I had a chance to have tea with two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank at the Hamptons International Film Festival in the lobby of the Maidstone Hotel. We discussed her scrubbed down, soulful role as Mary Bee Cuddy in Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman, one of my favorite movies of 2014. The Nebraska native, 40, addressed the challenges of playing a single Nebraska homesteader on the Western frontier and how that woman’s struggle remains relevant today.
You play a virtuous woman in a dangerous time: does that still resonate?
Mary Bee lived in a time where manners and morals were virtues. We are in a day and age where we’ve lost touch with that for a lot of other reasons. For me, she does the right thing because she believes in doing the right thing. She’ll say right to your face how she feels. The world would be a better place if we would just really deal honestly with each other. She goes where angels feel to tread.
As an actress, you had to tread in the past, riding horses, plowing fields. Do you ride?
I didn’t. I love animals. I’ve had experience horseback riding recreationally. But I didn’t know how to ride to this extent. Getting to be an actor gives me the ability to walk – or ride — in someone else’s shoes and empathize with someone else’s plight in life. Playing a farmer, it’s extraordinary how hard a life it is: they have to grow and work and sustain life. Farmers are fitter than any bodybuilder. You have to know how to direct mules and pull that carriage and pull the plow. There are distinct steps to get to it and you cannot skip a step. And then there are those bits like getting on a horse when your horse is not behaving and you’re losing the light. I love that challenge and the collaborative aspect of it. Tommy Lee Jones is a hands-on horseman and he wanted me to look a specific way. When I jump in I get to jump in with the best.
Mary Bee is a Sarah Plain and Tall kind of character. She’s unvarnished. Did that suit you?
It cuts all pretenses and gets to the heart of the matter. To use a book as a metaphor: to judge a book by its cover. It’s so easy to judge a woman on first meeting. Being around Tommy Lee Jones, I see the way people look at him and talk about him. Stereotypes are dangerous. Ultimately he made a feminist movie and it shows his heart and how multi-faceted he truly is. He allows people in. If anything, making this film made me appreciate him like I appreciate Mary Bee. People can put labels on Mary Bee, like she’s bossy, or she’s plain. But there’s more to all of us than anybody can ever see, even the people that are close to us. It’s so important to give people the benefit.
How hard is it to find leading roles this multi-faceted for women in Hollywood now?
I’d love to find a great supporting role and not carry the movie. There are years when we’ve had a lot of great women’s roles I just hope to not make it a gender thing. I want to find roles that tell stories that we can connect to, or learn from, or be entertained by. As a female artist, I do find full-rounded, fleshed out people to play, it just might not be as often as I like. So I can’t really complain even though I want more.
What was your takeaway from this portrait of women in the West?
Their strength, courage and bravery, how they blazed a trail for us women is incredible to me. How they survived and we were able to push on is a reminder that we really should be more grateful for what we have in front of us. And, looking back, we should consider the trails they blazed and say thank you to them for what they endured and accomplished.
The Homesman is currently in theaters.