Categories Articles & Interviews

Interview: Hilary Swank

I t’s a story that only Hollywood could tell. A brother and sister grow up in small town America, running wild, neglected by their parents, whispered about from behind twitching curtains, reliant on no one but each other. The brother, Kenny, turns into the local bad boy.

• Swank has already won two best actress Oscars

The sister, Betty Anne, played with Oscar-worthy pluck by (who else?) Hilary Swank, becomes the fast-talking, hands-on-hips Massachusetts gal who works behind a bar, doesn’t take sass from anyone and bails her brother out each time he is hauled in by the police.

Then he is hauled in for the brutal murder of a neighbour. There is no evidence, he has an alibi, and the police reluctantly let him go. Then more than two years later Kenny is charged with the murder and sentenced to life in prison. Betty Anne, the only one convinced of his innocence, spends the next 18 years fighting tirelessly for his release.

She spends 12 years putting herself through law school while working in the pub and bringing up two children alone when her husband leaves her. She sacrifices her own life in order to win her brother’s back. And in the end she finds the DNA evidence that proves Kenny’s innocence. He walks free. They are reunited. The End.

Or not. Conviction is no schmaltzy story concocted by Clint Eastwood to put audiences through the emotional wringer just in time for Oscar season. It’s all true. Betty Anne Waters, the woman sitting in front of me, calmly telling her remarkable story, really was a high-school dropout who put herself through law school in order to defend her brother.

Her best friend (played by Minnie Driver in Conviction) and Barry Scheck, a lawyer who gained notoriety when serving on OJ Simpson’s defence team and who runs The Innocence Project which works to free wrongly convicted prisoners, really did help her find the crucial evidence.

The police really did coerce key witnesses – two of Kenny’s ex-girlfriends – into giving false testimonies. And Kenny really did walk out of prison 18 years later.

But in real life there are no endings, happy or otherwise. Life just keeps on trucking. And sometimes it deals another blow. “People say what I did was amazing,” says Waters with a rueful smile. She looks up, blinking slowly so the tears won’t spill over. She runs a finger underneath each eye, wiping away mascara that isn’t there. “But it’s just what I did. It’s my life.”

I meet Waters and Swank in London. In some ways theirs is a relationship in reverse. Swank, among the youngest women to win two best actress Oscars, is the one who is in awe of Waters.

The actress who reduced her body fat to seven per cent to play transgendered teenager Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, then gained 19 pounds to play a female boxer in Million Dollar Baby, may be more at ease in this milieu of transatlantic travel and press junkets but she is clearly blown away by the woman she has immortalised on screen.

Meanwhile Waters, who at 55 is almost 20 years her senior, is less confident but still unflinchingly honest and only occasionally on guard.
“That’s kind of an odd question,” she says, when I ask whether she put herself through law school not just for her brother but at some level for herself. “I was doing it for him. It was not something I had to do.

I mean I’d been in the bar business for 20 years. I was OK with that.”
“I’m blown away by her courage and selflessness,” says Swank. “I mean, really, she leaves me speechless. Look at what the justice system did to her family. Betty Anne always says what good does it do to be angry? That means they continue to rule your life. You have to move on. I hope I’m a better person for having stepped in Betty Anne’s shoes, even for a few months.”

What a strange thing it must be to be in those shoes right now. That the unknown woman on whom this major film is based should be here in this hotel, surrounded by plumped pillows and PRs, not to mention an A-list star gushing about her, is only the latest chapter in this surreal and sad story.

She seems a little unsure of it all but she is clearly a survivor and is taking it in her stride. Everything about Waters suggests steeliness: the pressed suit, the neat hair, the make-up that almost conceals her exhausted, wary eyes. She wears it all like armour. How is she feeling? “Tired,” she says. “I didn’t know any of this was going to happen. But I just get on with it.”

What’s it like seeing her own life unfold on screen? “I feel like I’ve been through therapy,” she admits with a smile. Swank nods. Betty Anne said it was cathartic for her to keep living it. When she was on set the pockets in her chair were always full of Kleenex.

“I talked about things from my childhood that I never talked about to anybody before,” continues Waters. The talking helped. But the movie? “It just makes me sad. Every time I hear the music start, I’m like … oh my God. But it’s a great movie. I don’t want to leave this on a sad note.”

Then her face falls. “The beginning of the movie shows me and my brother jumping from my grandfather’s truck. We would hitch a ride into town when he was going to sell veg at the local markets. He would have a drink after and we would run around town and do whatever, steal candy, then we would appear and say, ‘Hey grandpa, we need a ride home.'” She giggles like a schoolgirl but the laughter doesn’t last long. In the movie they used the same truck. “That’s why it’s such a tearjerker for me. It takes me back like it was yesterday.”

That’s the thing. Real life, unlike the Hollywood version, has a habit of kicking you when you’re down. One night in 2001, just six months after he had been freed, Kenny was visiting relatives. He took a shortcut over a fence, fell 15ft and died 13 days later in hospital.
“It was awful,” Waters says quietly.

“Kenny used to say himself that he had very bad luck. I mean, he ended up in prison for something he didn’t do. It was often said that Kenny could just stand on a street corner and be arrested in five seconds. But the good news is he had the best six months of his life. He died free. He didn’t die a condemned man in prison. He died with people knowing he was innocent. So there was a silver lining …” The effort of looking on the bright side makes her sigh. But it’s very sad, she finishes.

His death is not mentioned at the end of the film, probably because it’s just too grim a conclusion. “I’m really happy it’s not,” she says, and her eyes fill up again.

“Kenny wanted this film more than anything. He was so happy about it. He would never have left the set. It was about his freedom. It was about proving his innocence. It wasn’t about him dying.”

Perhaps making Conviction has not only been cathartic. It has also given Waters the chance to come up with an alternative ending to her story.

“In some ways,” says Swank, “it was a chance for her to immortalise Kenny. It’s such a huge responsibility. If I had let Betty Anne or Kenny or any of the family down I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

There are more similarities between Swank and Waters than you might first imagine. Both succeeded against the odds and share a resolve that is entirely self-made. “If I believe in something, I go after it,” says Swank and then she laughs. “I don’t think anyone would describe me as a backseat person.”

Both of them grew up in small-town, low-income families. Waters was one of nine, with different and mainly absent fathers and her mother eventually couldn’t cope and the children were brought up by grandparents. “My mother was working,” she says, a little defensively.

“It wasn’t like she was … well, we had a lot of freedom and some people look at it like it’s not a good thing but I loved it. We had so many adventures.”

Swank grew up in a trailer park in Washington State. Her father left when she was 16 and by the time she was eight her only brother had left for military school. Acting and law school were beyond the realms of possibility for both girls, living in different States, a generation apart.

“Neither Betty Anne nor I had any resources behind us,” says Swank.

“I was nine when I first performed a little skit in front of class. It was my calling but I didn’t know it. I just thought it was fun. I watched TV and thought people were actually in that box. I don’t know what I was thinking when I went to the movies.”

Swank remembers going to her friends’ houses when she was seven and their parents not letting her play with their children because she was poorer than them. “I didn’t understand what it was about me that meant I couldn’t play with them,” she says. “They would let the other kids in and then say, ‘Hilary, you need to go home.'”

Swank ended up retreating into the world of films and books. “They became my friends,” she says. “The Elephant Man, ET, the characters in The Wizard of Oz. Then I realised you could become the one who tells those stories.”

We have all felt like outsiders in our lives. This is why Swank has always identified with the outsider and the underdog. It’s also why she tends to be drawn towards true stories, to playing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. And it’s probably why she has no vanity, often concealing her beauty to get into someone’s skin.

“There is nothing I wouldn’t do for a part,” she says, “except hurt somebody.”

The day Kenny walked free, Hollywood came calling. Waters had taken her brother to New York on that first night to stay in a hotel so they could do the breakfast TV circuit.

“His room had a kingsize bed, and in the morning he told me he slept in the corner on the floor because he was used to being curled up like that, she recalls. But he took a big bath for the first time in 18 years and we ordered room service – steak dinners – and he ate both of them. The next day it was all Good Morning America and Oprah. It was the happiest six months of Kenny’s life.”

Waters knew that if a film of her and Kenny’s story was going to be made, it had to be by people she trusted. She contacted the lawyer who had assisted her in freeing her brother, Barry Scheck, and he introduced her to a producer. She then met director Tony Goldwyn, the writer, and finally Swank.

“I didn’t want it to just be about me, she says. It had to be about me and Kenny. He was the one who was in prison. He’s the one who would be king of the mountain if he was here now talking to you.”

It’s clear that while Kenny, who is played by Sam Rockwell in Conviction, adored the attention he got after coming out of prison, Waters just wanted to get on with her life. She has never represented another client. Instead, she continues to work in the pub and volunteer with The Innocence Project.

“None of the people in the pub knew about my brother,” she admits. “They’re all like, ‘It’s pretty strange that you’re going to be in a movie.’ You know, I understand that people thought he was guilty. I lived for 18 years with people thinking that. So I stopped telling anyone about my brother because they would give me this look as if to say, ‘I’m sorry for you that you think your brother is innocent’.”

What kept her going in those years? “Kenny,” she says without hesitating. “He always had so much faith in me. He always thought I was so smart, for some reason. He was always saying, ‘Betty Anne, you can do it.’ He had more faith in me than I did in myself.
“After Kenny’s appeals failed, he was suicidal,” she goes on.

“They put him in isolation. Nobody knew what was happening. I was very upset with him. I said, ‘What are you doing? We still have other things we can do to get you out of here.’ He said he couldn’t live in prison, that he wouldn’t make it.”

During that conversation Kenny said Waters should go back to school and become a lawyer because they couldn’t afford the fees. He said he didn’t care how long it took. He would wait for her. And so they made a pact. “I would enrol in school,” she says, “and he would stay alive. And 12 years later I qualified.”

Conviction is a classic biopic in the Erin Brockovich mould. While the real people on whom these characters are based are rarely allowed on set, an exception was made for Waters. “You’d think it would be intimidating,” laughs Swank, who executive produced the film.

“But Betty Anne is the least intimidating and judgmental person I’ve ever met. And how could you tell her ‘no’ if she wanted to be there? It’s her story.”

The two women didn’t meet at first. Swank wanted to bring Waters to life, not just mimic her, so initially she sent a dialect coach to her house to record her strong, super-fast Massachusetts accent.

“Then she came to my house and when I opened the door we had the same outfit on,” laughs Waters. “It was like we were already bonded. Later that night we went to have dinner at Aidan’s pub, where I work, and the waitress mistook her for me. That even happened with my nephew and niece.”

The two women spent the day together, travelling to Waters’ home town, Ayer, where it all happened. “It’s always been hard for me to go back there, even before Kenny died,” says Waters.

“The fact that he was convicted in that town I left when I was 15 to live in Rhode Island, but Ayer is still the only place I ever really called home. Now it’s a sad place to go, a sad place to look at.”

Everyone keeps telling Waters that her life will change now. She would rather it didn’t.

She just wants to go home, keep working in the pub, keep helping other wrongfully convicted prisoners. Kenny was the 83rd person The Innocence Project helped release based on DNA evidence, she says.

Now they’ve exonerated 259. The fight, just as it did during those 18 long years, seems still to be what keeps her going. Would she do it all over again given the chance? “Oh absolutely,” she says. “My brother’s six months of freedom were worth everything.”