Sometimes, it takes a familiar face to put a face on a problem … even one that is international in scope.
Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank is no stranger to championing social causes, and she takes up another as she and “My Left Foot” Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn play the title roles in the HBO drama movie “Mary and Martha” Saturday, April 20. Written by Richard Curtis (“Love Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and filmed largely in South Africa, the BBC and NBC Universal co-production tells the story of two very different women who unite to crusade against malaria after both lose sons to the illness.
Mary (Swank) is an American who takes her child (Lux Haney-Jardine, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) away from bullying classmates for an “adventure” abroad, and Martha (Blethyn) is an Englishwoman whose son (Sam Claflin, “Snow White and the Huntsman”) volunteers at an African orphanage. After both young men contract and die of malaria, their mothers meet and bond, then decide to take their message about the disease to the masses – and ultimately to a Washington, D.C., hearing.
James Woods also appears as Mary’s politically connected father in the film directed by Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger“).
“Obviously, what’s on the page is the most important thing in the beginning,” Swank tells Zap2it, “but you follow it up with talent like that, in every corner, and it’s a no-brainer. It’s something you just jump at to be a part of.”
Swank has played mothers before (“Conviction,” “The Reaping,” “Beverly Hills, 90210”), and that aspect of “Mary and Martha” largely drove her performance.
“I don’t think there’s anything worse in the world than losing a child,” Swank says. “I don’t have children of my own, but I have a lot of them in my life … nieces and nephews, children of boyfriends. Still, it was all on the page here.”
After writing for stars from Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts to Colin Firth and Emma Thompson, Curtis (associated again with his frequent production home, Working Title) is pleased that Swank and Blethyn embody his Mary and Martha.
“They make for a very exciting clash of cultures,” he notes. “There is something about Brenda that is so profoundly British and so humane, and likewise, there’s an extraordinary American-ness and determination and kind of wisdom about Hilary. They were on the far ends of the characters I’d written, and I was delighted about that.”
The boisterous Blethyn joins the list of acting veterans who have become Swank co-stars. They also include fellow Academy Award winners Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”), Al Pacino and Robin Williams (“Insomnia”), Kathy Bates (“P.S. I Love You”) and Tommy Lee Jones (who’s directing and performing with Swank and Meryl Streep in the currently filming “The Homesman”).
“I find there’s so much to learn and to hone from them,” Swank reflects. “As someone who is still trying to learn more about my craft every day, to work with artists like those who I admire and who inspire me at every level … I don’t even know what the words are. It’s like a dream come true.”
While the African locations added much to “Mary and Martha” for Swank, she was no stranger to the territory.
“Up until my last movie, I had filmed more movies in South Africa than anywhere else,” she reports. “It’s so far away, I never dreamed I’d be there that often, and it’s a place I love. When you film somewhere, you’re spending a lot of time there and getting to know the people.”
Swank’s familiarity with the populace underscored the emotion of “Mary and Martha” for her, as it did for Curtis, whose ventures toward the greater good also have included Comic Relief fundraisers and the “Idol Gives Back” editions of FOX’s “American Idol.” Though comedy has been his mainstay, such other projects as HBO’s “The Girl in the Cafe” and “Love Actually” (in its subplots about mental illness, infidelity and death) confirm he can go deep in the opposite direction.
“A lot of writing is about constructing themes for maximum potency,” he says. “It’s actually quite similar, trying to do it for drama and for comedy. You’re still trying to focus things to tell the best story as quickly as you can, so I don’t find drama a weird area to go into. What I’m trying to do with this film is to bring into living rooms the human nature of people who get malaria and to get people to take malaria personally.”
Previously employed by HBO in the 2004 women’s suffrage drama “Iron Jawed Angels,” which debuted between her Oscar wins for “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby,” Swank recently participated in a UNICEF-sponsored initiative to improve education in Ethiopia. Just as that indicates her world concerns, so do many of the films she’s made.
“I don’t think I set out to do that,” she maintains, “but looking back at the trajectory of my choices, I can certainly see themes that speak to me as a person and as an audience member. It’s not just a matter of projects that are offered to me; I also seek them out when I can … and when I’m not making movies about such people, I’m reading about them. Those are the people who inspire me.”