TORONTO – Hilary Swank wanted to meet Betty Anne Waters, the Ayer, Mass., woman she portrays in “Conviction.”
Just not too soon.
“Betty is my real-life hero. You want to do justice to her story especially when it’s a story as magnificent as Betty Anne’s is,” Swank said as “Conviction” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The film chronicles Waters’ 18-year fight to free her brother Kenny (played by Sam Rockwell), sentenced to life in prison for murder.
Waters, a wife and mother who never graduated from high school, had no money for appeals. Instead, she got her GED, a bachelor’s and ultimately a law degree to be able to represent Kenny.
“It’s challenging, especially when the person that you’re playing is still alive. Eventually I wanted to meet Betty Anne,” Swank said.
“But I didn’t want to meet her right away because there’s the accent and I didn’t want to just be parodying someone. I wanted to understand her heart and where her passion and drive and unconditional love came from for her brother.”
Swank first listened to the stories that Betty Anne had shared with director Tony Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray. “I just listened to her heart and to her stories and to her childhood.”
Then her dialogue coach visited Betty Anne to record several hours conversation.
Only then did Swank feel ready to meet her real-life inspiration – and she was surprised.
“I say that she’s my hero yet she’s so human, too. You have this idea that she’s driven, of someone who’s tough and talks tough. Look at her,” Swank said, gesturing to Waters sitting nearby.
“She’s all heart. You can talk tough but she wears her heart on her sleeve and the dichotomy of what you see on paper and what you really get was a great lesson for me as an actor.”
After playing Waters, Swank called the role, “A reminder to me of what’s important, which is family. Doing this I grew as an actor – but Betty Anne has changed my life in who she is and how she chooses to live her life.”