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Q&A: Hilary Swank, Elizabeth Chomko talk new family drama ‘What They Had’

Blythe Danner, from left, Michael Shannon, writer/director Elizabeth Chomko, Taissa Farmiga and Hilary Swank pose for a portrait to promote the film, "What They Had," at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Hilary Swank's 'What They Had'

Jason Fraley

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WASHINGTON — She won Academy Awards for “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby.”

Now, Hilary Swank tackles Alzheimer’s Disease in the new family drama “What They Had.”

“I’m really proud and honored to be a part of this movie,” Swank told WTOP. “It’s a multi-generational story about a slice of life. No one’s perfect, we’re all trying to figure it out, we have family dysfunction like all of us, but there’s a lot of laughter, a lot of tears, a lot of love.”

The film follows Bridget (Swank), who returns home at the urging of her brother Nick (Michael Shannon) to care for their ailing mother Ruth (Blythe Danner), who is dying of Alzheimer’s Disease. They also must comfort their father Burt (Robert Forster), who is reluctant to let go.

“I was sent the script by one of my agents who said, ‘I feel like I found a gem,'” Swank said. “I read it and I said, ‘You indeed found a gem. This is really beautiful. Who’s directing?’ She said, ‘The writer.’ And I said, ‘Wonderful. I can’t wait to meet her.’ I’ve made a career out of really believing [in] first-time directors. … That’s also why I’m a producer on this movie. At one point, someone believed in me and gave me an opportunity, so I love to give that back.”

That debut filmmaker is writer/director Elizabeth Chomko, whose script was selected for the Sundance Film Lab and won the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships for unproduced screenplays.

“It’s been a long journey of writing and making the film,” Chomko told WTOP. “It was a seven-year journey from the first draft. But it all started with my grandmother and her Alzheimer’s.”

They say “write what you know,” and for Chomko, the script kept her grandma’s memory alive.

“She was just the most generous, loving, biggest-hearted, warm-spirited human being,” Chomko said. “She and my grandfather had a beautiful love affair they started as teenagers in small, farm-town Illinois. They were always together and flirting at the breakfast table after 40-plus years of marriage and four kids later. … These were people I wasn’t ready to let go of, so I wanted to see if I could take their life and put it into something else and give it new life.”

But unlike other Alzheimer’s dramas, Chomko wanted to bring out the lighthearted elements.

“We were such a family of laughers,” Chomko said. “I thought that would all go away after her diagnosis, but it didn’t. We laughed our way through it. …  I really wanted to make the kind of Alzheimer’s movie that I would want to watch and watch more than once, one that doesn’t totally devastate. … There were a lot of beautiful moments, like my grandma at one point thought we were schoolgirls together. How she might have been at 12, I got to witness that.”

Danner plays the Alzheimer’s role, a la Julianne Moore’s Oscar win for “Still Alice” (2014).

“(Chomko) had Blythe play it very childlike,” Swank said. “The phone would ring and she’d pick up a stapler going, ‘Why aren’t you getting this phone fixed?’ Then she’d realize and start laughing. It’s a very challenging role and Blythe played it so deftly. She was so good and so real. You really have to just commit to that choice, when you’re in and when you’re not.”

Meanwhile, it was up to Forster to show the reluctance to let go of a soulmate.

“I wrote that role very much based on my own grandfather and the kind of man he was,” Chomko said. “To this day, I don’t know who I’m more devastated for — her or him. Robert just got it. I knew early on in the process that Robert was just perfect. He just stepped into it and he got it so immediately, so internally, so viscerally. Honestly, I was just pinching myself.”

While Danner and Forster’s characters helped Chomko channel her own grandparents, Swank and Shannon’s characters helped Chomko work out her own internal struggle.

“It was really fun to write those two voices, because they’re two sides of my personality,” Chomko said. “Bridget is struggling to figure out the thing that I dislike about myself: that I’m a pleaser and worried about what people think. … Michael is this other voice in my head calling out that other person: ‘Stop making things difficult. Just be who you are!’ … In a way, Michael’s character is the character that I aspire to be. It was a blast to write those two warring voices.”

The sibling rivalry was a lot of fun for Swank play with Shannon.

“It’s been a dream of mine to work with Michael forever,” Swank said. “I do think that he is one of the best of his generation. His choices are unexpected, kind of like Christopher Walken. … He spins everything on its top and plays it his own way and makes everything his own. … For the past decade, I’ve been looking for something for us to do together, so I was so happy when he came on board, to play across from him, mix it up and be in the sandbox with him.”

Despite acclaimed roles in “Revolutionary Road,” “Midnight Special,” “Nocturnal Animals” and “The Shape of Water,” Chomko insists Shannon’s best work is still ahead of him.

“I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface on what Michael will do,” Chomko added.

As for Swank, she’s already in elite company as a rare two-time Oscar winner.

“It’s been 19 years since ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ which is so crazy,” Swank said. “It’s crazy to think that that’s a byproduct of living your dream, that you get an award from the people you admire the most. I still pinch myself. It feels like a complete dream. It’s such an honor, the roles I get to play, the people I get to collaborate with. I was a little girl who had a dream to be an actor and here I am. I just turned 44 and I’m still living it. … I’m the luckiest girl on earth.”

She’ll forever adore Clint Eastwood for their Best Picture winner “Million Dollar Baby” (2004).

“Completely once-in-a-lifetime,” Swank said. “I got married about two months ago and Clint was at my wedding. He’s such an important person in my life for so many reasons. He is a complete teddy bear. He is a love. I’m so thankful to have him in my life.”

Such sentiments are really the theme of “What They Had” — to cherish your loved ones.

“We never know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Swank said. “We really have to make the most of it now and tell the people we love that we love them while we can.”

Hear our full conversations with actress Hilary Swank and director Elizabeth Chomko below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Hilary Swank (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley

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WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Elizabeth Chomko (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley

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