Oscar-winner Hilary Swank is known best for Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don't Cry, but she's taken to wearing a few somewhat surprising hats in the last few years. She tried on indie, madcap comedy in 2017's Logan Lucky; in 2018, she graced the small screen as one of the Gettys in FX's Trust. Next, she is trying dystopian sci-fi on for size in a thriller that Netflix scooped up at 2019's Sundance Film Festival.
I Am Mother attempts to figure out what would happen if someone pressed the reset button on humanity and tried to start from scratch. Oh, and in this scenario, that someone is a master race of robots convinced that they can genetically engineer the perfect human and, through that perfect person, start a better version of the human race. Also Swank fights a robot voiced by Rose Byrne. Just a simple, light summer movie, for a casual Friday afternoon Netflix session, right?
Of course, fans of Swank's work have come to expect tough, thought-provoking projects from the actor, so — robot fight and all — this new role is sort of a return to form. Swank plays the lone survivor of the original human race, Woman (she and the other two characters, Clara Rugaard's Daughter and Byrne's Mother have no names in the film). She finds her way to robot overlord Mother's human hatchery, where she attempts to convince Mother's child-created-in-a-lab, Daughter, that her robot parent isn't telling her the whole truth.
And while that begets plenty of robot-vs-human action, the film also centres on the internal battle between what we are taught as children and the knowledge we gain as we become adults. The resulting film is a philosophy major's dream, which is exactly why Swank says she found herself in this predicament in the first place.
Refinery29: This movie was written by a brand new screenwriter. What about the script made you take that risk?
Hilary Swank: There was this uniqueness; I never read anything like it. It was very thought provoking, you know, the idea of us becoming so polarised that someone said, okay, let's just start again. The idea of that is frightening in and of itself, but then the idea of creating a person who defines what's perfect and how that is accomplished as well as [asking] how is there one person left and how did that person make it? How did they last through all that happened in the world to make it this dystopian post-apocalyptic place? The grit and determination and perseverance and strength, both physically and mentally, to be a survivor like that. It was all these ideas."
There are only three characters and they're all women, which is pretty uncommon in this genre. Did that factor into your opinion of the story at all?
"I find it fascinating that they are all three are women, but I didn't look at it and think, oh, it's three women, so [I'll do it]. It's a nice added touch, especially because of where they're all coming from within it."
I kept thinking I was forgetting names, but everyone's name is Woman, Daughter, Mother. Did you have a name in the back of your head?
"One of my favourite parts of my job is to create a backstory for a person and there was a lot of talk [about Woman's]. There was a voiceover that was going to be put in at one point about how my character was raised and who raised her, and it actually contradicted the backstory that I did and how I played the character. We decided not to have it be part of the story because it left a lot of questions that we weren't answering. But I [don't want to] say what I would say the character's name would have been, just because I think it will deter people from [understanding] who she is."
There really is nothing more inspiring to me than people who have never given up. That is something that I find to be so beautiful, to not play a victim and to really take an active part in your life, to make a choice every day, to work towards whatever it is that's important to you.
So much of this movie is about the dichotomy of blind faith versus critical thinking and what you know versus what you're learning for the first time. It's hard not to read that through a political lens. Do you worry about the film being lumped into the #relevant deluge?
"No, I like that. I feel like that was part of what was interesting to me about the story, because of where we are and how polarised we are, not just as a country, but in the world there's a lot of polarisation. To me, there is not a healthy debate anymore. It's all very unhealthy. And I think that that is something that drew me to this story at this exact time; this idea of, what do you do with that? How do we overcome that? How do we work through that? And certainly the way in which this movie deals with it, would not be the answer. It's also crazy just to think about AI and how AI could in the not-so-far future be really running a lot of things in a different ways."
Your character in this is totally on her own, and the same can be said for your next Netflix series, about a female astronaut. Do you find that you deliberately choose characters who have to act on their own, independently, and often without support systems?
"I don't believe there are any coincidences. I definitely make really specific choices now more than ever. Life goes by so quickly and now I'm in a position where — after [leaving the industry and] caring for my father for three years and helping him gain his health back — the choices that I make to be a part of something, take up valuable time. So I want the things that I'm a part of to have some type of meaning for me and not just be something that I'm gonna do. The characters that I choose have definitely been [about] what inspires me, which is people who persevere through adversity. There really is nothing more inspiring to me than people who have never given up. That is something that I find to be so beautiful, to not play a victim and to really take an active part in your life, to make a choice every day, to work towards whatever it is that's important to you."
"I think we're really doing a good job of having a conversation and then implementing that conversation into bringing equality around, and making sure that there's opportunities for everybody, more so now than ever.
It was so lopsided with white males telling stories when there are so many stories about so many other people and races and genders, and so it's nice to be out seeing this content now where we can actually get an idea of what the world really looks like. It's definitely an exciting time, but we can always continue the conversation and continue to build on it and improve on it."
A lot of your upcoming work is on Netflix. Between this and the upcoming show, do you ever get into Netflix binge watches?
"No, I don't even have a laptop I carry around or anything. I didn't own a TV for a long time until my dad moved in with me. I definitely am 100% not a binge-anything-er, unless you can say you binge on dogs. Like, if I can walk in nature with dogs all day long, I'll do it."
I Am Mother is available on Netflix now