Juliette Lewis – Conviction

October 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Interviews

After taking a few years off from her film career to find an audience as a musician, actress Juliette Lewis is back in full force with four films in 2010.

In “Conviction,” the true story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) and her 18-year struggle to prove her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) was wrongfully convicted of murder, Lewis plays Roseanna Perry, a vengeful witness who lies during her testimony and ultimately helps send Kenny to prison.

During an interview with me, Lewis, 37, who is best known for her Academy Award-nominated role in 1991’s “Cape Fear” and in 1994’s “Natural Born Killers,” discussed how “Conviction” is different than anything she’s ever done in her career and what types of roles she will be searching out in the future.

After taking a few years off we can now see you in four movies this year including “Conviction.” Where did this second wind come from?

It’s exactly what I wanted to do – have a new chapter in my 30s. By no means am I finished with my film work. This film is my reemergence into the world of drama. I’ll also be in two comedies this year. Earlier this year it was “The Switch” and then “Due Date” is coming out in a couple of weeks. This movie came along and I got offered this smaller role and it gave me a chance to do something I’ve never done – to completely transform. There is nothing of me in this role. It’s a completely different character and that’s what excites me. I get to transform visually as well as internally and show how intense and vindictive [Roseanna Perry] is.

So, while you’re on the road on tour with your band do you miss filming at all or are you totally focused on the music?

No, I mean I had done film for 15 years so when I started my band I was really focused on making records, evolving as a songwriter and a live performer. When I decide to do something in my art I’m in it for the long haul. Musically, my goal was to find my audience that’s going to stick around and come to my shows. I found a little more than a handful of people all over the world that are in it with me. It’s pretty amazing. I started in small clubs and I’ve played with everyone from the Killers to Muse to the Pretenders. But I’m an independent musician, which is a whole lot different than being with a major label. You can go and see my new video “Terra Incognita” on YouTube. It’s pretty spectacular. I’m very proud of it. But, yeah, over the last year or so I’ve had this rekindled love affair with film. In “Conviction” I get to concentrate on one thing and that’s helping my director tell my story. When it comes to music, I wear many hats – I write songs, I lead the band, I oversee t-shirt sales and merchandising. It’s a lot of pressure so I’m really happy to just be playing a part.

For those people who are not familiar with your music career as much as your film career, is there a specific album we should start with?

I love the last album, Terra Incognita, because it’s my most personal. You can really get a taste of the energy in the video. The record has a lot of blues. One of my favorite songs is “Hard Lovin’ Woman” and “Fantasy Bar.” There’s mellow stuff and really hard rockin’ stuff. Something older from my earlier band Juliette and the Licks: there’s Four on the Floor. That’s a pretty action-packed rock record that Dave Grohl played drums on.

Hilary Swank had the benefit of working closely with Betty Anne Waters for “Conviction,” but you didn’t get to meet or talk to the real Roseanna Perry. Would there have been anything specific you would’ve like to have asked her if you had met her?

You know, it’s funny because the type of person I’m playing is a real damaged person. She’s destructive. She’s addicted to drugs and alcohol. I was playing my interpretation of these different conflicted sides of her. I’m in two scenes. In the first, she is younger and just vindictive and wrongly accuses Kenny, who is played by the brilliant Sam Rockwell. She helps put him away for a murder he didn’t commit. Eighteen years later we meet her again and the level of emotion and contradictions in her were amazing. The homework I did with her was to work with a dialect coach for the accent and then visually I transformed to age my skin. I really wanted to look like a person who hasn’t left their trailer for 10 years and drinks $3 wine from morning until night. I’m very physical, so I pay attention to people and things in my environment and my own life experiences on many levels. You sort of exaggerate things within yourself or you look at characters in their environment that you’ve come across and you use some of that behavior. It’s a really exciting process – very complicated and challenging.

To get to the core of who she is do you also have to understand how she’s been able to live with a lie that basically ruined someone’s life?

Yeah, some people are built differently in their internal fabric of their souls. In that one scene where she expresses remorse, she does feel remorseful, but she’s also manipulative and self serving. Once she tells a lie she has to keep lying to protect the lie. She doesn’t have enough of a constitution within herself to say she’s sorry. Plus, drugs and alcohol will damage someone’s soul. I really wanted to play a person that we would try to avoid in our own lives. We know something is off about them, but they are also functioning and lucid at the same time. That was the challenge – to play her crazy internally, but bright enough to be manipulative. I have to tell you, 98 percent of what I say in the film is from actual interviews that this woman gave. The dialogue was really informative because it’s from transcripts of this character. So, even though I didn’t get a chance to meet the woman – I don’t even know what she looks like – I got to hear her speak. It paid off because Betty Anne herself gave me the biggest compliment in saying that I lived up to who the person is and did a good job.

Now that you seem to be back at full strength in the film industry, do you have any type of agenda? Are you looking for specific roles?

I am ready to roll with the punches. I’ve been doing this for a long time so again and again you just enjoy the journey. Every experience I’ve had in the last year has been completely gratifying. I’ve worked with exceptional people from Jennifer Aniston to Mark Ruffalo and in this movie with Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, and Minnie Driver. I’m just having a great time. I guess the only agenda is to look for more juicy parts and more things that I feel like I haven’t done before on screen.

It’s been 18 years since you were nominated for an Oscar in “Cape Fear.” Is that a goal you would like to attain again or do accolades like that not really matter at this point?

You know, I’m just grinning from ear to ear. I’ve never expected the attention I’m receiving for this role. I feel like Fox Searchlight is such a brilliant company. I’m actually really excited to promote this movie and talk to journalists because it’s really rare that you can be a part of such a heroic true story. Oh, but accolades, that’s never what I would strive for! You can’t control that. I’m just happy people could see that I did some hard work on this and that they believe me in this role.

Are you going to continue to perform with you band and, if so, how are you going to balance both careers?

That’s exactly what my next chapter is – find the balance and do them both and not neglecting either one. The last five years I’ve made three records and an EP. I’ve toured all around the world. I’ve played with some of my favorite bands. So, in December I’ll probably start working on my next record.

Is there a musical influence that you might like to try to portray on the big screen? I think if “The Runaways” was made in the 80s instead of this year you would have been a leading contender to play Joan Jett.

Oh, well thank you! The two women that have inspired me the most musically and would love to tell their story are Janis Joplin and Patti Smith. Patti Smith I’ve met and she’s a remarkable person. She does not want her story told while she’s alive. It’s too much pressure for her. She said it would be too strange and I agree.

Tony Goldwyn – Conviction

October 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Interviews

Director Tony Goldwyn sees a lot of himself in the real-life Betty Anne Waters, the woman portrayed by actress Hilary Swank in his film “Conviction,” who spends 18 years working toward a law degree in hopes of proving her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) has been wrongfully imprisoned for murder.

“If you have faith in something and believe in it hard enough it will manifest itself,” Goldwyn told me, relating the sentiment to his own 9-year struggle to find funding for the film. “There is power in passion.”

During our interview, Goldwyn, who is also an actor (best known for getting a chest full of jagged glass in 1990’s “Ghost”), talked about sidestepping sappiness and explained why he decided to exclude a heartbreaking truth of the story.

There are so many emotional aspects to this story. How do you feel you were able to avoid making a film like this become over-sentimental?

You know, the trick really is to keep balance – showing both the darkness and the light of something. There also needs to be some humor about it. You can’t let it get too earnest. Over-sentimentality comes when you lean too hard on the emotional moments and gloss over things. I was always trying to find the contrast with this story. For example, with Sam Rockwell’s character, we have to fall in love with him, but at the same time we have to believe that he’s a murderer. Betty Anne doesn’t always necessarily come off as a do-go crusader. She’s also a woman who, to some degree, is obsessed. There are dark aspects of that. With that contrast we avoid that kind of saccharine-type of treatment this story could have easily had

What did it mean to you to have Betty Anne Waters available during production?

It means everything. We spent hours and hours before we wrote the script hearing her stories and getting to know her. The material we were drawing from was authentic and had so much detail to it. There was no generalizing on anything. It was a real inspiration to everyone involved to have her there as a resource while we were shooting and to talk about the undercurrents and little nuances of what was going on.

Because this is a true story and because Betty was so involved in the process, did that put added pressure on you as a director to do the story justice?

Yes, I felt a lot of emotional responsibility to Betty to a) get it done and b) get it done right and be honest and truthful about it. As I said before, I wasn’t going to shy away from the dark aspects of the story and I was very honest with her about that. I didn’t want it to be a Pollyanna-version of Betty Anne Waters. She wanted that. I knew that being honest would be the most emotionally affecting story to show the relationship she had with her brother.

How much creative liberty did you actually take in the script and how do you justify making decisions that change the real-life narrative?

Well, I compressed time and combined events. Anytime I changed anything it was always in the spirit of the truth and enhancing the deeper truths of what this movie is about. Betty Anne would look at some of the scenes and say, “Well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but that’s exactly how it felt.”

The real-life family of the woman who was murdered in this story (Katharina Brow) has come forward to voice their disappointment that no one consulted them about the making of this film. It’s not mandatory for anyone to actually get permission from the family or even talk to them, but do you think someone should have anyway?

All I can say about the Brow family is that I have tremendous compassion for them. It was a terrible tragedy they suffered. But the film wasn’t about Mrs. Brow or that family, it was about Kenny and Betty Anne and their struggle. We see the aftermath of the heinous crime, but the family wasn’t really involved in the story, so there was really no reason to contact them. But as soon as they raised objection, we set up a screening for them immediately.

The real story of Kenny Waters is a bittersweet one because of what happens to him six months after he is released from prison. What is the reason you end the film with a strong sense of hope instead of including the tragic reality?

I tried really hard to put Kenny’s death in the film, but what I found was it made the movie about something else. The fact is, even in Kenny’s death the love that Kenny and Betty shared and the power of her faith in him was not diminished. But I couldn’t find a way to have that in the story. It was in the script for a number of years and people kept running up against it saying, “Oh my god, I was so moved and affected by the story but then there is this left turn and I couldn’t recover from it.” With some difficultly, I decided to take it out.

You’re credited for being an “actor’s director.” Other than the fact that you are an actor yourself what do you think gives you that distinction?

Being an actor you just have tremendous empathy for other actors. When I directed my first film I asked myself, “What would my dream director be like?” That’s what I tried to be. Part of it is being very collaborative because I know that whatever idea I have can only be made exponentially better by seeking out actors’ thoughts. I always want to make actors feel like they are free to explore and bring in whatever ideas they may have and create an environment where people can feel like they are contributing. As an actor I know what it’s like when a director sits on your head and tries to over-micromanage you. I don’t like to work that way.

A portion of this interview was first published in the San Antonio Current on Oct. 27, 2010.

Betty Anne Waters – Conviction

October 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Interviews

There is no denying the devotion Betty Anne Waters had for her brother Kenny.

When Kenny was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison, Betty Anne went on an 18-year mission, which would ultimately end with her earning a law degree and helping exonerate her brother in 2001 when DNA evidence proved his innocence.

In the film “Conviction,” Betty Anne is portrayed by two-time Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank (“Million Dollar Baby”). The film follows Betty Anne as she fights for her brother’s freedom by going back to school and working with the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to proving the innocence of wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing.

During an interview with me, Betty Anne talked about being on the set during filming and what she hopes will happen when more people hear her story.

Going into this project not knowing much about how Hollywood works, what were your main concerns?

Everything! I didn’t know anything about Hollywood and had heard horror stories about how the film might not look and feel like the real-life story. I didn’t know who to trust. I called [founder of the Innocence Project] Barry Scheck who I already trusted and he put me in touch with his friend Andrew Karsch who is a producer. Once I met him I knew we were in good hands and felt very comfortable.

Why did you decide to be such an integral part in the making of this film?

I think it was because I trusted the people who I was working with. The producers, writers, all the actors, I loved them all. I wanted this story to be told because I think it’s an important story for people to know. Not all people in prison are guilty. There have been 259 people that have been exonerated through DNA evidence. People should open their eyes and look at that. They should understand what the Innocence Project is all about.

Were you OK with all of the creative freedom the filmmakers took with the story? Is there something specific that you would have liked to have seen that didn’t make it into the film?

Well, it’s not a documentary, so things are out of sequence. There are nine children in my family and [the film] makes it seem like it’s just me and Kenny. When I see the opening of the film and it’s me as a kid jumping out of my grandfather’s truck, I wish it was all of us because we all did things like that.

It took 18 years to get Kenny out of prison. Why were you so sure of his innocence that entire time?

Kenny was my brother and my best friend. He was one year older than me. I knew Kenny had a hard time when someone would put him in a situation. He would never back down. If someone was going to fight with him, he was going to fight back. But I knew he was not the aggressor. He wasn’t going to break into someone’s home and kill them for their money. I knew he would never do such a thing.

You were on the set for a lot of the filming. What was it like reliving some of these moments of your life?

It brought back a lot of memories at different times. Talking to [director] Tony Goldwyn, [screenwriter] Pamela [Gray] and Hilary [Swank] was like therapy to me. You have to talk about so many things you’ve never talked about before. Watching them on set was really strange because I’m not a Hollywood person so I wasn’t used to sitting in a chair and watching them through a camera all day. It still was an amazing experience.

Do you feel Sam Rockwell captured your brother well?

I had only seen him in “The Green Mile,” so I was like, “Oh, boy, he’s gonna play my brother?” I didn’t have a clue about how that was going to work out. But when I saw him I was blown away by him because he did such a fabulous job as my brother. He got every side of Kenny right.

And Hilary Swank? She definitely got your accent down. What did you two talk about on set?

Hilary put a lot into this. She sent her dialect coach to my house and he taped me for two hours. So, two months before I even met Hilary she was listening to my voice. By the time I met her she already sounded like me. I remember she came to my house and it was so funny because she had on the same exact outfit I did. Right away we hugged. It was like we already knew each other. We spent all day together talking. On the set, there is this scene where Hilary and Sam are walking out of an elevator and Hilary is crying. I was watching this and she came over to me balling her eyes out. She told me, “I always try to find the silver lining in everything. I’ve been trying to find one here with what happened to Kenny, but I can’t find it.” I had to actually console her and tell her, “Look, Kenny was free and everyone knew he was innocent. That is the most important thing.”

Although it is not shown in the film, your story ends on a very sad note. Kenny died only six months after he was released from prison. Because Kenny had already passed before filming, did you feel like you were still looking out for his best interest?

I did. Even now I take his picture with me wherever I go because I feel like he is with me. I feel like he would be so happy right now with this movie. If it helps the Innocence Project I will be honored. If one more innocent person goes free because of this movie I will die a happy woman.

Conviction

October 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver
Directed by: Tony Goldwyn (“The Last Kiss”)
Written by: Pamela Gray (“Music of the Heart”)

Rarely do we see a brother and sister relationship like the one we get in “Conviction,” a true story based on the life of Massachusetts resident Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), who in 1983 began an 18-year mission to help exonerate her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) from a wrongful murder conviction.

While the film manages to keep this devoted relationship at the core of the narrative and never skulk into areas of over-sentimentality, the emotional tug-o-war during Betty’s life-long journey is as conventional of a biopic as they come. Without Swank and Rockwell there at the forefront to enhance the script’s more standard choices, the Waters family story might have been better fitted for an updated “60 Minutes” news report.

It takes two years for police to officially arrest Kenny, put him on trial, and ultimately give him a life sentence for the murder of a local woman. Once in prison, Betty makes a deal with her brother after he attempts to take his own life. She promises if he never attempts suicide again she will do everything it takes to become a lawyer and find a way to clear him of the murder charges.

Eighteen years is condensed into nearly two hours as we watch Betty, a high school dropout, start by earning her GED then bachelor’s and eventually make her way into law school. There she meets best friend and voice of reason Abra Rice (Minnie Drive), who stands by Betty and her seemingly impossible goal.

But as most people who know how this story actually ends, Betty, with the help of Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher), is able to find the evidence she needs to prove Kenny’s innocence after she passes the bar exam. Supporting actresses Melissa Leo and Juliette Lewis play adequate antagonists; Leo as a corrupt policewoman with a grudge against Kenny and Lewis as a vindictive witness who lies during her testimony.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn (“The Last Kiss”) from a script by Pamela Gray (“Music of the Heart”), “Conviction” is a timely drama that will spark debate about the justice system and spotlight an organization like the Innocence Project that has since facilitated the release of over 250 wrongfully-accused individuals.

Aside from its good intentions, it’s the combination of Swank and Rockwell that are the saving grace of a film that is simply missing some key uplifting moments. Even with a hopeful ending (a conclusion controlled for Hollywood standards since the real-life story is much more tragic), “Conviction” is only somewhat successful in adapting a story ripped straight from the headlines.