Hilary Swank & The Reaping

[My buddy John McKenna made the point that all the interviews I've posted on-line to date have been with male actors or directors. This 2007 interview with Hilary Swank, albeit for the tepid horror film The Reaping, is intended as a first step towards correcting that imbalance.]

As one of the primary repositories of supernatural stories in our culture, it’s not surprising that the Bible has so often provided filmmakers with their inspiration, particularly when the ancient scribes arranged the juiciest bits in neat sequences, like the mortal sins in Se7en, the splashy gore of Stigmata or the ten plagues of Egypt, a gruesome succession of afflictions which form the basis of the spooky new Hilary Swank psychological thriller The Reaping.

It’s been raining heavily for days, leading to a suitably biblical flood coursing through the narrow streets of Barcelona. Although I managed to jump the deeper puddles on my way to meet with Swank, the cuffs of my pants are dripping into my shoes as I sit waiting for her to join me. No such discomfort for the actress, who wanders in wearing a floor-length grey silk gown, red carpet style, her brown hair lifted off her angular face and a discreet but very sparkly diamond in each ear. In the movie Swank plays Katherine Winter, a former Christian missionary who lost her faith after her family was killed and has since devoted herself to studying and rationally disproving religious phenomena. When she is called upon to investigate strange events in a small Southern town called Haven, where the river has turned to blood and there’s been a rain of frogs, she gets caught up in a mystery that causes her to question again her lost faith, and challenges her notions of science. The first question, the most obvious one, is she religious herself? “That is the most obvious question, isn’t it, but I have to say I’m more of a spiritual person than someone who is part of any church, you know. I was never baptised or anything like that but I do believe in a higher power.”

“I wanted to do this film because I had never read anything like it before. The script was a real page tuner, and the ending caught me by surprise, which doesn’t happen that often. When it came to sitting down with the director, Steven Hopkins, he had me read Exodus, the part of the Bible that deal with the ten plagues of Egypt because that was our inspiration, but I have never read the whole thing. I also read some of the books that are out there about those people whose job it is to travel the world and perform a scientific analysis of myths and miracles and strange phenomena. Almost every miraculous event out there has a rational explanation, so a lot of the time it’s a question of being able to make a leap of faith, to accept that there can be a rational and irrational answer. We know how the sun shines but that doesn’t make it any less amazing”.

In one of the film’s best moments, Swank’s character gives a rational and reasonable scientific explanation for each of the ten plagues and how the effects of one led on to another. “When I read that part of the script, I thought it was a really interesting monologue that gave the scientific side of a historical story and an insight into how Katherine’s mind works; how she rationalises the events around her and forms logical connections”. I mention to her that right now there’s a case of an Italian nun who believes that writing the name of the late Pope John Paul II on a scrap of paper cured her of Parkinson’s Disease. “I haven’t heard about that but I am certain that for all the people who are making the case for divine intervention, there are people working to disprove it. That’s how it goes. Before we did the movie, I read a lot of copies of a magazine called The Sceptical Enquirer, which opened my eyes to these strange and weird things in the world. I’m fascinated by those things that are outside our normal experiences and I am definitely more of a believer than a sceptic and doing this movie didn’t change my views on that. If I sit and think about where I come from, and where I am now, I’d have to believe in miracles”. She laughs but she isn’t joking.

Swank was raised in a trailer park on the outskirts of a small rural town in Washington state, a tough upbringing that became even more difficult after her parents divorce. Although she showed promise as a gymnast, she was bitten by the acting bug early. “I knew I wanted to be since I was nine years old. I had a teacher who had us all write and perform a little skit before the class and something came alive inside of me. I loved it and even though I was very young and didn’t exactly come from a place where people could have those kind of ambitions, I knew I had found my calling, you know, the thing you are supposed to do in life”.

Years of junior theatre led to Swank and her mother moving to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, where they lived in their car until they could afford the rent on an apartment. Small roles in sit-coms and bit parts in movies led to a couple of months on Beverly Hills 90210. At the end of the season, her contract wasn’t renewed but her newfound confidence led to her securing what would become a breakout role as the gender-swapping Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry and her first Oscar. Another followed in 2004 when she played waitress turned boxer Maggie in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. Swank was just 30 years of age. “When I was a teenage actor, I’d see those people who won Oscars on TV and think, wow, that will change their lives, but that isn’t the reality. Although I do get offered more projects and have more opportunities as an actor, for which I am grateful, my life is more or less the same. I go home at night, like everybody else and I have the same ups and downs, the same challenges and the same obstacles I had before. People also have this impression that because of success, I don’t have to work as hard anymore, which is just crazy. There is so much more I want to learn, and working with great actors and directors gives me that opportunity”.

With a film like The Reaping, a flashy, spooky horror movie from Joel Silver’s Dark Castle franchise, Swank is certainly looking for new horizons. I ask her if she found if difficult to adapt to a very different kind of filmmaking, one that relies on special effects and computer generated imagery to support the storytelling. “Well, I didn’t have a lot of experience with special effects and really nothing like this, so I was relieved when I got on set and found that Steven had a lot of practical elements there for us to work off of. We didn’t use all that much blue-screen, add-it-later stuff. We shot everything on location in Baton Rouge in Louisiana and on the day there would be a way to make the effect more real for us as actors. Like in the scene with the locusts, where you see hundreds of thousands of these locusts invading the house, we had maybe two thousand there on the day. They were big suckers too, with a lot of legs. If it’s true that acting has a lot to do with re-acting, you know, that was not a problem. In that scene, when I get covered in locusts and get up and start thrashing about, there weren’t any insects on me, and I’ve never personally been covered in bugs, so I had to imagine it”. She throws her arms up in the air, thrashes her head around and lets out a mock scream. “I call it ‘sandbox acting’ because it’s like a child using its imagination at play time. It’s obviously ridiculous and if you were standing around watching, you’d think I had lost my mind, but you have to commit to it and just do it”.

Swank spent a couple of months at the end of last year in Dublin filming with Richard La Gravense on the adaptation of Celia Ahearn’s blockbuster novel PS I Love You. Swank claps her hands together and smiles a very big smile when I ask her about her experiences on the movie, which is set for release in the autumn. “Oh, I loved every minute of it, she sighs . “I was drawn to it in the first place because it is a beautiful, sweet romantic comedy and, like The Reaping, that’s different to any movie I had done before. But it gave me the chance to work with a great cast, like Gerry Butler, who is just gorgeous, Kathy Bates who plays my mom and Lisa Kurdow is my best friend. Isn’t that great? It’s one of those movies, the kind of movies I love, where you just laugh through the tears, you know?” I nod encouragingly but maybe a little unconvincingly. “Well, you probably don’t know, but it reminded me of what is really important in life, to hold onto the people you hold dear and not take them for granted, because you just never know what’s going to happen tomorrow”.

Four Lions

A gang of bumbling Muslim suicide bombers hatch a plot to blow up London in Chris Morris’ debut feature film Four Lions, a raucous, courageous comedy about stupidity. Morris, a clever media prankster who made his reputation provoking the public and the media with the television series Brass Eye, has created a relentlessly funny and deeply subversive film that says more about home-grown terrorism than acres of newspaper editorial ever could.

Shot in a loose, faux-documentary style, the film opens with our anti-heroes sitting before a bed-sheet in an anonymous terraced house, filming their own martyrdom videos. The gang’s principled and intelligent leader Omar (Riz Ahmed) is operating the camera while his best-friend, dim-witted Waj (Kavyan Novak) brandishes a toy sub-machine gun. From behind the camera, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a radicalised white convert, suggests that in order to avoid MI5 surveillance, they should all eat the SIM cards in their phones. Timid, frightened Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) doesn’t say much, he’s too busy hatching a plan to fly bombs into buildings on the back of trained crows.

If at first, Four Lions seems like an Al Qaeda video re-enacted by the Keystone Kops, Morris gradually reveals his knockabout farce to have much sharper teeth. The first hint of this comes when Omar and Waj visit Pakistan at the invitation of a radicalised uncle and join a terrorist training camp in the mountains. It doesn’t go well, for hilarious reasons that I cannot reveal, and the two are soon returned to Britain, having learned little more than they have much to learn. At the same time, Barry has recruited another martyr, wannabe rapper Hassan (Arsher Ali), whose father owns a costume shop.

From that point on, the four would-be jihadists stumble from one crisis to another in their quest to overthrow Western capitalism by blowing up the London Marathon, hiding their backpack-bombs under fancy dress costumes. Morris, who co-scripted alongside Peep Show writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, has lifted elements from real-life atrocities for the spine of his story, using the terrifying reality of radical Islamic terrorism as a springboard for chaotic laughs. In the same way that Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove twisted the bleak concept of nuclear Armageddon into a riotous comedy about bureaucratic stupidity, Morris sifts through the hysteria surrounding The War on Terror until he finds pearls of wise, cutting comedy.

Four Lions is both a hilarious farce and a brilliant deconstruction of the absurdity of fanaticism. At the heart of the film is the notion that terrorists are people too; as incompetent and petty and dim-witted as the rest of us. But the most subversive and unsettling scenes in the film are those Omar shares with his loving wife Sophia (Preeya Kalidas), a hospital nurse who is fully aware of her husband’s plan, but offers nothing but support and encouragement. Now that is terrifying.

Iron Man II

The first blockbuster of the summer season, Iron Man II arrives on a tsunami of hype and expectation following the commercial and critical success of its predecessor. But by the time the special effects boffins have sated their thirst for bombast and pyrotechnics, what remains is an ordinary follower-upper which delivers more of the same, just louder and longer.

The previous Iron Man benefited from being an unfamiliar superhero property in an over-subscribed genre. Just 18 months later, the novelty may have worn off but returning director Jon Favreau and his new screenwriter Justin Theroux (who penned the scabrous action comedy Tropic Thunder) still cannot muster enough momentum to make the continuing adventures of playboy arms dealer Tony Stark feel fresh and vital. Instead, we get noise, confusion, overplayed stunt-work, irrelevant distractions and underdeveloped story lines.

The sequel picks up shortly after the events of the first film, with Stark (a rejuvenated Robert Downey Jr) admitting to the world’s media that he is the metal-clad superhero Iron Man. No sooner has he revealed his alter-ego, than the US military arrive at his door, demanding that he share his technology for weapons development. Leading the call for an army of robotic GIs is Stark’s bitter rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), an oily opportunist who has the support of a crooked congressman, played by comedian Garry Shandling.

At the same time, in Moscow, a villain emerges. Ivan Blanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of a failed Soviet engineer, has developed an all-powerful electrical weapon which he intends to use to assassinate Stark and restore his family name.

The bad-guys established, the story turns in on itself, with Stark struggling to develop a cure for an adverse reaction to his metal heart while transferring control of his corporate empire to his loyal assistant and love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Late in the day, a little too late as it turns out, Stark teams up with government spook Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the deadly Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) to prevent Blank and Hammer from developing a rogue army of killing machines, sent to destroy them.

From that point on the film bounces through the various plot permutations in less than compelling fashion. The middle section of the story, heralded by a crushingly stiff party scene, contains all the technical finesse a $200m budget can buy but doesn’t hold anything like the same narrative grip of the first film. For a film with a multitude of villains, there is very little at stake in the story, with the only real threat being made to Stark’s shiny new technological exhibition, a kind of World’s Fair for science geeks. What happened to saving the world?

Iron Man II suffers the same fate as most Hollywood sequels, being determined to revisit all the same elements audiences responded to in the first film without having enough new material to justify a second run out. That’s not to say the movie lacks charm, Downey Jr’s performance alone is reason enough to buy a ticket, but fans might be left feeling their Iron Man has turned into a tin god.


Winner of the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, Greek writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth is an extraordinary film; weird and provocative, whimsical and titillating, like Big Brother re-imagined by David Lynch.

A businessman (Christos Stergioglou) and his wife (Michelle Valley) have convinced themselves that the best way to rear their children is to completely isolate them from the world. He goes to work in a factory every day, but his wife remains in their remote house, surrounded by a high fence, with their two unnamed teenage daughters (Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni) and their twenty-something son (Hristos Passalis).

The children live simple lives. They are only taught what their parents choose to reveal to them about the world, and this is very little. The intentionally misleading cassette tapes, recorded by their parents, tell them that ‘ocean’ is another name for a chair and a zombie is a yellow flower. Every once in a while, the father brings home a female security guard, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou) to sleep with his son, sex being considered just another bodily function.

The story unfolds in a series of disjointed vignettes, each of which build towards a picture of intimate madness. The children cower in terror of airplanes, which they believe to be about the same size as birds. They are terrified of what their father call’s “man’s mortal enemy”, a cat. The children are starved of stimulation, imprisoned in the blank white house and square green garden. Their lives are governed by rules and procedures, but they have no moral tuition at all. They invent elaborate games in which they inhale anaesthetics, and slash at each other with knives when the fun turns sour. They build themselves into crescendos of hysterics over trivial disturbances to their routine. Later, Christina smuggles in a VHS copy of Rocky, which one of the girls watches. The mere suggestion of a world outside the fence is enough to upset the equilibrium of the household and the father must go to even more extraordinary lengths to maintain his hold.

These snippets are arranged in a way that suggests that these lives are being lived in a constant cycle of dysfunction and boredom which is slowly eroding the foundations of the parent’s experiment. The imprisonment and abuse of the children recalls the horrors of the Fred and Rosemary West case, or the more recent atrocities perpetrated by the Austrian Josef Fritzel, but Dogtooth is intended as an allegory for the wider society that breeds monsters, rather than a story about the monsters themselves. The film’s greatest success is that we accept the twisted premise completely. The film poses a multitude of questions, which the audience will instinctively try to figure out, but this process of connection doesn’t overwhelm the story. In fact, Lanthimos doesn’t seem to care if his viewers reach any conclusions at all. Nothing is explained, nothing is determined. Dogtooth stands alone, regardless.

The denial of identity is underlined by the immobile camera that rarely shows the characters in their entirety, mirroring their isolation and their distorted view of the world. The deadpan dialogue, some of which is nervously funny, collapses at times into a babble of nonsense when the children reach the limit of their curtailed vocabulary.

Odd, brutal and troubling, Dogtooth will not suit all tastes but the extraordinary performances from the small cast and the eerie, otherworldly atmosphere make for an experience like nothing else currently in cinemas.