Tony Goldwyn may be most recognizable to audiences as an actor who appeared in films like Ghost and From the Earth to the Moon, or as the voice of Tarzan in the 1999 film. But Goldwyn, the grandson of famed producer Samuel Goldwyn, has slowly been making his mark behind the camera. His directorial debut, A Walk on the Moon, written by Pamela Gray, was a terrific romance. Between features, he has directed episodes of Justified, Damages and Dexter for TV. Now he's has helmed his most ambitious project yet — the true story of Betty Anne Waters (Hillary Swank), a single mother of two who puts herself through law school to exonerate her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) for a crime he didn't commit. In this Q&A, Goldwyn talks about his career and his new film, Conviction.
City Paper: Why did you shift your career from acting to directing?
Tony Goldwyn: I never had any desire to direct at all, but 10 years into my career I felt limited, and so I started planning ahead and looking to be more proactive and take control of my career. I looked into producing, and thought I could develop projects. I got [Pamela] Grey's script, A Walk on the Moon, and I couldn't act in it, but I had a strong point of view about how it should be done, and [making it] I realized I loved directing.
CP: Do you want to keep taking roles in front of or just behind the camera?
TG: Acting is a good way to earn a living, but directing has become my primary focus. Directing feature films is the most challenging and interesting, and the fullest use of my skills as an artist.
CP: Do you feel being in a famous film family destined you for a career in film?
TG: The pressure I felt was that I better be successful if I was going to get into this, since the bar was set high. As I kid, I wanted nothing to do with it, but I started acting in high school and the bug bit me. In my 20s it was tough — a big name to live up to — but once I got the ball rolling, I feel lucky to be a part of the legacy and make a small contribution to it.
CP: You've directed a dozen shows for TV, but only a few feature films. What stamps Conviction a Tony Goldwyn film? Is there a hallmark to your work?
TG: I've made four films in 10 years, and directing for TV is fast — so film is a bigger undertaking. I think that [my work] is about exploring relationships — I'm interested in that theme — in Conviction between a brother and a sister or in Moon, a husband and wife with a marriage in crisis, or Last Kiss, turning 30 and facing a lifetime of commitment — so I'm relationship based. In taking on a story, I try to look at things as honestly as I can — showing all sides of an issue, not bad/good guys. Life is gray, and relationships are, too. I try to find the light in the dark, and not find anything too idealized or glossy.
CP: Where did you first learn about Betty Anne's story and why did appeal to you?
TG: I found Betty Anne and secured the rights nine years ago. My wife saw a piece on 60 Minutes about it, and I said I was too busy to watch. But I agreed that it's a natural story for a movie. What got my interest was the brother/sister story — there aren't a lot of them to be told. She spent 18 years of her life on her brother. What if she was wrong or unsuccessful? Would that have validated her faith? In this context, her struggle was gripping.
CP: Because you are an actor, you know how to work with actors. What guidelines did you give the cast — Hillary has a great moment when she drops to her knees outside her house after a huge setback, and Juliette Lewis chews the scenery with relish in her two scenes.
TG: I spend a lot of time talking to the actors. I cast very carefully, and make sure that they have the essence of what I need for the character. Casting is more than half of it. I communicate to them what I need, and we get clear on what we are trying to achieve. I give them freedom to explore the material and make them feel they can do anything they want — even if I guide them in a different direction. I try not to limit them as actors, or have them fight for their point of view. As a director, I'm only as good as the actors I work with, even if I don't agree with them. They can express themselves and surprise me, and things are usually better when they do that.
CP: Conviction reunites you with Pamela Grey, who wrote A Walk on the Moon. Why are you both drawn to telling strong female-centric stories?
TG: I'm very self-destructive! I don't really know the answer to that. Women fascinate me. I was close to my mother; she was an interesting, complicated woman. Women mystify me. Kenny, the man in this story, is a fascinating story. I'm impressed by women. I like strong women in my life. I'm drawn to them — the ones I'm friends with, and fall in love with ... my two daughters. I want them to be strong. They face adversity, which is good food for drama.
CP: Can you describe how you approached the material — e.g., braiding the story as three interwoven strands around a single theme?
TG: There was 40 years of story. The hazard of the story was the Movie of the Week version — we wanted to avoid that and find a compelling, original, organic way of telling it. We came up with the idea of the three time periods to tell it: her law school, 1995-2001; the moment of the crime 1980; and then the flashbacks to the characters as children. I thought it would be elegant and go back/forth in time from Betty Anne's point of view. I didn't want flashback devices to tell us where we were in time, or use film stock to indicate transition, but there was emotional logic to the transitions, but that audiences would have to work to know where we were. A lot was conceived in script, but we changed in the cutting room. We found that by chopping those [scenes] up and making them more impressionistic and using them as triggers and touchstones they were very effective.
CP: One of the perils of telling a true story like this is that the outcome may be known in advance. How did you keep the story interesting so audiences are getting goosebumps, or welling up in tears?
TG: It really is about creating a sense of doubt. People are pretty sure how it's going to turn out, or that she might be wrong, and then what? That does two things for me, it creates great dramatic tension — maybe you don't know where it's going — but the bigger issue is that when people do extraordinary heroic things in life, they don't seem heroic, but insane, or that people think she's illogical or unreasonable. She was a woman obsessed. I want the audience to doubt her, or feel that opposition and confusion and chaos and doubt her, so that when someone who made this kind of commitment and this act of faith that it's emotionally impactful and [you] experience viscerally what she believes in, when all logic and reason says the opposite. You try to tell the truth. That's what life is like. To do otherwise is not honest. I hate when things are glossed over or softened up. I don't like things gratuitously grim or gritty. We could have made it relentlessly grim or dark. But Betty Anne is a passionate, positive person. To watch her suffer would not be accurate to her character.
CP: As Betty Anne asks her kids — would you go that far for your brother?
TG: Well, I don't know. You never know until you're in that situation. I have five siblings and I'm close and devoted to all of them. When I was a little kid, I felt that the one person I couldn't live without was my brother, and that used to cause me anxiety. I don't know if I have what Betty Anne does, but I hope I do. In my life now, I ask, "How am I actively loving the people in my life who I say I love?" I hope people come away from this film asking that question. We have become self-focused and take a lot for granted.
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