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Why Hilary Swank Breaks Your Heart in ‘The Homesman’

Why Hilary Swank Breaks Your Heart in 'The Homesman'

She makes you care about her. Mary Bee Cuddy is a New Yorker who has set up a homestead in pre-Civil War Nebraska. She’s as strong and smart and as capable as any man, her neighbors reluctantly admit. She can farm, and ride, and shoot. She just can’t seem to find a man who wants to marry her. She’s bossy and she’s plain, everyone keeps telling her. 

But she’s the only homesteader willing to transport in a wagon three women who have each gone crazy trying to deal with the hardscrabble pioneer life. And when she gets the chance to save the life of a man named Briggs (Jones) sitting on a horse with a noose around his neck, she gets him to join her on this three-week trek with the women across the prairie. They have no idea what they are in for.

See: Best Actress Oscar Predictions 2015.

Up next for Swank, possibly, is an Alejandro González Iñárritu cable series, “One Percent,” with Ed Harris and Ed Helms.  She’s crossing her fingers.

Swank dropped by Sneak Previews to talk “The Homesman.”

Anne Thompson: So, Hilary, you made me cry.

 

Hilary Swank: Sorry. Or, good. It’s sometimes good to
have that release, right?
 

I fell in love with this character, and you must love her,
too?

 

I love her. I love Mary Bee Cuddy.
 

Why?
 

Because she’s selfless. I say she goes where
Angels fear to tread. Right? She does the right thing because it’s
the right thing. Not because she wants applause or anything other than just to
do the right thing, and that’s so rare in this world. We’re
living in a day and age where I feel people have lost touch with values and
manners, and she has all of those. To me, I love her. I wish I had someone like
her in my court. I do have my mom…
 


I
don
’t think you’re plain, but is there a
part of you that
’s
bossy?

 

Oh, yeah! I’m very bossy.
 


When you learned that this script was being directed by Tommy
Lee Jones, who has a reputation for not suffering fools, what were you afraid of?

 

This movie and a lot of the
roles that I choose defy stereotypes. When you say that, you’re
right. Tommy Lee doesn’t suffer fools. He is a brilliant
mind. But he made a feminist movie. To me, there’s
something so beautiful about that: he’s multi-faceted. He might just not
play his cards for everybody. He holds them to his heart. As he says, he has a
wife that he loves; he has a mother that he loves; a grandmother that he loves.
He has women in his life that he values and that he adores, and he wanted to
tell a story about women, and I just find that so beautiful coming from him. It
could’ve been a million other people that you’d
think of to make it, but it was him. I love that that defies the stereotype of
Tommy Lee Jones.
 


At the Cannes press conference, he said that finding you brought a
huge sense of relief, because he knew you could handle this.

 

Aww! He didn’t say that to me. [Audience laughs]
 


But was it daunting? This is a hard movie. You had to do a lot
of physical things.

 

When you look at the roles that I choose, I choose those
daunting roles. A lot of my passion lies in trying to figure it out and see if
I can conquer it, and waking up with that fear in my belly, saying, “Can
I do this?” And having someone like Tommy Lee at the helm, to help guide
me — because I need that help. As artists, that’s
something that we have to have, is that safety net in order to jump off that
cliff and fly. There were a lot of challenges in this role. One, I didn’t
know how to ride a horse.
 


Wasn
’t
that his first question?

 

Funny enough, no. But I think, on “Million Dollar
Baby,” they said, “Can you box?” I
said, “Yeah!” That’s what you do as an
actor: you say “yeah!” “Can
you play the piano?” “Yeah!” And
then you go take a bunch of lessons, and you show up looking like you have a
remote idea. But my horse-riding experience was at a resort, where the horse
starts from A, then goes to B. I really didn’t have any
experience. Tommy Lee said, “You’ve got to look like
a horse woman. You can’t mess around here.” I
was like, “Great, let’s dive in.” I
was riding horses every day between when we started, four weeks before, and
even though I’m not on the horse very much, you have to have that sense
about you. I didn’t know how to steer mules, let alone
with a plow behind it.
 


Was that the hardest thing, the plow?

 

The plow was extraordinarily hard, and here’s
what’s interesting: the first plow they gave me had no wheels on
it, so, first of all, you’re guiding two mules. Alone is hard
enough. I learned that by pulling a railroad tie, doing that, and then working
with the plow, and then doing them together. Because you have to pull those
reins and, at the same time, you steer that plow. The first one, I had to put
all my weight on it, practically lift my body on it, and steer those things. I
was like, “Really? People did this?” And
it gave me a whole newfound respect for farmers, because they out-strength any
body-builder; what they do on a farm is extraordinary.  But then I said, “I can’t figure this out.
This is really hard!” And then I think someone said, “You
know what? The exact year this movie takes place, they just put wheels on this?” I
was like, “Whoo!” Because Tommy Lee is such a sucker for
exact perfection in all details, so I got the wheels on it and it did make it a
little easier. Not a whole lot, but I didn’t have to put all
my weight down on it. So, anyway, learning of all that stuff, learning how to
pull that carriage —
 


The guns.

 

Yeah, all of it. All of that was new to me. But, again, that’s
where my passion lies: learning new stuff like that. That thing I do, twirling on that horse? That was hard! And I had to do it in the skirt.  If you guys could understand how heavy… it was the dress and the petticoat and those pants. The whole thing weighed so much, and lifting your leg over that horse with so much dress? That was a challenge. At any point, the horse could’ve just gone right into the cameras.   

Was it on purpose or partly your own issues?
   

My own issues… [Audience laughs] They taught me how to make the horse spin like that, so the horse was totally docile. I said, “Can you guys give me a horse with a little more kick?” They’re like, “No, we don’t want to have an accident.” So I had to, like, make it look like… when I’m going, “I can’t get on,” I’m going, “Go, go!” Of course, at that moment, Tommy Lee’s like, “We’re losing the light! We’ve got to get this!” I’m like, “Okay! Go, horse, go!”   

How did you put the costumes together? Bonnets, skirts, pants, boots…   

I’ll tell you what: every single era has their accessories that don’t work. A bonnet does nothing. Nothing. It doesn’t block the sun, the sun is glaring right in your eyes, it doesn’t help with the wind — in fact, it’s a wind-catcher. What I loved about the costumes, and Mary Bee’s pants, her dress was cut up a little bit higher than the other women’s long dresses, because she had to take care of the farm as a man and a woman — she had to do everything. 

This character is very strong, and I
’m always rooting for strong
women. I wanted her to succeed. 
So what happened to her? She wants a man
she
’s very lonely. She wants civilization, her piano?

People are so multi-faceted. We have so
many things that make us tick; so many things that drive us; so many things that
make us make the choices we make. Every single day, we have a choice, and there’s many things that bring her to the [crisis] point. Tommy Lee, in writing this — and
Glendon Swarthout, he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who
wrote the book — just stayed true to what the story
was. There were parts of her
struggling through this, too. We can’t forget how hard it is, in those
elements, to go across the plains with no heat, crazy women who she had her own
feelings about. Her desire for
love, all her struggles that she was embarking on, her trials and tribulations
in her life, her longings, but also the elements.

Talk about that.

Filming
this movie in New Mexico, the hardest thing was the elements. We had all seasons in one day, but the hardest thing was the
wind. Because these characters’ hair is supposed to be as flat as they
can be, and you don’t wash your hair — I
would wash my hair on a Friday night, and that’s all — and
when I washed my hair, the tub was full of dirt, because of the wind and
the dust that would be picked up. We work, you know, fifteen-hour days. I would
get out, go home, take a bath, not wash my hair, have warm food, have a warm
bed, and be able to go back into those elements. They never got out of it, so I
got an essence of how that can drive you crazy. There was an element of
her getting to that place, internally–you
just saw her lose it a little bit before, then she’s all back
together, singing and trying to pretend it never happened, so I think she was
struggling with her own essence of, “Where am I in this space right now?”  

It sounds like what Jones was trying to do was give us
something closer to reality than some westerns. This doesn
’t follow a feel-good formula. Where was he going? 

He wasn’t shying away from
the reality. Even though it’s not a true story, this parallels real life and how America was settled. I was born in
Nebraska, and all my family lives in Iowa. Now, when I go back there, I just
see it differently. I come from generations of farmers myself. So when I go back
there and back to the town of Des Moines, I think, “Oh, it’s
French. I never thought of it, but it’s French-settled: Des Moines.” It
means ‘monks’; I looked it up. I didn’t
think of that when I was a kid, but yeah: it parallels this story. French
settlers settled it, and this is their story. That’s what’s
so beautiful about art, is that we get that chance to say, “Oh,
this is what’s happening.”   

Women in the Old West were a civilizing element, and a lot of
the old westerns make fun of that, in a way.

 

Westerns are, generally a man’s world, and about
a man’s revenge. A woman is just the sidekick of that in some way. It was nice to be in a
modernized western, if there is such a way of saying that about a movie that
took place in the 1800s.
 

Did Tommy share with you a lot of research with books and old photographs?   

No. He gave me one book, and the book was an essay, really, of photographs of crazy people that is beautiful. It was actually beautiful. It was all black-and-white — it was period — and someone had just gone in and taken pictures of people who had gone crazy. It was very real, and there was sometimes a little paragraph on them, and sometimes there wasn’t.   

Do you think the reality of it is even worse and more difficult than what we see in the film?
   

Yes. We just saw a depiction of three families and a few other people around that. I do, and I think it’s quite extraordinary that we’ve come this far. [Audience laughs] No, I mean it. No medicine? No hospitals? You’re sick, that’s it. These people were resilient, and it just goes to show: we have this resiliency in us.   

Does she effect some change on Jones’ character?   

Absolutely, and that’s what’s so fascinating about life: sometimes we don’t realize it until it’s too late. That gives us the moment to, after the credits roll, look at the person next to us and say, “I love you. I don’t want to take you for granted.”

You started out with the film at Cannes. How many times have you been to
Cannes?

 

I was in Cannes once before, but not with the movie in
Competition.
 


So you did the whole red-carpet thing.

 
Yeah. It’s crazy-fun. It’s more wild… there’s
more cameras there than the Academy Awards. It’s literally 360.
They’re all over the place, and then, to top it off, you have to
go up like 50 steps in your dress and not trip, because all the cameras are on
you. You’re like, “One… two… three…”
 


Then you have Telluride, where they gave you a tribute of your
very own.

Yeah, what an honor. It’s a great festival, too, because there’s
no press there, so you can be an audience member, too. You can go to a bunch of
movies, and you just show up and talk about film, and you see other artists
talking about film. It’s really a delight.
  

It
’s interesting that “The Theory of Everything” is coming out–have you seen it? You also played a character that has
ALS.

No, I haven’t.  What Eddie Redmayne said parallels my research. “You’re Not You,” which
came out a couple of weeks ago, is not a true story. It’s
a fictional story about a woman who’s living her life and is diagnosed
with ALS. My character is diagnosed with ALS. She hires a caretaker, Emmy Rossum comes in and takes care of her, and, in essence, they help each other become fully realized before her ALS totally takes over her life.  Really, to me, it’s a love story between two people who
come together and see each other for who they really are. You can get this;
it’s on VOD right now. eOne distributed it, and it’s
only in five theaters. I produced it. I’m really, super-proud of this movie. 

It’s an interesting time where people
make a range of movies, and some score and some don’t.
It’s tough to find roles as juicy as this one.  
Which is why you are producing yourself? 

I agree completely.
 Well, yes, but the movies that I’m producing don’t necessarily act
as vehicles just for me. I love stories, I love people, and I want to be a part
of telling those stories in any way that I can. If not just for me to act in,
although my main passion is as an actor, I love telling stories and I’m
producing just to get those stories up to the screen.
 


And you
’ve
worked with a couple of actor-directors. Have you thought about directing
yourself?

 

It’s not something that I would say “no” to.
I’m not actively looking, but I would be completely open to
that. Like I said, any way that I have the ability to get a story that I believe
in up on the screen, absolutely.
 


Audience member: Can you talk a bit about what they did in
makeup to make you look plain?

 

Did you see my teeth?  That’s the beauty of a DP. It’s just different
light. This kind of light can make you look like you need more sleep. It’s
directly overhead. I need a bounce; even I know that. Lighting can really do a
lot of stuff. It can totally change your look.
 


AT: And you had one of the great DPs,
Rodrigo Prieto.
 

Oh, and he made this look like a painting. You know, he just knew
how to light in a way that brings out your flaws.
 


AT: And you don
’t
care?

 

No. I just wanted this to be honest to the character. But I did
have a lot of gums. I don’t
do a lot of smiling, but I had a lot of gums, and I don’t know if I’d
particularly wear my hair like that every day…
 


Audience member: I wanted to know if you had any thoughts on
how she got there, or why she was out there in the first place by herself?

 

Obviously I read the book, so I have that…She went there because she was having a hard time finding a suitor
where she lived. [Audience laughs] So she thought, “I’m
going to make this trek, I’m going to settle down with the means
that I have, and find somebody here in the good old midwest.” Once
you do that and settle down, they think you’re there. You saw
how hard it was to get to one state, let alone all the way back to New York
City. And she doesn’t give up. She made this choice.
 


Audience member: Did Meryl Streep and her daughter come as the
package?

 

I’m not sure, but it’s
a good package. I was so excited about the opportunity to finally work with
Meryl Streep. I was like, “What?!” Her stuff came after I wrapped, too, so I couldn’t even be a fly on
the wall to watch it. They moved states to do that.
 

Audience member: What did you make of the depiction of mental
illness
— sometimes
recognizing who you
’re
talking to, and sometimes not? There
’s a comical element to it, and do you think that makes it
harder?

 

The thing about that kind of
mental illness is that it’s all over the map, and it doesn’t
make sense. It just doesn’t make sense, and it can be comical to
people who are logical, but they’re illogical. I’m glad you brought
this up, because it gives me the opportunity to say something that really drew
me to this story: this movie took place in the mid-1800s, but, to me, it
parallels what women are dealing with now, in 2014. The trivialization of women
and the objectification of women, and I found that, when I was reading this,
these women were going through horrifying things in their lives.

Let’s just use Grace Gummer as an example. She loses all of her children — all
of them — at such a young age. She’s taken away from
her family, she has no support, except for her husband, who’s
very clearly loving. But we forget how deep this stuff goes, without these
people around us — without the tribe, without the family.
The other women, we go into the church, the men say, “I’m
not going to drive them across the state.” Mary
Bee Cuddy says, “I’m going to do it,
because you can’t do it for your wife. You’ve
given up on her, because she’s lost her mind.” So
these people are in a place where no one sees them anymore; they’ve
been thrown out to the trash because they’re no longer
present. And, all of a sudden, sometimes clarity sets in, because they’re
being seen again. They’re not being objectified anymore.
 


She
’s
very loving to them.

 

Very loving. She’s not saying, “Give me a child.
Give me a child” when, clearly, you’re
not capable of that. You’re not being seen; you’re
being objectified. So, all of a sudden, they’re being seen, so
they’re finding a semblance of maybe themselves again. That doesn’t
mean they’ll ever be whole, but there are moments when maybe a little
bit of clarity sets in.
 


Audience member: It
’s interesting how everyone’s gone on a journey, and this collaboration they’re feeling together is the
closest thing they
’ve
found to sanity in their own time.

 

It just goes to show: all of us want to be seen. We all want to be seen. We all want to have that safe place we can go, and if most people
would look at that little box as horrific, but Mary Bee is able to get in there
and sit down for a second, and have all the world just pushed away, and kind of
get back to this for a second. I think it’s why those moments
of clarity set in and maybe get pushed back out.  

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