In an intimate interview for the October/November issue of AARP The Magazine (ATM), EMMY- and Tony-winning actress Blythe Danner and Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning actress Hilary Swank reflect on their deeply challenging caregiving experiences and the toll it took on their personal and professional lives. This fall, Danner and Swank will appear together in the film, “What They Had,” which delves into the topics of caregiving and Alzheimer’s.
In the midst of being front and center in the billion-dollar “Meet the Parents” comedy franchise, Danner simultaneously cared for her husband, Bruce Paltrow, who suffered from an off-and-on battle with oral cancer. Years after his passing, Danner still misses him and now runs the Bruce Paltrow Oral Cancer Fund, to help spare others from the kind of grief that engulfed her after Bruce’s death.
Similar to Danner, Swank became her father’s sole caregiver as he recovered from a lung transplant, causing her to put her career on hold for three years. As difficult and demanding as Swank’s new job was – from driving her father to hospital appointments to cooking every meal – she saw it as the chance of a lifetime. It was an opportunity to connect with her father, making up for the time she missed as a child.
Swank shares with ATM, “caregiving changed me for real and forever. What I used to stress about was silly and inconsequential. It strips you down to your nature. All I’d done since I was 15 was act. Taking that away gave me space to recognize I’m so much more than this thing I define myself as.”
Both Swank and Danner’s personal experiences strengthened the relationships with their loved ones and prepared them for a performance of a lifetime in their new movie together, “What They Had.” In the drama film, the actors relate to their characters and pull from personal caregiving experiences of love and loss. Danner plays an Alzheimer’s stricken mother, while Swank plays the daughter who clashes with her brother (Michael Shannon) over proper care of their mother.
At its heart, the film is a love story that focuses on the people who support the patient. Danner and Swank brilliantly channel their characters with authentic emotion to make the story believable.
On the topic of caregiving, Danner reflects on poet William Wordsworth’s idea that the meaning of life is found in “spots of time,” vivid bits of memory that arise spontaneously years later and connect us with our deepest selves and those we love. Danner says, “I think more and more about those spots of time. It’s so wonderful.”
The following are excerpts from ATM’s October/November 2018 cover story featuring Blythe Danner and Hilary Swank, available in homes starting October and available online now at www.aarp.org/magazine.
Selections from the Blythe Danner and Hilary Swank cover story in ATM’s October/November issue:
Swank on not taking life for granted:
“Remember not to take things for granted. You’re not always gonna be able to pick up a phone and call a loved one, so do it now.”
Danner on her character suffering with Alzheimer’s:
“She was a brilliant woman who knew this was slowly happening to her. It’s like a slap to the face.”
Director Elizabeth Chomko on Danner and Swank’s on-screen performances:
“I was just blown away watching them become this utterly believable family. Blythe had the spirit I’d seen in my grandmother–childlike, playful, funny, haunting, turning on a dime. And she misses her husband, Bruce, which she beautifully drew upon.”
Danner on the role of caregivers in the film:
“It’s about a family. It’s about what normal people are dealing with–so many people are taking care of parents.”
Swank and Danner on contradictory emotions among caregivers and patients:
“It’s trying to find that balance, the levity within the moments that are so challenging. My character laughs into crying.” – Swank on her character in the film
“I once made macrobiotic cookies and said, ‘Honey, these are so good for you.’ He bit into one and went, ‘It’s like biting into the New York Times.’ We cracked up!” – Danner on her husband, Bruce