LOS ANGELES—“It’s a dream come true—I’m in a movie with Meryl Streep,” Hilary Swank happily informed us of being cast with arguably the greatest living actress, in “The Homesman.” Then, Hilary added, “But I don’t have one scene with Meryl! I thought, ‘Well, on the days that I’m not working, I’m going to be a fly on the wall. I’m just going to watch Meryl—but, she wasn’t even in the same location! I did all my work in New Mexico. When we wrapped there recently, they went to Georgia.”
Hilary admitted that it was “nice to have a dress on after all that time out there” in New Mexico to shoot “The Homesman,” being directed by Tommy Lee Jones who, along with Wesley Oliver and Kieran Fitzgerald, wrote the screenplay adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s western novel of the same title, set around 1855.
“I was on the prairie for the last 60 days,” Hilary reported. “My character (Mary Bee Cuddy) is a farmer—I plow the fields and pump for water. My hands are all beat up.” The actress plays the title role, a “homesman” who must escort several women who lost their minds back to civilization. She teams up with an unlikely partner, George Briggs (Tommy Lee), a claim jumper.
According to Hilary, Meryl plays Altha Carter, who collects the insane women to help bring them home. Also in the cast are Fil-Am actress Hailee Steinfeld, James Spader, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Miranda Otto, William Fichtner and Grace Gummer (Meryl’s daughter).
“It was an absolutely wonderful experience,” said Hilary of filming “The Homesman.” “It was right up there with my ‘Million Dollar Baby’ experience. I’m sad that it’s all over. It’s nice when you get your butt kicked to step up to the plate, and challenge yourself every day and in a new way with artists all across the board.
“The crew and cast—they are at the top of their artistry. To collaborate with them is what’s beautiful about this business, other than learning about other people, playing characters and telling stories. It’s heaven!”
Hilary, who won Oscar and Golden Globe Best Actress trophies for “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby,” added, “It’s a simple story with a lot of heart. As I acted in it, I could see the depth as each scene is played out. So rarely do you get a script that comes in perfect—that it doesn’t need one change.” She said that she is now “obsessed” with riding horses after shooting the film.
In HBO Films’ “Mary and Martha,” Hilary and Brenda Blethyn play moms who bring their respective sons to Africa. When malaria strikes, these two women from different backgrounds form a deep friendship as they unite for the cause of malaria prevention.
Richard Curtis’ script, as directed by Phillip Noyce, made Hilary aware of the acute need to fight malaria in Africa and other parts of the world. Brenda’s character, Martha, was inspired by the true-to-life story of Jo Yirrell, who lost a son to malaria in Ghana, and has since been active with Malaria No More UK.
“Malaria is a completely preventable disease, yet millions of people die from it every single year,” Hilary remarked. “That’s just unacceptable! We can eradicate malaria, so a movie like this and press (coverage) get that message out there. It’s inexpensive to do (eradicate malaria), and it’s our responsibility as humans to help each other.”
To help prepare for the role of Mary, an American interior designer who loses a son to the disease in Africa, Hilary said she concentrated on “understanding this woman—what was important to her—which was family, the idea that her son was being bullied, her desire for her child to get a good education and wanting the best for the child—all those things, plus the unexpected friendships, how they’re forged, and how we never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
While Hilary is noted for her dramatic roles, she pointed out that she started in comedy. “My very first movie was ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ before it was a TV show,” she cited. “I was 16 when I started my career doing half-hour sitcoms. That was what I did.
“When I wanted to start doing drama, I was 24 years old. I remember saying to the head of the studio that hired me the most to do half-hour sitcoms, ‘I want to do drama.’ They said, ‘You can come in and test for a drama.’”
Hilary continued, “I went in, and he said, ‘Hilary, I think you’re great, but you’re really just too ‘half-hour.’ Not even funny, but ‘half-hour.’ I said, ‘OK.’ The great thing about something like that is that you go, ‘OK, you watch.’ You get the little extra ‘umph’ that you need. That year, I got ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ and I won the Best Actress Award in drama (from the Golden Globes) and the Academy. So, it was pretty funny—from ‘too half-hour’ to Best Dramatic Actress! It’s so funny where the road leads!”
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