'The Homesman': 15 Minutes with Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones

I'm being slid into an MRI machine at a radiology center in Beverly Hills. Have you had an MRI? It's like being buried alive in a coffin with loud, rapid-fire gunshots exploding by your ears. The gunshot sounds are the machine's metal coils shaking as electricity moves through them. And the sound is rhythmic, like industrial music. So, essentially, having an MRI is like being at a rave, only you're trapped in a coffin as club kids on ecstasy dance around your head. A neurologist ordered my MRI due to a pulsating pressure behind my right eye. It began following a breakup. I don't want to believe the loss of a girl could produce a physical abnormality in my brain. I don't want to give her that much power. I'm merely reporting that the headaches began shortly after the communication stopped. Now, I'm worried I have a brain tumor or brain cancer or a festering aneurysm wired to detonate in my head. Frankly, just thinking about my out-of-pocket expense for the MRI is enough to trigger an aneurysm. The whole thing is terrifying.

And it gets worse.

I'm highly claustrophobic and, as I lay in the MRI machine/coffin, I start to hyperventilate. To distract myself, I close my eyes and force other thoughts into my possibly damaged brain: Gwen Stefani, Alexa Chung, GG Allin, Keira Knightley, Curious George, Billy Joel's "Stiletto," vitamin D3, Interview magazine's "Pretty Wasted" photo spread and Charles Bukowski's quote, "Find what you love and let it kill you." Now and then, the MRI technician speaks to me over an intercom from another room. He asks if I'm doing okay. I tell him I'm "fine." His voice is reassuring and makes me feel safe. I wonder if his children consider him a good father. I open my eyes, glance at the coffin ceiling a few inches above my face and feel a full-blown panic attack taking hold. Again, I redirect myself, slamming my eyes shut and thinking about The Homesman, a captivating new western starring Academy Award winners Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive, No Country for Old Men) and Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry, Million Dollar Baby).

Alternating between tragedy and dark comedy, The Homesman (co-written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones) is a beautifully made film, showcasing the harsh struggles and difficult times faced by women in the Wild West. Playing a single, self-sufficient farmer, Hilary Swank takes on the responsibility of escorting three women -- driven mad by the brutalities of pioneer living -- across the dangerous American frontier, enlisting Tommy Lee Jones as their reluctant and cantankerous guide. Swank and Jones are terrific in this film, and the stellar cast is rounded out by James Spader, John Lithgow and Meryl Streep.

My MRI test concludes.

Anxiously awaiting my radiology report, I arrive at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, help myself to a cup of black coffee and enter a sprawling, top-floor suite where Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank are settled in to discuss The Homesman.

"The things that Mary Bee was working through are not dissimilar to things we all work through in our lives," says Swank, when asked how she relates to her emotionally strong, independent and unmarried character.

We all struggle to find how to be the best people we can be, and try to find love along the way. To me, The Homesman is not just a period piece. It really parallels every day life for a lot of people. I relish the opportunity I get to play these real slices of life. Even though it's not based on a true story, it's real life stuff. To me, Mary Bee is a woman who has manners and morals and values. She wants to do the right thing just for the sake of doing the right thing. In my opinion, we have really lost touch with that as a society today.

"There are so many reasons why I relate to her," Swank continues, "because, as an independent woman myself, I want to see my dreams realized. I want to continue down my path. So, finding a man to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with me can be challenging. I think women today have that challenge."

Tommy Lee Jones has stood as a brilliant and unforgettable film actor for decades. How did he prepare to direct feature films?

"My education as a filmmaker has been entirely practical," Jones says. He continued.

I started working professionally in the film business in 1970. I pay a lot of attention. I've worked with some very good directors, and some very bad ones. I learned a great deal from both. From the untalented people, you learn what not to do. And when you work with highly talented people, you want to emulate them. My education has been on-the-job training.

What was it like for Tommy Lee Jones to direct Hilary Swank in a western?

"She didn't know a lot about riding horses or driving a team of mules or plowing with a double shovel," Jones explains. "She worked at it until she was able to make a very convincing picture of all those."

"He learned not to give me a horse between takes," Swank says with a laugh.

"She'd leave," Jones shares. "Between takes, there she would go. It got to the point where I'd have to send a wrangler with a radio on his belt to make sure she didn't fall off a canyon or have a wreck or just not know when to come back."

"We had a horse wrangler, but it became the Hilary wrangler," Swank playfully adds.

The Homesman is based on a novel. Why did Tommy Lee Jones want to tell this story, and what made him feel Hilary Swank would be the right choice for the lead role?

"The book offered us a chance to make a screenplay that had some originality to it," Jones says.

As filmmakers, our lives are a never ending search for originality. We met with Hilary at an Italian restaurant here in Beverly Hills and it was immediately obvious that Hilary was absolutely perfect. I'd seen all of her films before meeting her. I knew immediately that if we could talk her into playing Mary Bee Cuddy, half our job would be done.

"Actually, I read the script and I emailed Tommy Lee," Swank interjects, clearly honored to have collaborated with Jones. "Then he sat down with me. There was no talking me into it."

Tommy Lee Jones can be funny, but he's mainly known for his intensity. How does Hilary Swank see him?

"I think what's great is that he can do both," Swank says.

It defies stereotypes. When people talk to me about Tommy Lee, they say, "he's so serious and intense." Maybe that's what he wants to portray in that moment. You don't have to show all facets of yourself at one time. That's the great thing about being an actor. We get to share all different sides of us that we have in us. I don't think everyone can show all those sides. So, it speaks to Tommy Lee's talent to be able to do all different types of genres and do them so well.

"Comedy is deadly serious business," Jones adds with a laugh. "It's very dangerous. It's scary. I love being an actor. I'm always happy to have a job."

As Swank and Jones answer more questions about The Homesman, the frightening possibility of my having a stroke creeps into my mind. What would become of me? Who would take care of me? I look at Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank and have a peculiar fantasy in which they help me the way they helped the three women avoid danger in The Homesman. I picture them caring for my needs and paying my medical bills. I imagine them using their Oscars to beat the shit out of anyone who tries to do me harm. Now, I'm certain something is damaged in my brain. There's no other explanation for these thought patterns.

My time in the presence of Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones ends.

As I await my car at the Beverly Hilton valet, my doctor calls and informs me that my MRI results came back normal. No tumors. No abnormalities. Nothing to worry about. Whew.

I'm okay, for now. And that's the best any of us can hope for. Whether it's me, you, Hilary Swank or Tommy Lee Jones, the best any of us can hope for is that we are okay, for now.

The Homesman opens in theaters on November 14.