To meet or not to meet.
That often is the question facing actors whenever they play real people who are still alive.
Even if the role is a long-gone historical figure, there could be surviving relatives who have an opinion about how their family member is depicted.
The question is particularly relevant this fall, given that no fewer than 10 films draw heavily upon biographical material, from this month’s The Social Network and Secretariat to the upcoming The King’s Speech, 127 Hours and The Fighter.
It figures that Hilary Swank would be front and center in one of the titles —Conviction, which opens Oct. 15. She’s an old hand at such reality-based fare.
She won the first of two Oscars for her breakthrough role as Brandon Teena, a transgender teen who passed as male in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. Last year, she went so far as to obtain a pilot’s license to play famed aviator Amelia Earhart in Amelia. In between, there was a shady 18th-century French aristocrat in The Affair of the Necklace (2001), a suffragist in Iron Jawed Angels(2004) and a teacher who challenges the system in Freedom Writers (2007).
This time, Swank is Betty Anne Waters, a Rhode Island single mom and high school dropout who earned a law degree so she could fight her brother Kenny’s wrongful murder conviction — a process that dragged on for 18 years and cost her a marriage.
It began in 1980, when Katharina Brow was found dead on the floor of her trailer home in Ayer, Mass., where Kenny lived and worked at a diner that the victim frequented. She was stabbed more than 30 times, and money and jewelry had been stolen.
The police zeroed in on Kenny, who had a reputation as a troublemaker and was caught breaking into Brow’s trailer when he was a kid. Any evidence pointing to him was circumstantial, including that his blood type matched the killer’s. But two years later, witnesses suddenly materialized to testify that he confessed to the crime. The jury found him guilty, even though he had an alibi,and his sentence was life without parole.
After appeals failed, Waters decided to become a student again.
“I’m drawn to these types of true stories for a couple of reasons,” says Swank, in Toronto for Conviction’s film-fest world premiere. The main one: “I don’t find there to be a huge amount of compelling fiction to choose from, especially for women.”
There is also the high degree of difficulty. “You take a person like Betty Anne Waters, who is my hero. It is scary for me as an actor. Not only does the story span a huge space of time, but it’s about someone who is still living. You want to do justice to them.”
Of her earlier biopics, only education reformer Erin Grunwell of Freedom Writers was around to offer advice. But the normally media-shy Waters, whose devotion and humility in her pursuit of a seemingly impossible goal are the cornerstones of Swank’s performance, is a different — and more personal — case.
“She sacrificed her life,” says Swank, who is also an executive producer on Conviction. “She won’t say that’s what she did. She will just say, ‘I didn’t think of it like that.’ But she did — for someone else.” Namely, her closest ally in a broken family of 10 kids, even though she and Kenny spent a portion of their childhood apart in separate foster homes.
It was the connection between the two, separated in age by only a year, that persuaded Swank to do another true tale. As she says, “When you add the element of unconditional love for a sibling, or for anyone for that matter, you can’t help but think, ‘Do I have that in my life?’ That’s an incredibly inspiring thing.”
The right roles
She initially waffled over meeting Waters before filming began to avoid any temptation to imitate her. But, as it turns out, getting together early on proved beneficial to both women.
After a delay of several minutes, Swank’s hero finally arrives to join her. While the star, 36, is dressed to impress in a body-hugging sleeveless sheath, Waters, 56, is all business in a tidy navy-blue suit and attractively coifed reddish blond hair. But when she speaks, her vocal inflections are pure working-class New England, filled with Yankee grit and determination with a healthy dollop of heart-on-her-sleeve emotion.
Her tardiness is caused by friend Abra Rice (played with comic verve by Minnie Driver), a fellow law student who supported Waters through the grueling process of proving Kenny’s innocence. “She’s trying to figure out what to wear for the premiere,” Waters explains. As for her own red-carpet garb, she says, “It’s an important day for me. I’m going to wear a dress, and I don’t wear a dress a lot.”
When plans were discussed to turn Betty Anne and Kenny’s story into a movie shortly after he was exonerated in 2001, director Tony Goldwyn first considered casting Naomi Watts— hot off of Mulholland Drive— to star.
“I can’t imagine another person other than Hilary,” says Waters. “When I found out she might be doing it, I was so excited. She was the one I wanted.”
Swank hasn’t always picked parts that have suited her, as evidenced by her inconsistent box office. But when she does find a perfect fit, such as the underdog boxer in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby— the source of her second Oscar — the payoff is potent. And Conviction felt equally right.
As Goldwyn notes, “Hilary said to me, ‘I’ve come to terms with the fact I was put on earth to play characters like this.’ It wouldn’t have been hard to find another actress who could capture Betty’s strength and had the power to be dynamic. But Hilary also has this openness to her, a kind of incredible warmth and positivity.”
The thought of owning two Academy Awards reminds her of her own hardscrabble beginnings, from living in a trailer park in Bellingham, Wash., to moving to Los Angeles with her mom to follow her acting dreams and living out of their car before they could afford an apartment.
“I was always looking in, looking into windows at what people were doing,” says Swank, who, like Waters, also left high school early and later got a GED. “So the idea that this organization of people I look up to not only invited me in, but then bestowed something of such great honor, it astonishes me.”
Adds Waters, “That’s what drew me to her. I read about her, and I always felt she had something in common with me — like she said about always looking in and not being a person.”
They connected quickly once Swank and co-star Sam Rockwell, who plays Kenny, visited her home in Middletown, R.I. Waters worried that her presence might not be welcome on the set: “Tony explained to me that sometimes having the real person there makes an actor uncomfortable.” But her concern proved needless.
“When she came to my house,” Waters says, “what struck me as funny was we both had the same outfit on.”
Swank nods. “Exactly. A black turtleneck sweater. And jeans and boots.”
Adds Waters, “I felt at ease with her right away.”
On location in Ann Arbor, Mich. (picked for its tax incentives), the mood was similarly simpatico, albeit with pitched emotions. “Betty Anne and her family had a room with a monitor where they could sit and watch,” Swank recalls. “At one point, I walked in right before lunch after a particularly difficult scene, and she had all these tissues stuffed in the little pockets of these chairs.”
Explains Waters, “I did a lot of crying. It was like I had therapy while I was there. I hadn’t really thought a lot about these things for a long while.”
A painful divorce is another experience that both she and Swank have in common. The actress has come to terms with the dissolution of her nine-year marriage to Chad Lowe in 2006. “We maybe aren’t the best of friends, but it’s OK. I love him, and it will always be in my heart. I wouldn’t be who I am today without having had him in my life.”
Waters is not so philosophical about her ex. When asked whether she is close to her former husband, she answers with an unequivocal “no, not at all.” But she is on extremely good terms with her proud sons, Ben 25, and Richard, 29, who are depicted in the film and will join their mother at the premiere.
In fact, she says, “my 29-year-old has come back home because he went back to school. He graduates next year. In the meantime, his girlfriend became pregnant, so I’m a grandmother now. I have them with me and my 6-month-old grandson. Hopefully, they will get married next year. But I’m in no hurry for them to leave. My son cooks, she cleans. I get to be a grandmother. It’s a happy home.”
Impact of innocence
Getting involved with Hollywood types and doing publicity doesn’t come easy to her. “I’m a very private person,” Waters says. “When I went to community college and took oral communication, I had to give a speech to the 30 people in my class. I actually vomited, I was so nervous to talk to anyone.”
But a couple of factors override any inhibitions. The first is her desire to honor her brother. Although it is never mentioned in the film, Kenny enjoyed his release from prison for only six months before he died from injuries suffered from a fall.
But his sister assures that he was acutely aware that there was interest in making a film of their experience. “He thought he was going to be in the movie,” says Waters, smiling.
She also hopes that Conviction spreads the word about the Innocence Project, the organization co-founded by Barry Scheck of O.J. Simpson trial fame that helps the wrongly convicted use DNA evidence to prove they aren’t guilty. Scheck, played by Peter Gallagher, worked closely with Waters to free her brother.
Says Waters, whose only involvement in law these days is her pro-bono work for the project, “I wouldn’t have allowed the movie to be made except for the impact it might have.”
There has been talk that Swank could be in the Oscar race once again. But she says it already has been enough of an honor being Betty Anne Waters.
“To tell a story like hers, not only do I grow as an actor. I grow as a human being. She’s the hero, but I get a taste of what it feels like to be a loving, caring, unselfish human being in such a profound way.”