Hilary Swank On Trusting Her Director And Playing Fake Siblings With Michael Shannon [Interview]

Hilary Swank has been acting since she was a teenager, but it's only been recently when she's taken on the role of mother with a degree of regularity. In her latest film, What They Had, she plays mother to a troubled college student, played by Taissa Farmiga. But her real trial comes when Swank's Bridget returns to her hometown of Chicago after a medical scare regarding her mother (Blythe Danner). Her father (Robert Forster) refuses to even acknowledge that his wife is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, while her brother (a very funny Michael Shannon, in full smarmy jerk mode) already has the paperwork ready to put both his parents in quite nice assisted-living facilities.

What They Had is about a lot of things, most of which are related to a family's inability to talk about medical care, but bigger-picture dramas like the inability to please our parents no matter how hard we try and how we sometimes lose our voice and dreams by trying to live up to certain familial expectations. These weighty subjects courtesy of actor-turned-first-time-writer/director Elizabeth Chomko, who debuted the film at Sundance in January. The Chicago native based a great deal of the story on her own experiences returning home over the years, and Swank was especially keen on capturing that feeling of being a prodigal offspring, returning to the place that both shaped her and rejected her desires.

/Film spoke to Swank — a two-time, Academy Award-winner for Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby — recently via phone about her connection to the journey her character takes in the movie, what made her trust and value her writer/director's vision, and how great it is having Michael Shannon as your pretend brother. What They Had is currently in select theaters and will expand in the coming weeks.

I have to imagine that, without even knowing what the story was, if someone comes to you and says "You and Michael Shannon are playing sister and brother" that that would probably be enough for you to say "Sign me up."

Hilary: Yeah, well, I signed on before anyone, and I've always wanted to work with Michael, and finally, there's this great role, and everyone wanted Michael, and of course, I always wanted him in everything, and when he became a part of it, I was jumping for joy. It was kind of last minute because with a small, independent movie, it's always the little train that could in terms of getting its financing. I came on board, we did some script work, and a week before we started film, our whole cast came together.

Chicago is Michael's base of operations. Was he able to introduce you to places and things around town that you'd never experienced before? Or was there even time for that?

Hilary: One of my favorite comments is always my family saying "You got to go to Chicago" or "You got to go to Australia," but go and you work [laughs]. We worked our tails off; this movie was shot in 22 days, and it was one of the lowest budgets that I've worked with, so we were always ensconced in actual filming. And when we weren't, we were sleeping. So I didn't actually get to see any of Chicago except what I saw in my car to and from work. It's a great city, and everyone who's either from there or visits loves it, so I need to get back there and check it out.

Did you get a sense, especially from Elizabeth, what the most Chicago thing about this story is?

Hilary: Obviously, Chicago is a character in the movie. It was important that we got to shoot there and not just shoot exteriors there and do interiors in Los Angeles. It feels like essence of the city is a character, and that's important to Elizabeth and her story. It was infused with this family that is very real and down to earth, and that's part of being from the Midwest, those types of values, being there for one another.

There's a lot to unpack about your character, but it's fascinating that no matter how old we get, there's something about that relationship between parents and their children that never goes away, and we live in the shadow of their expectations, even after they're dead.

Hilary: That's a really great point. I feel like there's this point in our lives where a lot of adults struggle with the idea of not living up to their parents' expectations and not being successful if they're not doing what their parents define as success. It's crazy to think that even as we go into adulthood that we can look at something differently, with a different perspective, and still carry that need for approval and love from our parents. It's so buried in our marrow. I don't even think it's a conscious thing; it's something that is tribal, in a way.

You definitely feel that in this story, but you also see that how much of a role model our parents are, and how their beautiful love story in this particular film has always been the barometer that Bridget looks at her relationships and what she wants in her life. And when she doesn't feel like she has that, how sad that makes her heart. It's deeply nuance and it feels very real, and all the characters are very fleshed out, and that's really hard to do for a first-time filmmaker especially. All of those things, I could relate to, as a woman, a daughter, a sibling, and Elizabeth captured that really well.

I've heard her talk about that this is a coming-of-age story for people of all ages. Tell me about the process regressing to build this character up.

Hilary: Part of what was challenging for me as an actor in this projects is that these characters are really specifically in their behaviors. You kind of know how Michael is going to react; and you know how Robert's character is going to react. But my character, you're always wondering how she's going to react to things. How is she going to take it this time? There was a strange vulnerability in that, of not being as completely defined as the other characters. That was challenging because she isn't as clear cut; that's who she is. And that's partly because she didn't really know who she was in this stage of her life. She knows she's a mother, she knows she doesn't have a fulfilling job or marriage, but she couldn't quite decide how to handle her parents. So all of her being indecisive, I mean, how do you play indecisive? It's not black or white. I found that this role was one of the most vulnerable roles I've ever played. There's nothing to hide behind—there wasn't an accent, I wasn't playing a sport, I wasn't putting on muscle, I wasn't binding my breasts—I was just a woman trying to figure it out. I didn't realize it would be that vulnerable until I was in the middle of it.

You're actually playing two versions of Bridget: the person who left home, pulled her life together, and has a family—that's the front she puts on—but then we also discover that she's so unhappy. There's a line you have about laying in bed at night next to your husband and wondering why he isn't also awake and full of anxiety like you are that is one of the saddest things I've ever heard. That had to be additionally challenging.

Hilary: Yeah, it was, and I think it's sadly reflective of a lot of women. We're asked to be strong but then we're asked to be vulnerable and there for everybody, so most of the time we're not there for ourselves because we don't leave enough time for that. So I think interestingly enough, the challenges within playing the character were also the challenges that women walk around with in life. I think we're getting better at making time for ourselves and honoring our instincts and doing what's right for us and defining success by anyone else's standards. But it's a constant reminder for us, so I think that's one of the things Elizabeth really wanted to capture, and we talked a lot about how to go about that. We didn't want to make her any type of victim, because she's not. It's a slice of life.

When you first met with Elizabeth or first spoke with her about the film, what do you remember talking about the most about the character or the family?

Hilary: I read it and I remember not being able to stop thinking about it. I remember it was reminiscent of reading a book, and not wanting the characters to be gone at the end of the read. You know when you sit at breakfast the day after you read finish it, and you want to meet up with them because you feel like you know them. I felt like that with this; I kept thinking about them. I like their family dynamic and the love within the dysfunction. I found it beautiful that they don't really know what the answers are when they're asking themselves how to deal with something. The bright light it shines on the strengths and weaknesses of a family was all stuff I could relate to, even though I don't have a family member struggling with dementia. My dad went through getting a lung transplant, so I could connect to that. There was just so much I connected to and loved about them.

So when we first met, the character of Bridget wasn't really fleshed out yet, and Elizabeth talked about the reason was that that character was her. So it was hard for her to put a mirror up to herself and write herself, so that was the part we worked on developing together in a way that brought parts of me and her and allowed her to be more free to write more about her side of things. That was our first meeting, really, just telling her how much I loved it and how much of a gem the story was, and how do we develop the character to be more representative of the things she wanted it to be.

Does the family dynamic among the cast remain to this day. You made the movie early last year, then you didn't see each other until Sundance, then not again until Toronto, so you're absent from each other for months at a time. But when you get back together, does it all slide back into that dynamic?

Hilary: Yes! Oh, I loved making this movie so much. Because it was so low budget, we didn't have trailers. We'd all sit on that set where the family home was, in a little room together, and because we were so tired, we wouldn't talk or other times we'd be slap happy and just laugh at silly stuff. And when they told us we needed to shoot in another room, we'd all grab our scripts and mosey into the other room and hang out. It was very much a family environment from the beginning—a lot respect there. It's fun to travel around together and talk about the film as a group, to be with one another.

When you are considering working with someone who has not made a feature before, what sorts of the things about the story or a director's vision are you looking for that lets you know you can trust them?

Hilary: I have to say that it's hard in one meeting to really see if the person can get that vision to the screen, but there are a couple of things that I did with Elizabeth. First, she's so articulate; she's very smart; she's egoless, so the meeting was "We're going to collaborate and make this together, and this is going to be as much your story as it is mine." And I believed her; it wasn't just lip service. She wore her heart on her sleeve and she was genuine in her points and thoughts. Also, coming on board as a producer gave me the ability to protect her and give her what she needed to get her vision to the screen, helping her get the DP that she wanted and editor she wanted. That's the strength I have, having been in the business so long and coming onto something like this—making no money—it's all about the creative aspects, and I have the power to get her those things for her to be able to get everything she's talking about onto the screen, supporting her strengths, essentially.

By the way, everything I keep reading about I Am Mother is getting me more and more excited to see what it's all about. [Reportedly, a work-in-progress print of the sci-fi thriller was shown at the Adelaide Film Festival last week.]

Hilary: Thank you! Oh my god, I have to worry about that next [laughs] We finished that at the end of 2017; it's almost finished. That was a blast, and that was another first-time director [Grant Sputore] who is brilliant. He's really going to be another one to watch.

Hilary, thanks so much for your time. Best of luck with this.

Hilary: Thank you. Bye!