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The new film “What They Had” explores the painful journey of a family coping with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Its accomplished cast includes Blythe Danner as an ailing mother and Hilary Swank as the daughter who comes home to care for her. Swank speaks with Jeffrey Brown about why her ability to relate to her character rendered the role “the most vulnerable” of her career.
Next, our fall film series continues — tonight, "What They Had."
It is the story of a family coming to terms with the mother's oncoming Alzheimer's.
Jeffrey Brown has our look.
Set in Chicago, "What They Had" is the story of a family coping as their mother begins to suffer from Alzheimer's.
I have been telling them for years, you got to figure out what you want to do with the time comes, because we all know how this thing works.
First-time director Elizabeth Chomko wrote the screenplay based on her own family experience.
I was devastated by my grandmother's diagnosis, just because she was someone I so looked up to and felt so close to and really assumed that that would be the sort of end of her personality and the end of her spirit.
The film opens with the elderly Ruth, played by Blythe Danner, wandering out into the night.
What do you mean she's gone?
Daughter Bridget, played by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, returns home to help the family decide what to do next.
I felt the most vulnerable that I ever have as an actor in the role, because it was playing someone that I felt was so similar to me, just a woman finding her way. And for so long, women are just by nature nurturers and we take care of people. It's just what we do and it's what we're taught to do.
So at what point do you say that this isn't right for me and I need to take care of myself first, and stop pleasing other people in order to live my most authentic life?
So did you also bring some personal experience to all of this?
My dad got a lung transplant, and I was his sole caretaker. I took time off, and I was just helping my dad for three years.
And I think it was definitely helps you understand what a crisis like this is. And it helps to remind you to be living in the moment.
Michael Shannon plays Ruth's son, Nick.
It's about the cycle of giving and taking care that happens in families. You know, you're born, and you need to be taken care of. And then, as you grow up, you learn how to take care of yourself. And then you learn how to take care of other people.
And then eventually you find yourself in a position where you need to be taken care of again.
She hit on me.
Yes. Yes. She put her hand on my knee, and she was looking at me like wanted to — she hit on me.
Elizabeth, she's such a smart writer. And you have to have, I think, levity, or you combust, right? You just like…
Well, yes. If you just come it from like a straight-up, oh, isn't this sad, isn't this awful point of view, then you wind up with like a Hallmark movie of the week.
Oh, what is that?
You know who that is?
He's my boyfriend.
My grandmother didn't want to be coddled. Like, she wanted to be treated like she always was. And, you know, we were a family of teasers and laughers.
And when you know your heart is closest to breaking is when you're laughing loudest. At least, that's how it is with the people that I love.
The movie explores changing circumstances and how they impact family members differently.
It deals with so many layers of life, but, again, with levity. There's parts of it that are laugh-out-loud funny. And it's unexpected. And that's what I love in movies, the unexpected.
Yes, there's a spontaneity to it, I think, which is odd, because it's scripted. But it feels like it's happening.
When you're making a film that really just goes to this kind of, not only family dynamic, but the loss of identity, right, it's kind of hard stuff.
It's a coming-of-age movie, which we keep talking about. And that means for everyone. We're all coming of age in our own way and our own — whatever time that is.
I feel like every year I'm trying to figure myself out, you know? It's not just for a teenager or someone in their 20s. It's like we're continually evolving and trying to figure out what's right and what's best for us.
Best for the characters and best for the actors playing in these roles.
There's two kinds of people that get into acting. There are people that are very focused on narcissism or vanity or, like, I want to be famous, I want to be in the spotlight.
And then I feel like there's people that get into acting because they're just genuinely curious about other people, and they just pay a lot of attention to, like, what's going on around them, and they have a lot of empathy.
I became an actor because I love people, and I love their stories, and I love what makes them unique, and I love what makes them similar.
I mean, we're all striving to either love or be loved in one way or another. And circumstances may be different, but the feelings behind them are the same.
"What They Had" includes footage shot by director Chomko's grandfather.
Just feel like family, like a scrapbook.
Right before her lucid moments, these little flashes of memory, what that might look like in her mind.
Moments that Chomko wanted to ensure she preserved.
The film is really inspired by memory. I think I realized when I saw my grandmother losing hers that memories are this gift, and that we really take them for granted — or at least I had taken them for granted, because they go away.
"What They Had" is in select theaters now.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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