The last time that Hilary Swank starred in a science fiction movie was 2003, when she played one of a team of scientists who drill deep into the Earth’s crust to save the planet in the rather out-to-lunch The Core. She’s back underground in I Am Mother, a decidedly more serious story in which she plays a mysterious character known only as Woman. Swank’s enigmatic interloper comes between a young girl named Daughter (Clara Rugaard) and an AI called Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne) when the girl lets Woman into the bunker in which she has been raised by Mother from an embryo.
The bunker, it turns out, is a repository for thousands of such embryos, stored there to restart the human race in the wake of an unknown global catastrophe. But since Woman’s story doesn’t add up with what Mother has told Daughter about the world outside, the girl is forced to make a choice: who is she going to trust, a human or a robot?
I Am Mother, directed by first time feature helmer Grant Sputore, was picked up earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival by Netflix, with whom Swank is partnering again later this year on a limited series called Away. In that one she’ll head up to space as a woman who must leave her family behind and command a risky mission to Mars.
But risk is what Swank’s career is all about, as she tells us in the interview below. A two-time Oscar winner for Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), Swank has taken on a slew of challenging roles over the years in movies like The Gift (2000), Insomnia (2002), Amelia (2009), Conviction (2010) and the excellent, underseen The Homesman (2014).
Den of Geek: I understand that Grant Sputore and the producers really had you in mind for this role. That’s always got to be a nice feeling when that happens, right?
Hilary Swank: Yeah. I always just feel like I’m a girl who had a dream. I still feel like it at 40 years old. You know? And that people think of me now when I used to hit the pavement so hard auditioning to live the dream is like…it’s still astonishing.
What stood out to you about the script and the character of Woman?
It’s really hard to find unique content anymore. You read it, and it’s just like a recycled version of another thing. But this was completely original, and I felt like it captured the idea of this very polarized world we’re living in right now, and how nothing is gray. It’s all black and white. No one is having healthy debates anymore.
Plus I liked the idea of someone wanting to recreate the entire human race, and make a perfect person. First of all, what is the perfect person? And who decides that? And how do we get morals and ethics back? It’s an interesting question. It’s a thought provoking movie, and I love that, while it’s also entertaining.
It’s ironic that creating the perfect person is handled by a robot, because in a way that’s almost like commenting on how dependent we are on technology right now.
One hundred percent. And the idea of AI actually running so much of things is not in the too far off future. I didn’t really know much about it. But as Grant was telling me about it, and how when AI is created, it’s not programmed to think the way we think. It actually, from its own experiences, starts creating its own ideas and thoughts of things. But can you teach AI to empathize? That’s the question.
What does the film say about the idea of protecting children from the world, especially when there’s no world to experience?
Well I think it’s super hard to protect anyone from anything. You can talk, and actions obviously always speak louder than words. But the idea of actually protecting someone, people have to have their experiences. Everyone has to have their experiences, and this girl can only be protected for so long until she needs to create her own understanding, and perceptions of what’s actually happening. And that’s the way life is. And so Daughter, she’s trying to figure out who she can trust. Is it Mother, or is it Woman? And that’s what we’re doing at the same time as an audience.
Woman is a very enigmatic character. Is it more challenging to play a character that we deliberately don’t know a lot about?
Well I think that it leaves a lot of interesting questions and debate about her in particular. And how she survived in this post-apocalyptic dystopian world. That’s interesting to me. Of course as an actor I’ve done my backstory, and I have an idea of where she’s come from, and how challenging her life is, so that I can infuse the scenes that I’m playing and my imagination about what these robots have done to wipe out the entire population. But I think that’s what makes it interesting is you don’t know exactly what happens, and it leaves a whole world open to your imagination.
How was it working with Grant on this? Did you collaborate with him on ideas about the story and Woman?
I take a lot of risks, and I say risks because it is. It’s a first time director. It’s a lot of trust that you’re giving over to somebody who hasn’t had any experience in this space. From the moment I met Grant, I could tell he was not only smart, but he was articulate. A lot of people can be smart, but to actually articulate their vision is another thing. He was able to really articulate what it was that he was trying to create. He is also very intuitive. His direction is really in the moment. It’s not like, “Oh, I have a preconceived idea, and you guys aren’t fitting into it.” So, there’s something great in that collaborative space when someone is like that, and he was very, very open, and collaborative to my script notes.
When you work with a director who is a first timer, are you able to tell right off the bat if they’ve kind of got it all under control, or if there’s sort of a learning curve that’s still happening?
Oh, we’re always in a learning curve. I’ve been doing this now for 28 years, and I’m still learning, and I’m still evolving, and growing. And the second that you’re not, you might as well just stop because there’s always exponential room for growth, if you’re open, and really in that collaborative spirit. But certainly there is a phase that — you’re green for a reason, because you don’t have all the experience from the past to pull on. But there’s something refreshing about that too, that somebody doesn’t have an expectation of how it should be, and they’re just fresh in the moment.
How effective was it to have an actor (Luke Hawker) in a suit playing Mother on the set?
Super effective. I mean you know acting is reacting after all, but it’s also make believe. It’s like a sandbox. So if you have to act against a tennis ball, you’re acting against a tennis ball, and you’re trying to just pretend. But it’s certainly a lot more helpful when you have an actor, and they’re inhabiting the words that you’re playing against.
The set is practically a fourth character in the film.
When we walked onto that set, it was completely a character, that bunker. It was done so, so beautifully that it actually looked real. I mean, sometimes you walk on, and you’re like, “Whoa. I hope that they light this well.” But this was super, super realistic, and helped enormously when you walked into that, getting you into that space, and that world.
I think your last science fiction movie before this was The Core. Is it a genre that you like, and you’d like to do more of?
I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, so that actually speaks, I think, even more to this story, and the humanness within the sci-fi aspect of it. I think something is extra scary when it could actually happen. And the idea that this could actually happen, and the terrifying ramifications of AI, and all of that is super interesting. I think there’s some heart in this too. It’s moving — the idea of having a robot be your mom, and what that means. I wouldn’t say I’m searching out sci-fi. I’m just always searching out stories, whatever genre that speaks something to me.
Away, your next project, is also for Netflix. You’re playing an astronaut in that.
I start that in August. Actually the first thing I’ve wanted to do as a kid was I wanted to be an astronaut, even before I wanted to be an actor. So the best thing about being an actor is I get to be all these different types of people, and I actually get to learn from the best. For instance, I’m going to Space Camp in order to play this role. So I get this real opportunity of scratching the surface of what it feels like.
(Next week) I’m getting fitted for my space suit. I’m so excited, and I love Ed Zwick. I’ve been a fan of his forever, and I’ve been wanting to work with him, and finally, I get the opportunity to work with him on this really great beautiful human heartfelt story. Space exploration is so fascinating to me, and the idea of something that’s so bigger than all of us…there’s just so much more out there.
I Am Mother is streaming now on Netflix.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye