differently.
It is of its time. I will put it that way.
HS: I would think that anybody who catches flies with chopsticks, you might need to take the whole thing with a grain of salt.
Totally. He calls your character Julie-san. Anyway! These are your memories of making Karate Kid, so it’s not just me talking?
HS: I haven’t seen it since maybe I was 18. I would say it was exciting for me, but I was also in this place because it was one of the first dramas I did. So I was really afraid to step out of character, because I thought I wouldn’t be able to get back into that place. So I would walk around really intense all the time. Like, Don’t talk to me, I’m in the groove, I’m in the zone.
You were Carly on Beverly Hills, 90210. Single parent, Peach Pit waitress, love interest of Steve Sanders.
HS: Yeah, but in the eighth season when no one watched it anymore.
I watched it.
HS: Thank you. Long after Luke Perry was gone. Also, that was my opportunity to do some drama, so I was super excited about it. I had signed on to a two-year deal, and I got fired 13 episodes in. I was devastated.
Carly was fired?
HS: Thirteen episodes in. Devastated. I thought, I’m not good enough for 90210 in the eighth season.
Why wasn’t Carly working out?
HS: They said something like, “The audience doesn’t like that Ian’s character is settled down. They like him to be a roamer.” I’m like, OK.
Too serious for Steve. What’s it like to be fired from something?
HS: Devastating. Especially when I felt like I was on something that people weren’t really talking about as much anymore. It’s awful. It’s an awful feeling, a huge rejection. Only in hindsight you can say, Well, if you hadn’t been fired, you wouldn’t have done Boys Don’t Cry and changed your career. But at the time, it was horrible.
Boys Don’t Cry: The world has evolved so much since then. Has that changed your memories of the experience?
HS: If anything, I look back and see what a pivotal role that entire film had on the gay, lesbian, transgendered community. And winning the Academy Award like that made it something that was talked about in a bigger way. And seen as something that transcends gender, and made it more about love, and everyone’s desire to live their lives the way they see fit for themselves. Even though we still have a lot of strides to make in that area.
It was incredibly ahead of its time in terms of the trans movement.
HS: I wasn’t even aware of what we were making exactly.
Obviously, you wanted to play the part. But it’s not like you thought, I might be nominated for and win an Oscar.
HS: I don’t think about that in any role that I take. One thing Kimberly and I really talked about was not defining what she was. Whether she was a lesbian, whether she was transgendered. She said, “I have a sexual identity crisis.” Those were the words she said on tape when she was being interviewed by the cops. Those were the only things we know for sure. It could have been a handful of things: I was a lesbian, I was living in a community that didn’t allow me to be that, so I was passing as a boy so I could be with women. Or: Yes, I feel like I was born a girl, but want to be a boy. She could have gone through with the process of having a sex change. Or she was just exploring, and questioning her sexuality as teens do. We won’t ever know that, because unfortunately, her life was cut short. What we were really trying to do was not define exactly what she was. Because it’s not about defining people and what we are. But it’s about exploring and receiving and giving love.
After Boys Don’t Cry, and before Million Dollar Baby, you were in movies like The Gift, Affair of the Necklace, and The Core. Do any of those movies stand out to you?
HS: You know, at that time, I think I was just trying to find follow-up roles. The Affair of the Necklace was beautiful on paper. I don’t know that that movie was fully realized, and all that it maybe could have been, but I liked the idea of a period piece. And a genre that I’m very interested in.
You’re not an easily cast type. Has that been freeing for you? Frustrating for you?
HS: It’s freeing for me, in that I get opportunities where I’m not specifically stereotyped. Other than you play strong — what’s another word? [Publicist from the other room: “Independent!”] Independent. Sorry, I’m fading a little bit. When people have a strong, independent type of character, I see those scripts a lot.
When Million Dollar Baby came along, I imagine you identified that as something high profile from the beginning.
HS: I sat down and remember reading it from Page 1: I was riveted. I didn’t move out of my seat ‘til the end. I don’t think I’d ever read a more perfect script. Not one word was changed. Paul Haggis is an extraordinary talent when it comes to language and humanity.
You die in a lot of movies.
HS: Yeah. Famous quote of my mom: “When are you ever going to live to see the credits?”
Moving along! I cried a lot in P.S. I Love You. Like, a lot.
HS: Yeah, me too! What’s funny is I was like, Oh, wow, I get this opportunity to do a light movie. I ended up crying on that movie every single day of filming. There was a crying scene every day.
What’s your life like now? Do you live in Los Angeles full-time?
HS: I live on a plane full-time. When people are like, “Where do you live?” I’m like, “On a plane.” My home base is here. But last time I filmed a movie here was Million Dollar Baby.
Holy crap, really?
HS: I haven’t worked in the city on an actual production for a long time. I just kind of travel all around the world. I’ve spent a little bit of time in Paris, which I’m enjoying. Because the French just don’t care about celebrity, and you really have quite a normal life when you get to walk around there and spend time.
Would you ever do television?
HS: Absolutely. I think some of the best writing is on television right now. They’re taking risks and chances that I think independent films used to take before they were bought by the bigger studios. I’ve never qualified myself as being one certain thing. I like the medium of film better, because I like to understand a character, get under their skin, and then let them go. I think for me as an artist it might feel claustrophobic to play the same character for 10 years.
Do you watch TV?
HS: No. I actually don’t own a television. I know I can get stuff on DVD, so I’m looking into that. I have an iPhone 4. I had the Blackberry Pearl, and I kept replacing the trackball from eBay for as long as I could until they were like, “We don’t have that anymore.”