Oscar-winner Hilary Swank stars in a new drama based on the remarkable true story of a woman who spent almost two decades in a quest to prove her brother innocent of the crime for which he has been sent to prison. Here's a look at Conviction.
A rough character from a working class New England neighborhood, Kenny Waters was no model citizen; but he was no murderer either …or so he claimed …and his sister Betty Anne believed him:
"You are innocent."
"Are you sure about that?"
She was sure and she also reminded Kenny of the promise she made when they were kids being sent to separate foster homes: she would never abandon him. So when he was convicted in 1983 and sent to prison for murder, Betty Anne, a single mom and high school dropout, set out an ambitious – some would say 'impossible' – plan.
It took 18 years, but Betty Anne became an attorney, challenged the evidence against Kenny and finally, in 2001, won a reversal of his conviction to free her brother from prison.
"It's challenging, especially when the person you are playing is still alive; you want to do justice to their story, especially when it's a story as magnificent as Betty Anne's is," explained Hilary Swank, who stars as Betty Anne Waters. "In the beginning I didn't know if I wanted to meet her right away. I knew eventually I wanted to, but I didn't want to just be parodying somebody. I wanted to understand her heart and understand where her passion and drive and unconditional love for her brother came from. So I listened to tons of stories that she had shared."
Swank is no stranger to characters drawn from real life. She recently portrayed aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and Swank won the first of her two Best Actress Oscars as murder victim Brandon Teena in 1999's Boys Don't Cry. Swank, also executive producer of Conviction says she is drawn to heroic characters, but she knows she is just playing the part:
"It is really hard to compare my life to Betty Anne's," she added. "I'm someone who plays heroes like Betty Anne in the movies and it's a blessing for me to be able to live my dream while portraying such remarkable people; but in the end that's all I am. I'm just an actor. My passion lies in playing characters like Betty Anne, so the Academy Award has given me the opportunity, certainly, to continue to explore areas of the human spirit and life that inspire me."
Director Tony Goldwyn was also inspired when he first heard the true story in 2001. Goldwyn then worked for more than eight years to put Conviction on film. It is not a documentary, he points out, but Goldwyn was determined that audiences get an understanding of what did really happen and of what Betty Anne Waters achieved.
"My deep hope is that people will experience this movie and think about 'what am I willing to do' for the people that I care about most in my life, that I'm most connected to, that depend on me and on whom I depend," Goldwyn said. "What made me want to make this [and] to tell this story, beyond the extraordinariness of Betty Anne's achievement, was what I imagined was the bond between these two people and the extraordinary love that they shared – her faith in him and his in her.
"I think the thing we all crave in our lives is that kind of human connection, so if people come away from the movie thinking about the person next to them who might be their sister or brother or spouse or father …'what would I do for this person?' I think that's an important question for us all to answer."
Betty Anne Waters says she is pleased with how the film portrays the events that became the sole focus of her adult life – work that she continues, fighting for the rights of prison inmates and to win freedom for those, like her brother, who were wrongfully convicted. But she is also reluctant to accept the label "hero".
"I just did what I did one day at a time," Waters explained. "I never knew how long it was going to take or what turn it would take, so I don't feel like I sacrificed as much as other people think I have."
"What if the DNA matches Kenny's?"
"Get out. Get the hell out of my house right now!"
"No. You've got to hear this. Even if you're the most amazing fighter, the most brilliant lawyer in the world, there are forces greater than you and you may not win."
"You think I haven't thought of that?"
"No, you haven't."
Minnie Driver plays Betty Anne's law school classmate and closest friend through the whole ordeal. Conviction also features Sam Rockwell as her brother Kenny. Melissa Leo plays the local police officer whose investigation puts Kenny behind bars. The screenplay is written by Pamela Gray.