Feature Story by Brad Balfour
While everyone is marveling at the heroism of the female cop who stopped the Fort Hood gunman during his killing spree, it was not so long ago that women weren't allowed to serve in the military or on the police force. Hell, they're still not allowed to drive in some countries or even go out unaccompanied. With those thoughts in mind, director Mira Nair's telling of Amelia Earhart's relatively short life and long accomplishments resonates even more profoundly.
The pioneering aviator became the first woman the fly solo across the Atlantic; she broke many other records, promoting aviation and air travel and was an early champion of women's right. She also was an international celebrity, became a hugely successful pitch woman and had a version of an open marriage. And this all happened during the 1930s--before World War 2--when the barriers between sex and race began to crumble-- until she was lost in an attempt to fly around the equator.
Not unlike Amelia's subject, both two-time Oscar-winning star Hilary Swank and Nair have been pioneers in their own right; Swank for winning one Oscar playing a character who was a drag king (a woman dressing and living as a man) and Nair for being a award-winning South Asian woman director competing for and getting directorial jobs that previously hadn't gone to a person of either association.
Between the big smile, mouth full of teeth and unique vocal cadence, Swank fashioned such an uncanny facsimile of Earhart, that Amelia is garnering awards talk even while still flying into theaters. Luckily, a cadre of journalists and women aviators (members of the Ninety Nines, a female pilots' group founded 80 years ago by Earhart) got to speak and hear both Swank and Nair talk about putting together this story and performance. And here's the essence of Swank's explanation of how she became Amelia.
So whether you find Amelia Earhart's story inspirational or not (after all we sort of know the ending), her relationship with the two men she loved--her publisher and backer George Putnam (Richard Gere) and Federal aviation leader Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor)--makes for a compelling emotional tale if nothing else.
Q: When you're making a film where the ending is known, you have to create a dramatic tension. How did you develop that tension and maintain the rhythm of it?
HS: When you think you know how it ended you have to see if it really ends the way you think it ended--because there are a lot of theories, aren't there? Obviously, making a movie is collaboration and it takes a lot of people's ideas, but in the end I just try to do what I was told and what was on the page and try to bring the honesty to it.
It's a big responsibility to play someone who really lived and who is as iconic as Amelia. We all have such a great idea of who she was and what she looked like, so there wasn't a lot of room for fictional license. We had to just do the best we could to do honor to that person. Under Mira's guidance and keen eye--she's an incredible visionary--we tried to navigate the best we could, and hopefully, that is on screen.
Q: What surprised you about her that affected your performance?
HS: I learned about Amelia from a very young age, and what I learned was what you learn in textbooks. So obviously, getting under the skin of a person that I'm playing is really important.
We're all specific human beings. We know what our favorite color, what we love, we know what we don't like. Trying to figure that out and understand a person you're portraying is very important. Ironically, Amelia was a very private person, so what she was expressing out in the world might not have been her true thoughts.
One of the things that I took away from Amelia that was very inspiring and moving was Amelia's way of going about her life--the way she carried and expressed herself. She made no apologies for saying, "This is my life and this is how I see it, and this is how I want it to be done."
In 2009, that's still really rare, especially for women. It's a more male-centric world and I think that a lot of males are able to have the life they envision for themselves. So when we're talking about somebody who lived in the 1920s--when women just got the right to vote--and in the '30s, it's incredible. It's obviously a period piece, yet it even transcends what we know now. It was certainly a reminder for me to live life, and that you have to constantly look within and continue to live the life that you want to live for yourself and not for other people.
I [wish] we could all be so upfront and forthright about our feelings, our emotions, our desires, and needs, and somehow manage our expectations of relationships. I look at my life and say, "I might be doing this because it was my mother's idea of my life or my friend's, or partner's idea, or whatever it is." Amelia's [life] was such a great reminder that you can live your life the way you want it, find love and experience your dreams. You can have it all. That's what I really learned.
Q: What were the similarities between you and Amelia?
HS: One of them is that she loved to travel, and I love to travel. I've been so fortunate in my career to travel all around the world, and part of that is to talk about the films that I am a part of. Sometimes it can be very grueling and difficult. In the last 16 days, I was in Italy and then back to Los Angeles, then Dubai, then London. then back to Los Angeles, and now in New York. [Flight attendants] actually laugh because I know them so well, and they say, "Hilary it's illegal for us to fly as much as you fly."
I'm constantly in the air and I'm constantly out promoting my films. Amelia understood that without understanding the business side of things, you can't have your career. If I'm not willing to go out and talk about the things that I'm a part of--which I in fact love, so it's not like it's difficult to [do]--then you can't have the other side of it. That makes complete sense to me.
I understand the business side of it, although I really love the art side of it, and they intertwine. You try to do the best you can, and I wonder what Amelia would say. I remember her saying that it was hard, and there's a line in the movie: "I feel like I'm this white horse jumping through hoops." Sometimes you feel like you're in a circus. When things become more personal, and you feel like "I'm just an actor trying to talk about my love for movies," you have to remember why you're doing it and be in touch with that.
Q: As a woman, how did you relate to her open marriage?
HS: It's really challenging to be that honest, even with the people that you really love and feel are suppose to love you unconditionally. It's really hard. But I think that Amelia's way of living her life was very honest and open. So when she lived her life the way she wanted, she had already expressed that's how she was going to do it. It wasn't like she was hurting anybody along the way.
It almost made it an unconventional relationship, which is really rare. I respect anyone who is able to be so forthright about themselves. I think that that's a lot of what our life is about, figuring out how can we be as honest and live as honestly with ourselves and in our relationships.
Q: How beneficial was it for you to see that archival footage about Amelia?
HS: A lot of it is from newsreels, so it's more her public face. But there are little moments within the newsreel where she doesn't know the camera is on and you actually see her tone down her way of speaking and her physicality.
She had a unique speaking pattern, which was the most challenging accent that I have done to date. I spent over eight weeks trying to learn how she spoke. There is that period way of speaking, [like] you hear [with] Katherine Hepburn, and you see all those old movies with that way of speaking, which can sound posh or upper class. Amelia wasn't that.
She was a girl from Kansas, and sounded period yet different. Trying to figure that cadence out, and also not make it the elevated public persona that she put on except when needed, was quite a challenge. Thankfully, I had Mira saying, "Push it a little here, bring it back here, that's a little too much here." It was challenging to walk that line to find the human quality in it, and also to relate to it now because we don't speak like that.
Q: Did you walk away from this role satisfied with your knowledge of Amelia?
HS: In order to play a role, you have to dive into so many different aspects and ways. I felt [that] by the end of it, I had a pretty good idea of who Amelia was--or at least what we feel Amelia was from the books we were reading and the information we had--and tried to go deeper in telling the stories through the scenes that were written on the page.
These roles [I have played are] all in my heart, and my life's richer walking around with Amelia right in my heart. It's wonderful. Throughout some things that I'm experiencing, I often think about what the characters I've played would do in these situations. You can't help but have that in you. So it makes for a really rich life.
Q: Uma [Thurman] complimented you on doing this and said that it’s possible that you may get an Oscar. What do you think about that?
HS: To have such a compliment from another actress that I admire so much is a great honor. This is the first time I heard that, and it warms my heart. I think it’s a hard enough world out there in general, and then you add the layer of being a woman. We need to be there for each other. it’s very nice to hear such a nice compliment from someone that I admire so much.
Amelia was so supportive of other women. I feel women aren’t always supportive of another woman’s strengths. I think powerful women are supportive of the underdog women, or the women who are suffering from inequality, yet when it’s another woman’s strength, they find it hard to muster up a lot of accolades. So thanks for letting me know that.
Also, Mira [Nair] being at the helm of this ship was such a perfect match, because I feel it’s rare to see a woman carrying herself in the way she does. Mira also makes no apologies for her strengths. It’s interesting—when you see a woman in a place of power, a lot of times they’re apologizing for it, “I'm sorry but can you please do this or can you please do that?”
It’s a lot of, “I'm sorry but”, before they say what it is that they need. To be with Mira and to see her ask for what she needs, and to see her direct with the strength in which she carries herself and with the vision that she carries, I think [she] was perfect to direct a story about Amelia Earhart.
Q: As a two-time Oscar winner, you have the pick of your roles, so was Amelia someone you always wanted to play?
HS: I wouldn’t say I was always longing to play Amelia Earhart. But I do long to play roles that challenge me, scare me, and make me learn new things about the world, about myself, and about my art. I had read a script on Amelia about 10 years ago, right after I did Boys Don’t Cry. It didn’t capture Amelia to me, so it was obviously not a movie that I was a part of. When this one came across my desk, I felt that connection.
For other articles and editorial work by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com