Conviction is the true story of Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts working mother who goes to college and then law school just to fight, over the course of 18 years, for her brother Kenny’s release from prison. Kenny was convicted in 1983–falsely, Betty Anne believes–for the 1980 murder of a neighbor woman.
Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne and Sam Rockwell is Kenny in the film version–both actors are terrific, as is the supporting cast, including Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher (as Barry Scheck, whose DNA-focused Innocence Project comes to Betty Anne’s aid), new Academy Award winner Melissa Leo, and Juliette Lewis, who has a small but pivotal role as Roseanna Perry, one of the seemingly unreliable witnesses whose testimony helps convict Kenny.
Last fall in Chicago other film writers and I talked with Conviction‘s director Tony Goldwyn, supporting actress Lewis, and the real-life Betty Anne Waters. The following is a reprint of those interviews.
Actor-director Tony Goldwyn’s appeared on screen in films such as Ghost and most recently the powerful The Last House on the Left remake, and was behind the camera for A Walk on the Moon, The Last Kiss and episodes of Dexter, The L Word, and Justified.
What drew you to this story?
Goldwyn: What grabbed me was the relationship between the brother Kenny and the sister Betty Anne. This woman spent 18 years of her life committed to something that she could have easily been wrong about. Ultimately this is a story about love between a brother and a sister more than it’s a story about the criminal justice system.
How do you balance telling an entertaining and gripping dramatic story with staying true to the real-life facts?
Goldwyn: When telling a true story, the first thing is it has to stand on its own as a drama–otherwise you should make a documentary. So once I decided this one did, I really felt that I had a responsibility to Betty Anne to be true to the spirit of her story. There was enough great stuff in the truth of Betty Anne’s story that I didn’t need to make anything up.
At times the film introduces some doubt as to whether Kenny is really innocent.
Goldwyn: The very first draft of the script we did, it was just so clear that there was an injustice, and Kenny was a victim, and Betty Anne was a saint, and it’s like [snores] boring. Number one, I think dramatically it makes the film more interesting to the viewer if you let in some doubt, but more importantly to me it shows that Betty Anne might be out of her mind. People who do extraordinary things, heroic things, generally seem insane when doing them. Anybody who is rational would not have done what Betty Anne did.
The film was shot on a very short schedule—was that a challenge?
Goldwyn: Time is always a challenge. But I think it’s a very exciting way to work–everyone’s on their toes all the time. For example, Hilary and Sam had all these scenes in the prison–just two people sitting there talking. Everyone was like, “How are you gonna make that interesting?” And I thought, well their relationship is very powerful, and you’ve got two world class actors in a great story–so just trust that. So my cinematographer Adriano Goldman and I decided to keep it simple and just keep rolling, and it gave Hilary and Sam a sense of real excitement and immediacy. So you’re trying to turn your limitations into a positive.
Co-star Juliette Lewis
How did you go about playing such an ugly and unlikable character?
Juliette Lewis: You become a sponge for characters you’ve seen. Roseanna is the type of person you’d intuitively know to steer clear of or not get in a conversation with if you’re in a line with her or she’s walking down the street. I wanted to give off that kind of damaged energy that’s really unpredictable. I worked with a dialect coach to get the accent, which was a challenge because you have to blend that with somebody who drinks and does drugs and the way they slur. And then there was makeup and hair and teeth and aging wrinkles to look really haggard. But if I don’t transform internally, it’s still just me in a costume.
Lewis: For whatever reason, I’ve been able to connect in films with a real primal energy. I might have gotten it from my father [character actor Geoffrey Lewis]. My dad is a badass, but he’s also joyful and funny. So it’s not out of anger and spite or that kind of rebellion, it’s just sort of like, “Why not? Why can’t I?” I like to wave my freak flag.
Does that approach make it hard to find good roles?
Lewis: Thank goodness some people like me out there, so I can keep working. The filmmakers have given me my career–the artists who are looking for something complex. Because I was never interested in playing stereotypes, and I think early on, especially when you’re younger, you get offered the girlfriend, the daughter.
The Real Betty Anne Waters
Today the real Betty Anne Waters is an advocate and spokesperson on behalf of The Innocence Project and its efforts to overturn wrongful convictions. (Kenny Waters died in 2001.)
What made you decide to go back to school and then law school to try to free Kenny?
Waters: After he lost his last appeal, Kenny became very suicidal–I was mad at him for being suicidal, but at the same time I knew Kenny was innocent and he couldn’t spend the rest of his life in prison for something he didn’t do. He had life without parole, so he wasn’t getting out. It was at that point he said, “The only way I will survive is if you go back to school and you become my lawyer.” And I’m saying, “Okay, look, you know I only have a GED right?”
Were there ever times you didn’t think you could keep going?
Waters: I didn’t think I had it in me to even get into law school. It was one day at a time. I just looked at each next hurdle. The hardest thing in law school was as I was getting so close to the end of school and I wasn’t finding an answer to how I was going to help my brother–that scared me to death. Yeah, I was keeping him alive by staying in school, but the more I learned the more I understood how difficult it is to get somebody out of prison once they’re convicted.
Waters: I think it’s very important for the story to get out there because I’m a big advocate for The Innocence Program, and my hope is this movie will help all the people in prison who are innocent. I’ve seen too many people like my brother—he was the 83rd person exonerated through DNA, and there have been to date I believe 258 people. I’ve met probably 200 of them, and their stories are scary. So many of them have no police record, no reason, nothing! They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It does happen, and it shouldn’t.
(Longer versions of each of these interviews can be found under “Related Posts” below)
More from the cast of Conviction at redbox:
- Hillary Swank in Amelia
- Sam Rockwell in Iron Man 2 on DVD and Blu-ray
- Melissa Leo in Welcome to the Rileys and The Dry Land
Other stories of determined legal battles and redemption at redbox: