Categories Articles & Interviews

The Homesman: Interview with actress Hilary Swank

The Homesman is the latest work of American director, writer and actor Tommy Lee Jones, presented this year at Cannes Film Festival in competition and starring Hilary Swank.

How would you sum up The Homesman?

I see The Homesman as being about the fortitude of people in a small midwest town who live a very simple life and are there to help one another. In the film, three women have lost their minds and need a homesman to take them from Nebraska to Iowa, which was a very daunting task at that time. This brings my character and Tommy Lee Jones’ together along the way.

What drew you to the script?

It was a script that resonated with me because it goes back to the simplicity and the beauty of human beings: connecting and heart-rending people’s emotions. And it touched me deeply. The depth of the simplicity of the words and the music within the scenes, just got richer and richer as the shoot went on.

Can you describe Mary Bee, the character you portray?

To me Mary Bee is resilient, she has fortitude, she has morals and she has faith. She is not afraid to say what’s on her mind and, for her, it’s “don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you”. Something else that I love about Mary Bee is that she always wants to do the right thing.

How does your character interact with the three insane women?

Mary bee has great compassion for these women. She had a wonderful, loving mother and so she had a great mentor in that way. She lost her mother at a really young age, so seeing these women struggle reminds her of the relationship with her mom. In a way, it is a kind of a healing for her: by helping these women, she’s helping herself. And the idea that at times she probably wasn’t that far away from where they are – being in such isolation and danger, in the middle of nowhere, at least 20 miles from your nearest neighbor – well, she can definitely really relate to these women. She can understand the insensitivity that they have undergone with the men they are around.

The movie deals with an unusual and an original team: the claim jumper and a pioneer.

It is a great pairing because you have this woman who has all the qualities such as resilience and compassion I mentioned and then you have Briggs who shares a lot of those qualities but not on his sleeve. Besides, he has quite a humorous side – he says a lot of things that make me laugh. The respect the two forge through the journey is really beautiful.

How was it working with Tommy Lee Jones?

I don’t know if there is any word that can fully do justice to my feelings for Tommy Lee Jones in every way as a director, as an actor, as a writer and as a person. He has such a way of getting across to each member of his crew and to his actors exactly what he needs for them to evoke and to bring to the film and to the story. He always knew exactly what to say to me as a director to help bring colours to the performance. It never ceases to amaze me.

I am sure the decades of his acting career lend him to be the brilliant director that he is, not to mention his eye, his vision and his writing: this script was impeccably written. Sometimes when I read a script and there some things missing, I need to sit down with the director and the writer to say “I don’t really feel this”. But what I discovered in this is that it was all on the page. To know that I am exhausted at the end of the shoot when I was just acting, and he was writing, producing, directing and starring – this blows my mind. I have enormous respect for him.

How did you prepare for the role?

One of the things I enjoy about being an actress is an opportunity to jump into something I’ve never done before, and in this particular case I was able to learn how to ride horses and pull wagons with mules. So a lot of the preparation was spending time with the horses and building trust with them as it wasn’t something that I had experience in.

Was the role challenging from a physical standpoint?

When you work the whole day outside in the snow, in the rain, in the wind, in the sun, you realise that it changes pretty much hourly in the spring. At the end of the day, I get to go home to a bed, a hot bath and to warm food, and you think of these characters day in, day out, for weeks crossing that prairie, never having that advantage of getting outside of their elements and it really set the foundation for where you’d be. So physically it was very challenging tobrave the elements and all those things, but it was one that I also enjoyed.

What scene did you find the most exciting to play?

You know I don’t think I can pick just one, but if I have to say a favourite scene it was when I wake Briggs up and ask him what he is going to do after we make the journey to Iowa. It was a very heartfelt scene between the two characters. And working with Tommy Lee on that scene, and seeing his nuanced performance, is something I will never forget.