Interview - Hilary Swank: No stranger to the truth

HOLLYWOOD studios have long been aware of the power of a true story.

From Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich to Matt Damon as South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar in last year's Invictus, remarkable achievements by ordinary people make moving and inspiring movie fodder – and can often lead to awards and box office glory.

Last year, soccer mum Leigh Anne Tuohy was immortalised in the Blind Side, winning Sandra Bullock the Best Actress Oscar. This year the spotlight's on Betty Anne Waters.

The unemployed mum-of-two tirelessly devoted 18 years of her life studying for a law degree, sacrificing her marriage in the process, so she could exonerate her elder brother Kenny, who had been wrongly convicted of murdering Katharina Brow in 1980.

The waitress was found stabbed multiple times in her trailer home in Massachusetts. Despite the lack of concrete evidence, the testimonies of two ex-girlfriends ensured Kenny was convicted of murder and sentenced to a life in prison without parole.

But with his sibling doggedly pursuing the truth, helped by the Innocence Project organisation and the new developments surrounding DNA and forensic evidence, he was finally freed in 2001.

Betty Anne's – and Kenny's – story has now hit the big screen in Conviction, with two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank playing her and Sam Rockwell as Kenny.

With Swank in the lead role it's no surprise there's already awards buzz around the film.

Her Academy Award-winning portrayal of transgendered teen Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry, as well as performances as aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart in Amelia and suffragette Alice Paul in Iron Jawed Angels, prove she doesn't shy away from difficult real life roles.

"I've always been drawn to true stories because life is stranger than fiction, and this story amazed, moved and inspired me. This was such a beautiful love story between a brother and a sister, one that was so compelling," says Swank, 36.

"They share a love most of us strive for. Betty Anne is my real life hero for being so selfless in having such a big heart for another human being."

Conviction, however, also came with its challenges.

"If I don't do justice to this story, which is so beautiful and inspiring, I don't think I could live with myself. To let Betty Anne, Kenny and their family down would be the biggest regret of my life. I wouldn't be able to live with that."

One of Swank's biggest obstacles was perfecting a Massachusetts accent: "I'm not very good at getting an accent right away. It takes me a long time, especially because this one's very specific," she admits.

During her preparation for the role, the Nebraska-born actress wasn't sure if she wanted to meet Betty Anne immediately.

Like her heroine, Swank had humble beginnings growing up in a trailer park. When she was 15, she headed to Los Angeles with her mother so she could pursue her acting career.

"You know, I didn't want to meet her straight away because I didn't want to mimic her," she says. "It was important to understand the heart of this person, her drive, determination and great tenacity to go against such odds."

Instead, for eight weeks, she studied tapes of Betty Anne's voice.

"I listened to the emotion between the lines of what she was saying – what moved her, what angered her – and it was wonderful to be able to have that amount of time," she adds.

Swank finally met her idol in person when Rockwell suggested a meeting: "Sam came on board four weeks before we started filming and said he wanted to meet Betty Anne and the family straight away. I said I'd join him because it was a great opportunity for us to bond," she recalls. "So we spent the weekend with her. She's so gracious and phenomenal."

And later, when filming began, Betty Anne joined them on set.

Known for her unforgiving passion to make characters believable, Swank, who was also executive producer, worked tirelessly, leaving little time for anything else.

"It's in my heart, I had to do it. There'll be other Christmases with my family," she says, shrugging.

Although ironically, the film has reminded her of the importance of her nearest and dearest: "In this day and age, where people are losing their jobs, you realise the only thing you have to rely on is your family," she says.

The commitment and work paid off, with Swank winning acclaim, receiving a nomination from the Screen Actors Guild and being tipped to score another Oscar nod.

Betty Anne is amazed by the end result, gushing: "Seeing Hilary play me, I can't explain it. I felt like it was really me. Call it therapy, if you will, but I couldn't stop crying."

Rockwell has also paid credit to his co-star, saying: "Hilary has the hardest job. She really had to carry this movie and it takes a special woman to do that."

But a humble Swank refuses to accept the praise.

"Ultimately you're only as good as the people around you and they raised my bar," she says. "To get the opportunity and challenge to play someone like this leaves me a better person. I'll carry Betty Anne and Kenny forever in my heart."

Swank didn't have to do too much research into the US legal system, as she was already aware of the flaws.

"I have a friend who's an exoneree so I know we have a very flawed judicial system," she explains. "Innocent men have been executed, so I don't believe in the death penalty. That is injustice at its greatest.

"This will hopefully shine a bright light on the flaws in the system," she continues. "DNA evidence has come into effect with the help of the Innocence Project, which has helped exonerate 265 wrongfully accused from prison. Kenny spent 18 years of his life in jail for a crime he didn't commit. I can't imagine what that would be like."

Daniel Rajkumar

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