Hollywood’s a place where style trumps substance, where good looks are appreciated more than anything else. Hilary Swank defies that thinking with a vengeance.
She’s never worried about how she looks in a film; she’s consumed by how much depth she can bring to a role. The latest example, “The Homesman,” has her playing Mary Bee Cuddy, a middle-aged spinster whose face reflects the rugged life on the Nebraska plains in the 1850s.
“I choose characters who don’t care about their wrinkle. I’m playing a woman that has so much complexity. That’s what drew me to her,” Swank says.
Those complexities start with trying to take care of a farm on her own and become expanded when she volunteers to take three women — who have broken down because of the harsh pioneering lifestyle — to a church in Iowa that cares for the mentally ill. She gets assistance on the perilous journey from a claim jumper (Tommy Lee Jones) she saves from the hangman’s noose.
Swank was not aware of the novel when she read the script. But once she was cast, she got the book and pored over it, part of her process of bringing a character to life.
“I always create a back story for my characters, and in this case everything I needed was in the book. I think it is necessary to create a back story because we are all very specific people,” Swank says. “I find creating those details is the only way to play a role, especially if it’s a real person.”
Her role in “The Homesman” is fictional, but Swank has played characters based on real people in movies such as “Freedom Writers” and “Amelia.” It was fictional characters in “Million Dollar Baby” and “Boys Don’t Cry” that earned her two Oscars.
Swank says she likes the challenge of deciding what is really important to her characters. In the case of Cuddy, a heavy importance was put on doing the right thing. This effort was not based on wanting to be loved or applauded, but because it was the only honorable course to take. Swank calls that a stark contrast to the film’s setting where virtues, values and morals are at an all-time low.
And she finds parallels between the 1850s of “The Homesman” and life today.
“The story is timeless,” Swank says. The story of the human race is full of people facing obstacles to accomplishing a goal. In the case of “The Homesman,” those obstacles include lack of basic necessities such as medicine and supplies.
“But, we as a people are resilient and capable of dealing with so much,” Swank says.
Swank had to show her own resilience while filming in New Mexico in the dead of winter. She found the elements taxing but something she could use to give her more of an understanding of her character.
She jokes the only difference was that at the end of the day, she could get into a hot bath.
The film, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, was directed and co-written by her co-star, Jones. This is the first feature film he has directed in almost a decade.
Jones has a reputation for being grumpy; Swank says she understands how someone who isn’t a seasoned actor could be intimidated by him. That’s not Swank, 40, who has almost a quarter of a century of professional acting to her credit.
In Jones, she says she found the kind of hands-on director who best suits her style.
“I need guidance. I need direction. I don’t want to be afraid to make mistakes because I know the person I’m working with will guide me. I was completely unafraid to say what I was feeling and that’s what I need as an actor.”