It was clear from chief Variety film critic Scott Foundas’ brief introduction to the Hilary Swank tribute at the Telluride Film Festival that she could star in her own biopic, whose logline would be: “born in a trailer park in Nebraska, by the time she was 30, she had twice won the Oscar.” Can she win another for Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman”?
Famously, she and her mother drove to Los Angeles, and occasionally lived in their car while Hilary attended school and auditioned for roles. Clips were shown: her breakout role as transgender Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry”
(1999, nine years after her first TV credit, and five years after enacting the title role in “The Next Karate Kid”), an intense-yet-funny turn, wearing prominent braces, as a convenience-store clerk in 2003’s “11:14”; reluctantly being taken on by boxing manager Clint Eastwood in 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby”; encouraging a young black student in Richard LaGravenese’s “Freedom Writers” (2007); incarnating a young widow in LaGravenese’s “P.S. I Love You”; and becoming a lawyer in order to help her unjustly incarcerated brother in “Conviction” (2010). From where I was sitting, two rows back on the aisle, I couldn’t help seeing Ms. Swank gazing at herself on the screen, seemingly rapt, and smiling — but what else could she do?
Foundas led off the onstage discussion that followed by asking Swank what the night of September 2, 1999, was like, when “Boys Don’t Cry” premiered to great acclaim. Swank pointed out that she’d been acting since she was 15, and made Boys at 24 — so, for an overnight success, “it was one LONG night!” What struck her was that immediately, “out of the gate,” she was told so many life stories that related to Brandon Teena’s — that the movie helped people feel less lonely in their journey.
She mentioned that she’d been fired from the ninth season of “Beverly Hills 90210” — “when no one was watching it, when Luke Perry was long gone” — a low point: “I’m not good enough for 90210?!?” Her flattering but casual onstage outfit — tight jeans tucked into short brown suede-and-leather boots, an off-the-shoulder light brown ribbed sweater, upswept hair — had almost a 90s high school vibe. Her mother came up more than once in the conversation: since she started in comedy — mentioning “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — “my mom says ‘THAT’s what you should win an Academy Award for,’ convincing them you’re a dramatic actress!”
Her sincerity and charm shone through, even when she delivered three actressy cliches in a row, aka I’m living my dream, life is a journey, you fall down and dust yourself off and get back up again.
When Foundas alluded to Swank’s transformative quality, and asked how she started to form a character, she enthused that she loved people, love what connects us all, and that the best thing about being an actress was getting to walk in so many different peoples’ shoes, making her less judgmental and more open-minded. She said that she always comes up with one sentence that defines her character, and writes it on the cover of her script.
Clint Eastwood, she said, is a consummate reminder to trust your instinct.
Foundas asked if it was hard to leave her characters behind. “They’re in my heart forever, and I’m a better person for it.”
Yes, she allowed, after working with Clint and Tommy Lee Jones, two actor-directors, she is thinking about directing herself in the future: “Telling stories in a bigger way is something else I’d like to do.”
The sentence that defined her character Mary Bee Cuddy in Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” was “She dares to go where angels fear to tread.” Based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, it follows the arduous journey of three women driven insane and fleeing bleak, homesteaded Nebraska to civilized Iowa, escorted by Mary Bee Cuddy, a hard-working single farmer, and the dastardly, criminal George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones). Alas, although Mary Bee carries most of the movie, Swank did not achieve a lifelong goal: she shared no scenes with costar Meryl Streep. “Oh well,” she said, philosophically, “I’m still young, right? It could happen.”
“He doesn’t suffer fools,” Swank said of Tommy Lee, “he wrote a beautiful script and directed magically.” “The Homesman,” beautifully shot, with sweeping landscapes, grandly framed, asks a lot of its audience. There are no pat happy endings for any of the women in the film; even the strong and capable Mary Bee is more damaged than she seems.
But Telluride tribute Hilary Swank has already gone on to a new character, co-starring with Ed Helms and Ed Harris in a new 10-episode TV show from fellow Telluride attendee (with “Birdman”) Alejandro González Iñárritu, premiering on Starz later this year.
In a weak actress Oscar race so far, can Saban and Roadside push Swank into contention — and in a Western that, while a minor festival hit by now, the Academy is more likely to appreciate than audiences? We’ll know when the film arrives in limited release this November.