Few actresses move from TV’s 90210 and the film The Next Karate Kid to become a 2-time Best Actress Oscar winner for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby. Unless you’re Hilary Swank. Though recent films which she has starred in were unsuccessful at the box office, some found favor with the critics. That has also been the case with Fox Searchlight’s Conviction. Swank portrays Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusettes wife and mother who put herself through high school, college, and law school in order to free her wrongfully imprisoned brother. A surprise SAG nomination for Swank for Outstanding Female Actor In A Leading Role has resulted in a stepped-up Oscar campaign:
DEADLINE: In Conviction you play another real-life person.
SWANK: You know when you take on a role and it’s challenging and you think, “Oh, am I going to be able to do this?” – which I do every single time. I think, “Can I do this? Can I do this?” And it scares me in a deep place – which is part of my ride, too. I like that. I’m an adrenaline junkie. But then you add the layer of it being a real person and how much that person means to me. And I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if she saw the movie and said, “You didn’t get it, and that’s not how it happened.” And everyone felt that way on this movie and everyone really stepped up.
DEADLINE: You didn’t meet Betty Anne at first.
SWANK: No, because I didn’t want to be a parody of her. So we had a brilliant dialect coach whom I worked with for maybe 6 to 8 weeks before meeting Betty Anne. And I would study her on audio tape and had hours of her. And so I listened to her stories and I’d listen to the emotion between the lines – what got her angry, what made her sad – and got to know her that way. Then Sam Rockwell came on and he’s, like, “I want to meet Betty Anne,” and I’m, like, “I’m going with you!” Because I thought it was a great bonding experience. I thought this might be a woman who is, you know, really scarred, has a chip on her shoulder, bitter about what her brother experienced, what she in turn experienced with the system. And she’s so complex and she was so gracious. She wears her heart on her sleeve. She just gets emotional and will tell you anything. You can pick her brain about anything. And it was really, really helpful. She was on set when we filmed.
DEADLINE: Was that unnerving to have her standing there?
SWANK: I would never have thought that I could have the real person on set. It would be that you would be feeling judged, and it wasn’t because she became so much a part of the collaboration. She’s not judgmental.
DEADLINE: Do you think this movie could actually make a difference in the justice system?
SWANK: I think it might and it’s my deep hope that it will. And I think that is has already. People are talking about it. Even if it shines a light on our flawed judicial system to that one person, that’s something. I think that knowledge is power and that the more we know, the more we learn about the world, whether it be through film or reading or the paper or art. I find that I’m drawn to those types of films. I look at the trajectory of the choices I’ve made and no doubt that is something in many of them. And that’s why I think being an actor is so extraordinary. You get to walk in all these people’s shoes. And it just blows open my world into a wider capacity than it would had I not been an actor. It’s fabulous.
DEADLINE: Your last film, Amelia, wasn’t well received critically or at the box office.
SWANK: I think that the movie in general missed on some points. It wasn’t a perfect movie. It was flawed. And I think we started too soon. We started before the script really found its way. And I don’t think you can do that. But I think the interesting thing about it – and I’m glad we’re actually talking about it – is that you don’t put any less effort into a movie that doesn’t work. I quote this Clint [Eastwood] quote all the time because it works so well: “You always aim for the bull’s eye but you don’t always hit it.”
DEADLINE: Was there pressure on you, having won that second Oscar, to do more commercial work?
SWANK: Playing it safe isn’t in my marrow. Sometimes you are going to fall on your face but I think as an artist you want to mix things up. You want to do things that are mainstream, you want to do things that are really low budget and artistic, you want to do different genres.
DEADLINE: Did you ever expect to have the success you’ve had in this business?
SWANK: I just constantly marvel at the fact that I’m a working actor, and that I made it out of that past and I’m where I am now. I think after Boys Don’t Cry, which was 11 years ago, I felt like, “Where do you go from here? You’re at the top.. And I just had to reconnect with why I became an actor in the first place. Since then, there have been some good movies that I’ve been a part of making and some not-so-good movies, and that’s just the way it is.