Hilary Swank Is Activist And Actress With 'Conviction' Actress Hilary Swank stars in the real-life tale of Betty Anne Waters, who put herself through law school so she could rescue her wrongfully convicted brother from a death sentence. Host Michel Martin speaks with Swank about the role.
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Hilary Swank Is Activist And Actress With 'Conviction'

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Hilary Swank Is Activist And Actress With 'Conviction'

Hilary Swank Is Activist And Actress With 'Conviction'

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, Scripture says we are our brother's keeper, but how far would most of us go, really, to do that? Would we fight, sacrifice, challenge the powers that be, even loved ones - for years if necessary? Betty Anne Waters did just that. Her older brother Kenny was convicted of murdering a neighbor and sentenced to life without parole.

Convinced of his innocence, Betty Anne worked for 18 years to clear his name, a struggle that led her to get her college degree and then a law degree. And now her story is being told by a woman with a knack for bringing a deep authenticity to roles about real women with profound struggles that many of us can only imagine, that is, until she brings those roles to life.

We're talking about two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank. Hilary Swank stars in the new film, "Conviction" which tells Betty Anne Waters' story and she is with us now in our bureau in New York, along with Betty Anne Waters. And thank you so much for being with us, both of you. Thank you so much for coming.

Ms. BETTY ANNE WATERS (Lawyer and Subject of Film, "Conviction"): Thank you.

Ms. HILARY SWANK (Actor): Thank you, it's great to be here.

MARTIN: Hilary Swank, I want to mention, you are also one of the executive producers for this film. But I do want to ask, when you first heard this story, did you believe it?

Ms. SWANK: I unfortunately did believe it because I have a friend who was also an exoneree, so I did. I didn't know about the story until I read the script. I hadn't heard about it on the news or anything, so it was the first time I became intimate with it after reading the script.

MARTIN: You have done a number or roles where you've portrayed people from history, real people. And I do have to ask, as an actress, oftentimes people are afraid of being typecast into a certain sort of genre and I did want to ask if, despite the fact that the story was powerful for you, if you had any hesitation about undertaking another real-life role?

Ms. SWANK: It's a good question. And I have to say not one bit do I worry about that. You know, I feel honored to get the opportunity to portray women like Betty Anne Waters. Betty is a reminder of what's important in life and she's my hero. And this is the reason why I'm an actor. I believe this is why I am on earth, is to help get stories told like Betty Anne Waters and Kenny's story. This is the kind of original, compelling stories that you don't find so much in fiction. So when I'm, you know, old and grey, if people say you know, wow, you got stereotyped playing those types of roles, I will be - I will have a smile from ear to ear.

MARTIN: Betty Anne, to that point, the - the film makes the point that you really were starting from just about zero when you started this journey. And I think many people are going to want to know, how did you keep going? How did you keep the fortitude to keep at it all those years?

Ms. WATERS: It was my brother. If it wasn't for him of course I wouldn't have done anything that this movie is about. He kept me going. He had more faith in me than I ever had myself. It didn't start when he went to prison. It started as children. I can remember being in like second grade and - actually he was in second, I was in first - and his teacher bringing him to me and saying, stay with Betty Anne, make him behave. You know that kind of thing. And that's how our life started. We just were always together and very close, so he kept me going.

MARTIN: Did you ever for a minute doubt that he was innocent?

Ms. WATERS: No, never one minute and I had a couple of reasons for that.

MARTIN: What were the reasons for that?

Ms. WATERS: One reason, like the movie portrays Kenny in many different sides, which I think Sam Rockwell did a fabulous job of showing those sides. Because Kenny could be very sweet at any given time, and other times he can't control his anger. So if he was confronted by something he wouldn't know how to handle a situation and he would overreact and get angry. But he's not an aggressor, so he would not be the type to break into someone's home and murder them. So I already know that about him.

And the second reason is this was my neighbor that was murdered. So, I lived an hour and a half away at the time and I drove up with my mother to look in to see what happened and we found out that they questioned my brother that day. They questioned him because he had a police record, not because they thought he had any involvement. And as a matter of fact, he was in court that morning for assaulting a local police officer. And it was the first time I was ever not mad at him for doing something.

And I said, what a perfect alibi. And he worked in a diner all night and that charge was later dropped. But two and a half years later, he was arrested and a lot of evidence was lost and so I knew from the evidence also that he did not do it.

MARTIN: The film makes the point that this really was a conspiracy to pin something on him that he did not do. And I did want to ask - I mean obviously, a film is a film - but do you believe now that this was an act of conspiracy or was this merely laziness? I mean, what was the motivation?

Ms. WATERS: You know, it's funny because that's the first time I heard the word conspiracy used in this case, because I've always looked at Nancy Taylor and I've always known that she knew Kenny was innocent from day one and...

MARTIN: Nancy Taylor being the officer who was the lead officer in this case, who was basically the lead player here in driving this - the conviction.

Ms. WATERS: Yes. She was absolutely the lead player. Like she had a lot of evidence that she knew about and she didn't share it with her fellow officers or the chief. But now looking back, they all should have known it anyway. So that is a conspiracy, if they all know it and don't do anything about it and that's their job. But why they did it I don't know, because the real murderer went free.

MARTIN: How did you come up with the idea of going to law school eventually, particularly, at a time when you didn't even have a high school diploma or you didn't...

Ms. WATERS: Well actually, I did have a GED.

MARTIN: You did have a high school diploma - you did have your GED.

Ms. WATERS: I never thought, I never knew how important that would be to tell people I have a GED.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yes ma'am. Duly noted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. But then, I guess what I'm saying is a lot of people faced with a situation wouldn't say to themselves okay, then I'm going to go to college and then I'm going to go to law school, which is normally a seven-year process. How did that idea come to you?

Ms. WATERS: Well, it started because my brother asked me to do it. My brother, after he lost his appeals, which took a few years, after his conviction, he called me on the phone after I hadn't heard from him in about a month, and that was because he was in segregation for a month, because he tried to commit suicide. And I was angry at him for trying to do that, but at the same time, in the same conversation, he said Betty Anne, I can't live here for the rest of my life for something I didn't do. I'm not going to make it. And in that same conversation he said, but if you go back to school, go to law school and become my lawyer, I can do it. And I said, I have a problem, though and he says what? I said have a GED.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WATERS: And he said, I don't care how long it takes if you promise me that you'll do it, I know you'll do it, and I promise you that I will stay alive, and that's how it began.

MARTIN: Hilary Swank, I wanted to ask you, we talked about the fact that you did want to take this on. But the roles you've taken, previously, do not - you weren't portraying someone who was in a position to look across from you and critique your performance. And I did want to ask if you hesitated to meet Betty Anne and or did you feel that it was confining in any way?

Ms. SWANK: Great question, Michel. First of all, I didn't really want to meet Betty Anne right away. As actors, we like to joke around and do imitations of people. We're very observant and, you know, Betty Anne, as you can hear, has a very specific way of speaking and I didn't want to be mimicking something. I wanted to get under her skin and understand where Betty Anne's heart was -where she was coming from. Like, how can you have this enormous this love and be so selfless? So I wanted to understand that drive and that passion and that determination. And also - but, I mean, I did listen to her. We have hours and hours on end when Pamela Gray and Tony Goldwyn, our screenwriter, and director went and met Betty Anne in Bristol, Rhode Island, where she lives, and they recorded all these - it's audio.

So I listened to audio, so I could hear her telling these stories and I could hear when her inflections changed and the emotion behind what she was telling. I could - I was reading between the lines. I was listening between the lines to see - I just wanted to understand her inside and out. And then, when Sam Rockwell came on board, about five weeks before we started filming, he said I gotta meet them. I want to meet Betty Anne. I want to meet the family. I, you know, I have to really get in there because I have, you know, crunch time - not a lot of time to get this accent, not a lot of time to get in there. And I said okay, I'm going with you. And we went all together, with Tony Goldwyn, to meet Betty Anne, her family and Abra Rice, who is her best friend, played by Minnie Driver.

And it was - I thought that would be a great bonding experience for Sam and I to get into the characters together. And at that moment, I felt like I, you know, pretty much had the accent down and I never had any intention to not meet her, it was just when I was going to. And then having Betty Anne on set was extraordinary. She was very insightful. She is the least judgmental person in the world. I didn't ever feel like I was going to come out and, you know, have her say, uh, that's not how it happened. You know, she was very encouraging and very supportive of the script that we had and helped us, you know, fix little moments here and there and it actually was very beneficial for us to have her there.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Hilary Swank, star of the new film "Conviction." It debuts in theaters tomorrow. We're also speaking with Betty Anne Waters, the woman who inspired the film. She fought for 18 years to get her brother freed from a wrongful conviction for murder. A journey that caused her to get her bachelor's degree and law degree, and she succeeded.

I just want to play a short clip. And this is the scene we were talking about earlier we're you're meeting with your brother, Kenny Waters, who is played by Sam Rockwell. And you have a very emotional conversation. And here it is. I'll just play a short clip.

(Soundbite of movie, "Conviction")

Ms. HILARY SWANK (Actor): (as Betty Anne Waters) So this is what I'm going to do and that's all I have, all right? I'm going to start by trying to get a BA after I finally take this stupid GED test. And after that, I mean if I even get that far and there's no guarantee I'll even get in, I'll apply to law school. But, I mean it's going to take a long time, Kenny, a really long time and I mean I might be 80 years old before I finally become a lawyer, and even then I still don't know if I'm going to find the answers. But you just have to promise me, you just have to, that you won't ever try to kill yourself ever again. 'Cause if you do - just don't.

Mr. SAM ROCKWELL (Actor): (as Kenny Waters) Okay.

MARTIN: You know, it was a long road to getting this film made. It was nine years to get this film made. And on top of the 18 years that it took to get your brother out, do you ever think, it's too much - it's still too much of my life?

Ms. WATERS: Well, the 18 years was a lot. The nine years was more on Hilary and Tony, you know, and Pamela Gray. They struggled a lot more than I did. I just waited for those nine years. You know it was different...

Ms. SWANK: I liked that she said that we struggled a lot more than you did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SWANK: Oh boy, we just scratched the surface of what you did and what you accomplished. But interesting how that parallels, you know, the struggles to actually get the movie made and it just it...

MARTIN: Why did it take nine years to get this film made? I mean this story was huge when it came out.

Ms. SWANK: Well, you know, Michel, that's a great question because in a business where you think that you'd want to see compelling drama, which at its heart is a feel-good story. And I think right now people want to see feel-good stories. It's just the nature of the business. You know, the only thing that I can compare it to is "Million Dollar Baby," because we almost didn't get that made and that's a movie that made over $300 million. So it's just the stigma with studios about dramas when, you know, I hear audiences all the time saying I want to see drama, I just want to make sure it's good drama. And, you know, this is a movie I am very very proud of being a part of and thrilled to talk about.

MARTIN: You know, this film is interesting on any number of levels, but one is that it's very much a woman's movie. You know, the sister, a woman police officer who is at the heart of this kind of conspiracy...

Ms. SWANK: Yes.

MARTIN: ...is I think going to be hard for some people to take, because I think a lot of times people have this stereotype of women as having more integrity than men. Part of it is that this doesn't conform to a lot of stereotypes people have about the way things work and if you think that's part of it or do you think that's part of the appeal of it, Hilary?

Ms. SWANK: Oh I think that's definitely part of the appeal of it. I think any time you can break down stereotypes and to blast them open it's a reminder of humanity and the struggles we all have within us as we walk through life.

MARTIN: The issue of, you know, wrongful incarceration, the issues of, you know, people driving people to guilty verdicts without appropriate evidence and reason is something that is in the news every so often. But this country incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, particularly for a democracy, and there are more than two million people in prison at this juncture. And I do wonder whether you think this will perhaps change the way people think about some of these issues, or is that perhaps more than a movie should do?

Ms. SWANK: Absolutely. No, I think it will absolutely shine a bright light on a big flaw in our justice system. Absolutely. You know, I think we're, as a human species we're quick to judge. And when someone is found guilty we instantly think oh, yeah, they must have done it because, you know, the powers that be and the courts that know what they're doing said they were. And, you know, as we sit here right now, there are innocent people in prison. And I absolutely think that any time you can have a movie or talk about it on the radio, or, you know, share - like Betty Anne sharing her story and any time you can talk about it, it just sheds more light on something that needs to be looked at closer.

MARTIN: Betty Anne, what do you hope people will draw from this movie?

Ms. WATERS: Well, as Hilary said, first of all, I hope it draws attention to other people that, like myself, I always thought people that were in prison were guilty until this happened to me. And then I thought I was all alone for many years, until I found the Innocence Project and Barry Scheck. And now I know that I'm not alone. There are a lot of people in prison that are innocent. And the one thing I really hope for, I keep thinking that one day I'm going to hear that somebody saw this movie and they either did something or didn't do something and another person was freed because of it, and I can't wait to hear that.

MARTIN: One of the little sad, not little - sad footnotes is that your brother actually passed away just a few months after his release from prison. And...

Ms. WATERS: He did. He had an accidental fall and it was unbelievable, again. My brother had very bad luck. And if you see clips of him, he says it himself, I have bad luck. And it was awful, but the one good thing about that was, as I had to tell Hilary during the filming - she was filming the day that he was released - and she came over to me actually in tears, crying, saying how could that happen? There's always the good side to a bad side. I can't find the good side. And I actually had to console Hilary to say there is a good side. The good side is my brother died free. And he died with his family and friends and he died an innocent man, people knew he was innocent, and that is the upside of that.

MARTIN: Hilary Swank is a two-time Academy Award-winning actress who plays Betty Anne Waters in the new film "Conviction." She is also one of the film's executive producers. She stopped by our New York bureau. Also with us: Betty Anne Waters. She is an attorney and she is the character on whom "Conviction" is based. She was also here in New York.

Thank you, ladies, so much for joining us.

Ms. WATERS: Thank you for having me.

Ms. SWANK: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

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