what they had trailer

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.

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