TMW interviews the creative minds behind "Conviction

By Tatiana Craine

Betty Anne Waters’ story is nothing short of admirable and amazing. When her brother Kenny was convicted of murder in Ayers, Massachusetts, Betty Anne found her calling in life. Working as a waitress with only a GED and her two sons, she studied her way into undergrad, took the LSATS, got into law school and passed the bar exam in efforts to find a way to free Kenny-a journey that took nearly two decades.This Friday, her incredible true story will be splashed on silver screens across America. “Conviction,” directed by Tony Goldwyn, brings to mind films like “Erin Brokovich” where a small-town woman pulls herself up by the bootstraps to fight the system. And though there are similarities between the two ferociously independent women, Betty Anne stands out as a truly inspirational figure for anyone trying to break into the legal community.

Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell star as Betty Anne and Kenny, both giving compelling and heartfelt performances. The chemistry between Swank and Rockwell as siblings spotlights their emotional struggles with a less-than-ideal childhood, small-town bias, corrupt cops and a bureaucratic legal system. Minnie Driver plays Betty Anne’s best friend and fellow law school student Abra. Turning in a transformative performance as one of Kenny’s former lovers (and one of the women to testify against him in court), Juliette Lewis knocks it out of the park.

Goldwyn weaves the Waters’ story with grace and ease, relying on feelings more than linear plot devices. The film’s emotional timeline gives audiences a peek into Waters’ childhood spent breaking into houses and eating candy with her brother before being split apart. The story evokes a sense of familial compassion and urgency to fight the injustices enacted by faulty evidential systems.

I recently had the chance to chat with the influential, yet very humble Betty Anne Waters and the talented director of “Conviction,” Tony Goldwyn.

TMW: How do you feel about Hilary Swank’s portrayal of you in the film? Do you think it gives audiences a fair representation of yourself?

Betty Anne Waters: I think it’s more than fair. I think she totally. She’s me. I saw the film a few times now, and the first time it was really hard to judge. It’s really hard to judge someone playing you. But now I see her, and I’m like, “I really do those things. I do sound like that.” And she really did a good job.

TMW: What do you feel is the film’s most important message?

Waters: I want them to be more aware of innocent people in prison.

TMW: What was the hardest part of going back to school to try and save your brother?

Waters: I think the hardest part was not knowing if I was going to jump all the hurdles that I had to jump. I already had a GED when I started. I know in the movie it says that I had to get that, but I had my big GED. [Laughs.] But to know that I would make it through undergrad school-I mean, I didn’t know. I didn’t even know if I could get in. I had to start at a community college and it scared me to death to do that. So I went on from there, and I said, “How am I ever going to pass. You know, get a good grade on the LSATs?” And I studied so hard, because I knew I had to. I’d probably have to say [I studied] harder than most people. Then when I got into law school, I feared that the closer I got to the end, I wouldn’t find a way to help free my brother. It became reality that I could finish all this, do everything that I was supposed to do, and then not find an answer. Then what would my brother do? So I was constantly aware of that. Then once I finished law school, of course then I had the bar. And I was like, “What if I don’t pass the bar?” And at that point, I already knew I was supposed to be looking at DNA. So I already knew that I had to become a lawyer to start looking for DNA, so I was in fear of not passing the bar, which made me study ten hours a day. It’s always something. The biggest fear is not finding a way to free him. Always.

TMW: How did you react to Hollywood’s interest in making your family’s story into a feature film?

Waters: I’m really a very private person, and my brother Kenny was not. When he came out, he was ready to see the world and do everything and talk to everyone. I thought that it would be in the paper for the day and it would be done. But my phone never stopped ringing. My brother was living with me, so he would answer the phone and say, “It’s Hollywood calling!” And he was so excited. And I was like, “No, Kenny, don’t talk to them. Just write down things; don’t say yes we’re going to do anything.” I’m thinking, “A movie?” And Kenny goes, “Oh yes, there’s gonna be a movie. We’re doing a movie.” You know, [laughs] I really think he thought he was going to be in the movie, cast it. I mean, he was very excited about it.

TMW: The film’s timeline ties in closely with Betty’s emotions. Can you explain the motivation behind using this kind of timeline as opposed to a more linear method?

Tony Goldwyn: I wanted to avoid a conventional, linear telling of the story. And I also wanted to not have these time jumps be announced with subtitles or things like you see on TV with “July, 1983” or something like that to spoon-feed the audience to get it. So I wanted there to be an emotional logic. So every time there’s a time transition from one time period to another, it has an emotional logic to it. There’s an emotional reason we’re going back in time so that the audience feels the logic of that before they understand it cerebrally. So you may be back in time and go “Where am I? I feel the emotion, but I don’t know where I am,” and you have to put that puzzle together. Which I like as an audience member. I want to be able to have to work a little bit, because the real danger in making a movie like this is that it would end up being generic. That was one thing that really helped with that. I thought that was an interesting way to tell a story.

TMW: You’ve done acting on television, film and stage, but you also do a lot of directing. Do you prefer one hat more than any of the others in terms of work or creative processes?

Goldwyn: What I really love is the combination of all of it. If I had to pick one, it would be film directing. That’s the most interesting and challenging to me. I thought if I directed, I’d miss acting, but you sort of feel that you’re playing all the parts, and it’s incredibly challenging and fun and interesting. But I would never quit acting. The fact that I also act in the theatre, I’m doing a play on Broadway right now, so to me, being able to tell stories from all different viewpoints is really a satisfying [thing], but it also makes me better. Working in the theatre makes me better in film, and acting makes me a better director and directing makes me a better actor. So I think it’s really important for people who are interested in doing this: there are a lot of ways to tell a story. You know, when started out, when I was about 19, an older friend of mine who was in the business said, “You have to do everything.” “Yeah, well, I wanna be an actor.” And she said, “You have to direct, you have to write, you have to act, you have to produce!” And I just went, “Yeah, I wanna be an actor.” And unfortunately it took me until my 30s to start directing and realize, “Oh my god, she was right.” You need to do everything.

TMW: The childhood flashbacks show a very emotionally important and formative part of Betty Anne and Kenny’s lives, and the child actors do an amazing job with their roles as the young siblings. Can you describe the casting process when trying to find the children to play these pivotal parts?

Goldwyn: I’ve worked with a lot of kids, and casting is everything. There’re two types of child actors. The most common type-they’re really good automatons. And that sounds too negative, but they’re very good at mimicking. So they’ll work and fix their performance, and they can kind of do it. And they aren’t really acting, they’re just repeating somet
hing and performing. Then there are children who are real actors who really put themselves in the situation and can improvise and are real actors. [They] can relate and put themselves in the circumstances and want to play. That’s an incredible thing to find kids like that, because they’re so free, and they don’t have the baggage of older actors who are worried about their careers and any other status. They’re just kids that want to play and really throw themselves into it, so I always look for [that]. I can just see it in their eyes. You know the first one I found was Bailee [Madison]. We’d looked at a ton [of kids], and I knew I had to get that casting right. She came in, and I got a call from a casting director saying, “We’ve found your girl. We’ve found little Betty Ann.” And I didn’t meet her; I saw a tape that she had, since she brought a tape in and auditioned on tape. She was so emotionally committed in the scene where she was taken away from her brother. She was so moving. She just went for it emotionally in this little audition room, and she did it about four times. The casting director was like, “Do it again, Bailee. Try it again.” And she went for it with tears, and I went “Oh my god,” and hired her. I eventually met with her, [because] I had to seal the deal and talk with her, but again, she just had this hunger for diving into it. And Tobias [Campbell]. I was very worried I wouldn’t be able to find a boy to match her caliber. And just so luckily, Tobias came in, he had never been in a movie before. He acted in a couple plays in his neighborhood. His older brother is the actor who plays Ben, Betty Ann’s son. He came in and just had that sort of freedom. The two of them were just so free, and they loved playing together and we would ad lib and improvise and make stuff up. For example, that scene in the cop’s office when they get separated, which is so emotional. often, grown-up actors do those scenes a couple times and they’re like, “Oh my god, I can’t do it again.” And great actors, too, you know. “Ok, do we have to do it again?” But those kids. I’d ask if they wanted to do it again, and they’d be like, “Oh yeah! Let’s do it again. Can we do it again?” Twenty times, they’d just dive in screaming. They brought it. They brought it. And all the adults [felt it] was humbling to watch.