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'The Homesman': Hilary Swank says director Tommy Lee Jones is no 'yes man'

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Hilary Swank stars in "The Homesman."
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Hilary Swank stars in "The Homesman."

Then actress talks about her new film, "The Homesman," and whether there’s a definable characteristic in the roles she chooses.

Actress Hilary Swank is known to play characters who avoid clichés: strong, independent women whose actions are not dictated by men. They are often in search — often at a high price — of finding their true selves.

Those attributes also describe Swank’s character in her newest film, “The Homesman.” It’s a period drama set in the Midwest during the 1800s. Swank plays a terminally single, independent-minded pioneer who agrees to take three mentally unstable women across the plains.

For help in the journey, she turns to a low-life drifter, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed the film.

When Hilary came to The Frame studio, we asked if there’s a definable characteristic in the roles she chooses.

Interview Highlights:

On what kinds of roles she looks for:

I find real people, challenging people, multifaceted, messy ... real, essentially. And I think ultimately that's beautiful to me. That's why I became an actor. I love people, and I love their stories, and I love what makes us similar and I love what makes us different. As a kid, being an outsider, I would read books, and I would watch movies, and I [would] relate to those characters. Or I'd see somebody who was feeling something that I felt, and it made me feel less alone in my journey.

On the "plain-ness" of her "Homesman" character, Mary Bee Cuddy:

She was described — actually a line in the movie — as plain as an old tin pail. And obviously those types of things are so subjective, because to me, she is one of the most beautiful people I've ever portrayed. And what I loved about her, and what I was attracted to by her, is that she has virtues, she has manners, she has real morals. And I think we're also in a day and age now where we have a lack of that. To play somebody who does the right thing because it's the right thing to do — not because she's trying to please somebody else or get applause or get love — to me, that's such an extraordinary person. 

On whether "The Homesman" has a modern impact despite being a period film:

To me, this is a real feminist movie. It takes place in the mid 1800s. We're now in 2014, and this still deals with the issues we deal with now, which are the objectification of women, the trivialization of women. And it's crazy to think that we're still dealing with those issues and ... yet we are. The more we talk about it, hopefully, the more we can find a way to make things more equal for genders. 

On whether the roles she's offered give her hope that there are more people writing strong female characters:

Well, there are meaty parts in mediocre scripts. So, it all has to come together. You're not making a movie by yourself. It's a collaboration, and that's part of what I love about it. But it starts with the script and the story and the character as a part of that. And then your filmmaker and your co-stars. It's all a package, and you're only as good as your weakest link.

So you can take a great role and say, "Oh, but it doesn't quite work here." So you have to wait 'til it all comes together. And, certainly, I usually do a movie a year, and a lot of people will say, "Wow, we haven't really seen you around." And it's just because I love what I do too much. I can't do it any other way except put all of myself into it. 

On her relationship with Tommy Lee Jones, as both an actor and director:

Tommy Lee ... he's brilliant. He comes alive in a different way when he's directing because he loves it so much. He's animated, he's outgoing, he's gregarious, he's specific. And what I really admire and appreciate about him is that you get the real. He doesn't fake anything, and you know what you get when you're working with him.

I think one of the hard places to be, as an actor who's been doing it for a little while, is that sometimes when you work with people, they don't really know how to get to you because they're afraid to. They're afraid that they're going to say something that makes you angry, and that's just not the case. I want to be directed. I want to be molded and shaped and to collaborate. I don't want to be yes'd. I don't want to be told, "Yeah, that works!" And then later [think], "That didn't work. Why did you tell me that worked?" I'm never going to get that with Tommy Lee Jones. 

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